I fear you may be tired of me talking about Brene Brown’s audio-series, The Power of Vulnerability, but I’m going to risk it anyway. You can watch a snippet of what the series is about in her TED talk with the same title, but if you haven’t already, I highly recommend downloading the entire series on Audible. I have listened to it numerous times and seem to walk away with a new nugget of truth each time I do. It’s powerful stuff.
On a recent listen, one particular insight really stuck out to me- the idea of numbing. By numbing, Brené means any activity that we use to numb our feelings so that we don’t experience vulnerability. These activities can include, but are not limited to: wine, mindlessly scrolling social media, staying “crazy busy,” eating sugar, binge-watching Netflix, online shopping, etc, etc, etc. None of these things are inherently bad things on their own, but when used as an escape from feeling real emotion they can turn into real issues.
Further more, by numbing ourselves to vulnerability, we also numb ourselves to love, belonging, creativity, and empathy.
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”-Brene Brown
She is also careful to point out that the same activity could be numbing for one person, and energizing and truly comforting to someone else. How do we tell which it is for us? It depends on the feeling you have after said activity that reveals whether it was numbing or pleasurable.
Let’s take TV for example. Game of Thrones is one of my favorite shows. When we have a new episode lined up to watch, I take true joy in the activity. We make sure the kids are asleep, get cozy with a blanket and a cup of tea, and afterwards I feel exhilarated (or sometimes infuriated, but that’s just the show- wink). That is defined as pleasure.
However, compare that to a solo parenting night. I finally get the kids down, flop onto the couch and turn on a sitcom I only half care about and only half-watch while I scroll through Facebook and Instagram. After an hour, I feel mentally checked out, restless, and bored. That, is numbing.
When we numb, we avoid vulnerability. Brené Brown describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” It’s that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control. But why is it important? “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences,” she says.
The danger in numbing is that we can not selectively numb our emotions. If we choose to numb, we may indeed numb our pain, restlessness, or boredom, but we also numb our feelings of love and joy.
Steps to Stop Emotional Numbing
I have no doubt that I utilize these numbing techniques, often unintentionally. So the question I asked myself- how do I stop it? The answer I came up with is that I don’t think I can completely rid myself of all numbing activities, but I do feel like I am discovering how I can limit them.
- Acknowledge and stay mindful about my numbing behaviors
- Distinguish between numbing behaviors and pleasurable behaviors. Be intentional with scheduling in more restorative activities.
- Learn how to lean into the discomfort of hard emotions
The first step is recognizing what my numbing activities are. For me, the phone provides a host of numbing activities. Sometimes it’s scrolling Instagram and Facebook, sometimes it’s checking out who posted what on the Buy/Sell/Trade boards, and other times it’s reading outlandish news stories. I hop on my phone to avoid feeling bored, or to procrastinate doing a task, or to just escape my own reality for a few minutes.
Again, this isn’t terrible, but it does pull me away from real life. There have been times I’ve ignored my kids to just sit and scroll on my phone. And afterwards? I feel like I’m even moodier towards them. Clearly the phone isn’t providing me with pleasure that is restorative; it’s just giving me a temporary escape.
So a couple months ago I started experimenting with leaving my phone behind. I don’t bring it with me when we homeschool. I leave it in another room when I hang out with David in the evenings. I don’t put it on the table when I’m out with friends. For better or worse, I’ve realized it takes true physical separation for me, but when I force myself to keep that separation, I can tell a distinct difference. I feel more calm, more creative, more patient; I feel more like the person I want to be.
Step two. Now that I knew what I do to numb, I wanted to discover which activities are restorative for me. When I decided to make a list I was shocked at how hard it was for me to come up with truly pleasurable activities and it made me realize how much time I spend doing for others over myself. Can you relate? It’s not that I am some saint or anything, but it surprised me and I decided I should try prioritizing my pleasurable activities and adding them into my days to see if I noticed a difference.
Activities that bring me a feeling or restorative joy: walking or running, a glass of wine or hot tea on the porch, hiking, college football, dinner out with David, writing, cooking without an agenda, and dancing.
Step three, the last step- letting myself feel. This is usually a strength of mine, but this year has brought about some emotions that feel too big to handle. But I’ve been working on it. I am allowing myself to feel emotions when they arise, which honestly can be at the oddest times. I am giving myself permission to laugh when things are funny, cry when I feel despair, and I’m working on not apologizing or feeling guilty for however rarely or frequently those emotions occur.
Brene says “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
I’m still learning and am on my own journey of continuously getting more comfortable with vulnerability, but I am noticing the more I give myself over to it, the more full life feels. Being open makes me feel more engaged in my life. Though that includes both the ups and the downs, my personal goal is to lean into all the moments of my life because to me, that leads to a full life. I want to feel it all, I want to grow from all my experiences, I want to continually understand myself more.
Does this concept resonate with you?
If so, what activities are your go-to numbing activities?
What activities restore you?
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I am a big Brene fan. I love that she does her own audio books. This was a great post. I also find myself mindlessly teaching for my phone. I think I’ll try your tactic of leaving it behind. Your quest for constant personal reflection and development is an inspiring one. So hard to keep at it but worth it.
Brittany Dixon says
Yes, I love that she does her own audio books too! Do you have a favorite? I’ve been so hooked on the audio series that I have not made it through all her books yet.
I wouldn’t say a favorite because they are all so good but Braving the Wilderness stands out. Need to re-listen to them all, there is so much to take in!
Ooh this is all too good. There’s definitely quite a few for me…but I’d say that being incredibly busy is a huge one. Agreed, when feelings are so big, it’s so so scary to let them out, but it’s when we don’t that they just grow and find their way out another way…I’ve been working really hard on not letting thoughts and feelings have so much power. I have one of her audiobooks downloaded but want to check this series out!
Brittany Dixon says
The series is phenomenal; she’s a truly gifted speaker. I’d love to hear your thoughts once you listen!
I use staying busy as an escape sometimes, too. It’s easier to bounce from thing to thing then sit in the hard emotions, but you are so right. They always find a way out one way or another!
I loved reading this post! I definitely don’t feel like you’ve been talking about Brene Brown too much–I think it’s a really interesting topic and would love to hear more about your thoughts on vulnerability. This post made me start to wonder what my go-to numbing activities are, and honestly, scrolling through FB is a major one. The funny thing is, I always feel *worse* about myself after a few minutes of scrolling through FB, and yet I continuously feel compelled to do it anyway. (Humans are weird, right?) I recently deleted the FB app from my phone, and that seems to have helped a bit. I still log into it on my laptop at least once a day (yep, I’m an addict), but not having it always available on my phone has definitely cut the amount of time I spend on it.
You’re right–restorative activities are hard to come up with. I think one of my main ones is reading novels; I absolutely love the feeling of getting lost in a book. The problem is that it always feels easier to just scroll through FB or read short articles online, but when I push myself to actually get into a novel, I feel SO much happier afterward. I need to work on replacing time spent mindlessly scrolling through the internet with more quality reading time. Do you have any novels you’ve liked lately that you’d recommend?
Brittany Dixon says
I’m laughing as I read that because I’m the same way, but with Instagram. I could spend HOURS on there but I never feel restored after, but yet I often choose it over one of the activities I know will relax or invigorate me, so I agree. Humans are weird. And that’s why I require physical separation from my phone. Sad but true 🙂
I don’t have any novels to recommend, mostly because I’m a self-help/self-improvement junkie and always choose those. I’ve recently read Girl, Wash Your Face and am now reading A History of God (very different ends of the spectrum). My friend, Jen, just wrote a post with 40 recommended books, though, so hopefully you can find some good ideas there!
I definitely feel that desire to check out on my phone on a typical evening when the dishes are done, dinner is cleaned up, lunches are packed, cat boxes cleaned, etc (usually this is not until after 7 pm). It feels like a cheap break from going all day long with teaching and “momming”. But those silly phones are so addictive! It sounds ridiculous, but I have been using an old (4 year old) smart phone, with a cracked screen for months now, because I feel like if I get a nice new one I’ll be using it even more. It is much easier for me to spend less time on my phone during the school year when I’m at work all day (and don’t even look at it until 7 pm), but when I’m home for the summer, I find it so hard to stay off. I’m thinking of doing something drastic next summer, because it can get so bad (unenjoyable time suck= cranky mom). I’m not against “checking out” for a period of time, but you are right in that the question is- how do you feel after? I might ignore my kids either way whether I’m scrolling my phone or reading a food/ travel magazine, but I guarantee reading the magazine is almost always more pleasurable (and will place me in a better mood/ will feel like a real break). I’d say about 10- 20% of my phone scrolling is actually pleasurable, versus maybe 80- 90% for a magazine I enjoy (Saveur!). Dinnertime and after kids are in bed time has been pretty good lately. We usually enjoy dinner together without electronic distractions, and typically at 9 pm we watch shows on Netflix that we genuinely enjoy with a glass of wine, and our phones set to the side. It is that time, from 7- 8 pm, that I really struggle, and it mostly is numbing, or as I call it- checking out. I’m trying to avoid being bothered, which in itself is not wrong (or at least, is understandable after giving all day), but I agree it makes more sense to choose an activity that I will actually feel better from afterwards.
Brittany Dixon says
Laura, such a great point you made! If I check out with a book or magazine while ignoring my kids I don’t feel guilty at all because it is restorative and I also would rather them see me using a book to unwind (or sitting on the porch staring into nothing, haha) rather than mindlessly scrolling on my phone. David and I also watch a show together most nights and it’s one of my favorite ways to unwind with him when we are both fried. As always, I love reading your input. Thank you!
This is great and I can totally relate! I have been working on recognizing feelings, its tough for me! I completely relate to the person somewhat watching a show and scrolling social media and not feeling relaxed. I am learning to cultivate new things that do make me feel happy, its taking work to identify those things too!
Brittany Dixon says
Isn’t it crazy how hard it is to identify the things that we really enjoy? I was so surprised that I didn’t even know what I like to do! I hope you’ve uncovered some good ones! Thank you for sharing <3
I really need to work on putting aside the phone, too. I get sucked into checking Facebook (don’t want to miss the good stuff) but end up just seeing posts that make me mad. Picking up my Kindle instead would be a much better use of time!
John J. Stathas says
Awesome blog – one of your best! Brene Brown is solid -a quality researcher and wonderful presenter of quality, particularly in this area of vulnerability. In my practice I encounter many forms of patients numbing themselves. Alcohol, drugs, phone, and TV are the main escape routes for so many. Certainly we need time out to “zone out” from an exhausting day, but it cannot be a default position of running away from our emotions. Vulnerability is wonderful as long as you are safe, physically and emotionally.
Such a timely post! I was just talking to my husband about this, and told him that I think our phones have actually been damaging to our relationship. We can both be bad about using them, but this morning I had to ask him to put his phone down while I talked to him! It’s so easy to just pick up the silly thing and start scrolling to either avoid boredom or to distract myself from something that maybe I want to avoid (a task or emotion) and I’m going to make it a real point in my life to stop using it as a numbing behavior. Because looking at my phone… doesn’t really bring me joy.
Jennifer Mennella says
This is a great post. I stop sometimes and think about my mom and my childhood memories. They are NOT of my mom scrolling through her phone. Sad but that’s what my kids often see my doing. I need to do like one the prior posters says to do and physically remove the phone from my vicinity. Thank you Brittany
Kate Byers says
Such a great post, Brittany! I love Brene’s work and I’m halfway through The Gifts of Imperfection with Daring Greatly on deck. For me numbing with food and crap TV is a big issue. I do a lot of solo parenting when my husband is on the road for work and the food+tv combo is a nightly ritual that I’m trying to disrupt.
Have you gotten into the Enneagram? I’m reading The Road Back to You and also love the Typology podcast. Numbing is a big problem for my number on the Enneagram and I’m just starting the work of figuring out how to be more resilient in that regard.
Brittany Dixon says
I have not done my Emmeagram but I hear about it all the time! I’ll have to look into it 🙂 Thanks!
Loved this post and I really enjoy listening to Brene Brown. I always get something from her. Recently I’ve been numbing with Grey’s Anatomy and blizzards–trying to forget I have a cough and fever. Think I’ll continue numbing until this goes away 😉
Thank you for this post! I certainly have engaged in many numbing activities, some more destructive than others – so this really resonated with me. I’ve gone through a pretty emotionally difficult year and am trying hard to, as you noted, lean into those tough emotions. Not easy. But I at least have more awareness of the numbing, and have been able to pull myself out more quickly than before. But vulnerability has still been a struggle as I protect myself. After reading this post I watched her TED talk and was immediately engaged! I just downloaded The Power of Vulnerability and can’t wait to dive in.
Thank you for writing about it!
Thank you so much for this. I needed this reminder. I definitely use my phone to numb. I’m going to walk through these steps and I’m going to do better.