Most of today’s afflictions and addictions are a direct result of our desire to not know what we know. There are times when we cannot bear the anxiety, anger and grief that accompany harsh reality. Humans are constantly devising new methods for numbing our awareness: from cigarettes to heroin, from shopping to cellphones. We find ways to leave our bodies because powerful emotions make us uncomfortable. Knowing the truth can have frightening implications.
A man involved in an intensely destructive marriage keeps himself numb with alcohol so he can better tolerate the craziness: “I’m afraid if I divorce her, she’ll kill herself.”A woman who hates her job soothes her pain with chocolate every night: “I’m too fat to leave; no one would hire me.”
This need to numb is a natural part of the human condition. We hone this skill in childhood.
When I was young I spent much of my summer barefoot, resulting in frequent splinters from wooden docks and rafts. There was nothing scarier than my mother approaching my tender heal with sharp implements, so I developed an effective numbing technique. Whenever I got a splinter, I’d inform Mom and then run up to my bedroom where I’d will myself into an instant, deep slumber. Mom would tiptoe in with her tweezers and needles, deftly removing the splinter like a surgeon operating on a sedated patient. I’d awaken refreshed and splinter-less, running back outside to play.
But my splinters were minor irritations compared to the pain of trauma, abuse, and loss that many kids experience. Trapped in their bodies and their families, to maintain their sanity they must find ways to check-out without physically leaving. Some kids escape into a world of imagination or develop severe dissociation. Others turn to junk food, cutting or starving to numb the pain.
While these techniques are adaptive for surviving the pain of childhood, becoming an Expert Numb-er can hinder your decisions in adulthood. Your gut is primal; it is a finely tuned Cavewoman built for survival. She tells you when to Say No, Get Out, Save Yourself. Silence her and you may end up in the wrong place, the wrong career, the wrong relationship.
In my early 20s I dated a man who was stable, successful and kind. After two months he proposed; in two more months we moved in together. On paper, he seemed like great husband material. In my head, I couldn’t find a compelling reason NOT to marry him.
The day we moved in together, I felt myself leave my body. We’d have minor disagreements which would turn into days of silence and distance. I remember hovering above my body like those “near death” experiences, watching Dina below and thinking (with apologies to The Talking Heads) “This is not my beautiful life!” I was floating downstream towards a rushing, crushing waterfall called “My Wedding.”
I had a massive splinter, and I was sleeping deeply. Mom took me wedding dress shopping, but I was not really there. She sensed that something was amiss, but she couldn’t fix it this time. I couldn’t remove the splinter myself because I couldn’t feel it.
Around that time I went to my friend Martha’s wedding. Through my fog, I watched her kissing and laughing with her new husband. At one point she grabbed me enthusiastically: “Oh my God, Dina! Congratulations on your engagement! Tell me all about him; does he make you laugh?!”
Her simple question brought me surging back into my body. I fumbled through an answer, but something had shifted. I couldn’t marry him. We had a fundamental disconnect. Sure, we didn’t fight but we didn’t laugh either…not in the way that I needed to laugh. No wonder I had left my body. But once I was back inside myself again, there was no turning back. Soon after that, the Cavewoman spoke and told him: “We’re not going to make it.” Then I was moving out and moving on.
I’m so grateful that Martha asked me the key question which brought me back into my body, before the invitations, the vows and the babies.
I’ll bet you can recall similar Ah-Ha moments in your life, when the light bulb went on, when you suddenly saw something so clearly that it inexorably changed the direction of your life. It was a feeling in your gut, wasn’t it?
Unfortunately, the notion of “listening to your feelings” has gotten a bad rap. Teenage bullies and narcissistic 20-somethings are blamed on parents who’ve over-indulged their kids’ feelings. The Tough-Love-Suck-It-Up philosophy of the Tiger Mom movement is our culture’s typical knee-jerk over-correction.
But there is a middle place.
It’s about valuing the wisdom in our emotions and having the courage to view feelings as useful information. As a therapist, my emotional responses to my clients’ stories provide me with important clues. But being “in touch with my feelings” doesn’t mean I cry all day long. This ability to connect to my emotions helps give me both empathy and resilience.
I’m hopeful about our culture’s surging interest in yoga and mindfulness. These practices can help us tune back in to the stirrings of the Cavewoman.
If you spent much of your childhood trying to leave your body, being present takes a courageous and concerted effort. But you ignore your inner CaveWoman at your peril. Without her wisdom, you don’t know that your hand is on the stove until you smell your flesh burning. Honor her and you’ll access the energy, courage and focus to run away from danger and towards a fuller, saner life.