In certain situations you might feel anxious, even fearful, and you find yourself metaphorically (maybe actually) curling up, making yourself very small, crying for help—or being very still and quiet—and hoping for a miracle. You feel numb. You might even feel as if you are watching what is happening to you from a distance.
You want to tap for an unhelpful response to a situation, but since you can’t feel what you are feeling, you don’t know where to start or what to say.
Following is an email exchange that I had with a former teleclass participant, asking about numbness:
Dear Rue, I valued listening to your teleclass. I had my issue all in mind, but alas, I never got any feelings about it to measure. This is always how I am. Your volunteer is lucky to ‘feel’ her connection to the problem. How can a person benefit from EFT if there is no emotional recognition in one’s self? Tho I desire to change, and I do all the tapping, I am yet to ‘feel’ anything so there is no reducing the number if it is already zero when it should be a ten. What is wrong with me?!!
I have tapped on being afraid to feel, accepting myself even tho I don’t have the feelings on the conscious level, etc. But I seem to stay the same!
Has anyone else asked you about this ‘defect’???
This is what I wrote back to her:
Yes, I have heard of this often. If we were talking together I would have some questions for you: Do you have trouble expressing emotions? That is, do you have them but they can’t “get out?” Or are you generally a low affect kind of person? Is “not feeling” a problem for you?
When you tap, are you noticing changes in the way you think and act, even if you don’t “feel” it?
You must have ways of noticing that there is a problem to begin with. Even if you don’t have an emotional response, can you find other ways of noticing how things are changing? There are many ways for your body, mind and spirit to indicate that there is a problem, and also many ways to notice change.
Or—has there been deep stress in your life, and could this “numbness” be your body’s way of protecting you from physical and emotional pain?
And then she wrote back to me:
I have thought for a couple days about what you wrote and my conclusion is that it shuts my body down. Then I become ill. When I recognized this was happening, I over corrected so I would not allow something to do this to my body.
Oh yes, I am one of the sensitive people you describe, but I guess I learned to not feel. Here is an example of how sensitive I am…when the China tragedy happened last year and here locally we had tornadoes at nearly the same time, I was sick physically…energetically shut down. I pick up the energy of the world’s problems.
I have learned to shelter myself from woes of the world and it has helped me a great deal, thus reinforcing that the ‘If I don’t feel, I am safe’ mode is best for my body. I am doing so well physically and mentally right now that I am not about to rock the boat, I guess!!
In looking at what I have written, I do see some places to tap, but I don’t want to risk going down hill by tapping the feelings back into ‘feel’ mode. Maybe it is OK to stay where I am for a bit longer. Ha! Or… is that a way not to go forward?
Some tapping programs are helping me to recognize my thinking pattern, esp. stinkin’ thinkin’, but I still don’t get the feelings that I could measure, I just get just a number mentally sometimes, if that makes sense. So thanks dear Rue for your kind interest. I am going to tap with what I came up with here.
This numbness that she was feeling is a form of dissociation. If numbness is a habitual response for her, it probably means that she learned how to numb her feelings at some point long ago in her past. It is one of the brain’s responses to fear. When it isn’t appropriate or possible to fight or flee, the brain resorts to “freeze.”
Our brains are always sorting the data coming in and comparing it to past experiences and associations. Later on the brain will think about what is happening and make decisions, but right now all it wants to know is, “Are we safe? Is there danger here?”
If the data seems unfamiliar, or is similar to other past scary situations, the brain automatically goes into a stress response. Numbness is one possible strategy. Over time, we might begin to associate the absence of feeling with “safety.”
People with a highly sensitive temperament are even more susceptible to stress responses, because their nervous system takes information in more deeply, it seems. There is evidence that sensitive people are more likely to develop chronic physical symptoms when stressed or traumatized.
The initial trauma can be “Big T” trauma—as varied as an accident, a difficult childbirth, surgery, a significant illness, toxic exposure (such as carbon monoxide), loss of a loved one or a job, a difficult relationship at home, abuse, the illness of a loved one, etc.
Or the trauma can be repeated “small t trauma,” like repeated shaming or blaming or neglect, or even unrelenting financial stress, the intensity of school and studies, lack of adequate sleep, too much care-taking, not enough time for self care for any reason, or a period of too much work.
The result of trauma in a child often shows up later as dissociation, numbness, or its opposite equivalent, hyper-arousal and the hyper-vigilance of constant anxiety. So what looks to us like “weird behavior” in a person of any age can be their internalized response to some trauma in their past.
If I were working with this woman I would want to explore with her, gently and slowly, this comment she made: I have learned to shelter myself from woes of the world and it has helped me a great deal, thus reinforcing that the ‘If I don’t feel, I am safe’ mode is best for my body.
I would want to learn when and how did she learn to shelter herself from the woes of the world? What woes were going on her life? How old was she?
The equation of “not feeling equals safe” means to me that early in her life she learned that her feelings were too much, too deep, too explosive, too scary, or that they took the attention away from another person, maybe a parent, who wanted the attention to be on themselves instead. Or that she had to draw someone’s abusive actions toward herself in order to protect someone else. In any case, somehow she had learned that the only way she could feel safe was to not-feel herself.
I would want to honor her strategy for keeping herself “safe,” and help her to develop her inner resources. I want her to know that she can deeply and completely love and accept herself, no matter what. Healing lies at the center of this thought. I also want to encourage in her an understanding of being open to the moment, and flexible in her response to whatever is happening.
There really isn’t any such thing as “safety.” There is only our willingness to hold what ever is happening in the biggest picture possible, with love and acceptance. There is only the intention to re-imagine our story into a good one.
I have recently read a book that offers very interesting insights about the effects on children of trauma. Its evocative title is The Boy Who Was Raised Like a Dog (Basic Books, 2006). The author is psychiatrist Bruce Perry. It is full of stories from Dr. Perry’s work that illustrate the effect of trauma on a child’s brain and behavior. He never mentions EFT, but I kept thinking as I read it that adding tapping to his wonderfully compassionate, intuitive, heartfelt way of using his medical training would be a really good addition to his work!
The foundation of the approach he uses with all the children is to implement the caring repetitive, patterned positive experiences that they didn’t get at the developmental stage when they were needed, like being held and rocked as a baby. Thoughtfully applied EFT surely nourishes those developmental needs energetically, and maybe that is a reason why it works so well.
The story that gives the title to the book is about a little boy whose 15 year old mother had permanently given her baby to her own mother to raise. When this woman died a few months later, the baby was given into the care of the grandmother’s lover, an older man unexperienced with children, somewhat mentally slow, who raised dogs. This man meant well, but his way of caring for the boy was to put him in a cage, feed him and change his diapers, but rarely talk with him, touch him or play with him. (Not a good way to raise dogs either…) The little boy lived that way for five years.
When Dr Perry was called into the pediatric intensive care unit to see him, (“Please, come do that psychiatric-voodoo-that-you-do-so-well, try to stop him from throwing feces and food at the staff”) Justin could not walk or talk. In the last paragraph of his story is a description of a photo of Justin at eight, standing waiting for the school bus, backpack on his back, and scrawled on the back in his own writing is “Thank you Dr. Perry.”
I remember rescuing a chipmunk from the jaws of my cat once. Even though it was free, and uninjured, the chipmunk stayed in one place for a full minute before it dashed off into the brush. This is a good example of how a numb dissociative state works. About this state Perry says this:
In dissociative states…people can become so disconnected from reality that they move into a dreamlike consciousness where nothing seems real and they feel little emotional or physical pain. These experiences are linked with the release of opioids, the brains’ natural heroin-like substances that kill pain and produce a calming sense of distance from one’s troubles. Research on rodents has shown that when these animals are totally restrained—a highly stressful experience for them—their brains flood with natural opioids, known as endorphins and enkephalins. People who suffer life-threatening experiences often describe a sense of “disconnection” and “unreality” and numbness that is similar to what people feel when they take opioid drugs. Endorphins and enkephalins are an integral part of the brain’s stress response system, preparing the body to handle both physical and emotional pain.
Each story in Dr. Perry’s book is about a child who has suffered severe neglect, like this boy, major trauma, or repeated emotional or sexual abuse. As a side note I want to suggest here that if you have experienced severe trauma in your past, this book may be triggering for you. Perry’s tone in telling these stories is open, loving, wise and compassionate throughout, and full of very useful information for us. But just be aware to take care of yourself while reading it. Some of the children that he works with have survived truly gruesome experiences.
Just as I was writing this article, I heard once again from the woman who wrote about numbness:
I have been tapping on what I gleaned when I wrote you about my numbness. The other day out of the blue, not even during my tapping time, I got all emotional with a thought about how I suffered, suffered with adrenal failure. It is not like I don’t already KNOW this happened!! But it came up with emotion!
It was (almost) the worst thing that ever happened to me. I almost died before we figured it out….I breathed fear and feeling of impending death 24/7. Really, it showed me that there is hell on earth and I was in the depths of it night and day. When I said the word ‘suffer’ in my mind, I just started weeping. Even now as I write, it evokes a response 🙂 So I am very slowly getting somewhere, don’t you think?
And it is quite fine if you use in any way what you presented to me in the email. I hope it may help anyone else if I defined it as I did. It helped ME to see in it print!!!
Her email shows how important it is to have the intention to change our story. She began with tapping to increase the abundance in her life, noticed the numbness in her feelings. She wondered about that. She thought to ask someone (me) about it. She backed off from dealing with it then, unconsciously realizing that it was protecting her. But bravely, she ventured further, and found herself in the grip of powerful emotion, that mirrored the emotions that she had felt earlier in her life.
Interestingly, part of her trauma history included adrenal failure. There is much evidence that adrenal failure is caused by extreme stress over time. So we can assume that her numbness developed long before her awful medical emergency, as her unconscious strategy to bear what couldn’t be borne in her life.
She tapped more, and further revelations came. I believe that as this woman frees her emotions to flow through her, and realizes that she can feel and still be safe, the abundance that she is seeking will also be freed to flow through her life.
So, if you find yourself working with someone who says, as this woman did, “I can’t feel anything. What is wrong with me?” you will know to proceed carefully, gently, thoughtfully to uncover what is under the numbness that is too terrible to feel.
Begin tapping with the numbness itself, and bring in the person’s self critical feelings about being numb.
Even though I am feeling numb, I love and accept myself anyway.
Even though I am not feeling anything, I know I must be protecting myself, and that is OK.
Even though I know there must be feelings inside, but I can’t seem to feel them, I honor myself for how hard it is to keep all those feelings in there.
Even though I can’t feel what I must really be feeling, I want to slowly, slowly learn about what is stored inside me.
Tapping through the points:
This numbness…feeling so numb…I know I should be feeling something more…what is wrong with me…everyone else seems to have feelings…where are mine?…can’t feel what I must be feeling…I want to feel…no I don’t…I never want to feel like that again…
Even though feeling is too intense, I love and accept myself anyway…that is a feeling that I like. Hmmm…
Even though I get sick when I feel what is in there, I love and appreciate my body for developing this numbness to protect me.
Even though I think there is something wrong with me for not feeling, I am wondering if there might be things I don’t want to feel. I am feeling that I am missing my feelings! Hmmm…again!
Tapping through the points:
Feeling is too intense…I get sick when I feel…I don’t like to feel…I do want to feel!…I want to heal what I feel…I want to heal TO feel…how could I heal and feel at the same time…it isn’t safe to feel…what if that is an old thought?…what if I would feel better if I could feel what I feel?…feeling numb is a feeling…some part of me is trying to protect me…I appreciate that …I must be worth protecting then!…I am worth protecting!…I like feeling that…
This is just a little start, but you can use your imagination to expand and develop the tapping gently, slowly, easy does it. Just keep talking to yourself about what you feel, and how you feel about what you feel or don’t feel, and how you would like to be feeling instead, and what needs to be true for you to feel at all – and then feel what you want to feel.
Then like our tapper above, pay attention over the next days. Notice what begins to feel free to emerge into your consciousness. Tap slowly and gently with that.
Ease yourself toward hearing the wisdom and stored memory in your body.
Your feelings will guide you. That is what they are for!
With my love and blessings,