Far too many of us are unwilling to feel discomfort and we fail to realize that the “bad” feelings are necessary. This is a topic that I’m intimately familiar with, I’m afraid. I have drowned out emotions and looked for escape in so many ways, I should be considered a master.
There is a concept we refer to as the motivational triad to describe the most basic programming within our brains. It is by design that humans will seek pleasure, avoid pain, and expend the least amount of energy possible. When I first learned this and truly acknowledged it, the motivational triad made so much sense to me. Of course, this is what helped us to survive back in the days when we needed to conserve energy to run from predators. But our lives aren’t nearly that difficult anymore, are they?
What feelings do you seek to avoid? Guilt? Shame? Humiliation? Plain old boredom? What do you use to numb your feelings? Food? Alcohol? Endless hours of television or social media? All of these things?
There’s a huge problem with numbing away your negative emotion. As Brené Brown explains so well, “You cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, ‘here’s the bad stuff. I don’t want to feel these.’ You cannot get rid of vulnerability, fear, shame, and disappointment without losing joy, gratitude, and happiness.”
This so very true! It’s why when we stop numbing and really start feeling, a tidal wave of emotion hits hard. Everything that you’ve been working so diligently to suppress finally surfaces with an intensity that can knock you down on your ass so hard, you’re on the floor before you even realize what happened.
My personal favorite numbing agent has been alcohol. There seemed no problem too great that a few stiff drinks wouldn’t fix. And it’s generally acceptable to drink for just about any occasion. Be it celebratory or to drown your sorrows, it’s there for you. Long day at the office? Have a drink to unwind. Kids making you feel crazy? Have a drink to chill. Nervous about that speech you need to write and deliver? Have a drink to calm your thoughts.
Then with time, it becomes habit and we rationalize it away by saying it’s five o’clock somewhere. As long as I’m still a high functioning responsible person, it’s all good, right?
Of course it isn’t, and here’s where a real issue is introduced. In our society, everything is black and white where drinking is involved. As soon as you admit that you have a “problem”, the labels begin to fly and you are presented with exactly two choices to address this: enter rehab or AA. Both approaches are intended to result in total abstinence.
This is absolutely fine if that’s really what you desire. But what if it isn’t? What if you just want to learn how to manage the things that are driving you drink? What if you actually do enjoy having a glass of wine on occasion? What if you feel discomfort at the very idea of turning down a drink at a party because you really don’t want to turn it down, yet someone else is telling that you absolutely must? Because you now wear that label.
Listen, I’m not slamming rehab or AA. Many, many people have been helped with these approaches and have completely changed their lives for the better. What I’m saying is that one size does not fit all; that we need to really explore alternatives and accept that not every person who drinks more than they should has a disease. Some of us simply haven’t learned to allow our feelings to just be.
What happens when you allow yourself to experience the emotion that you’re trying to suppress through numbing is that you learn much better and healthier ways to cope. You learn that the emotion is not going to kill you. You’re going to feel it, it will pass, and you get to move on. The problem with numbing is you’re just saving that emotion to resurface later, and it will most likely come up at the most inopportune time.
I do drink, but I don’t drink as a reaction to anything or to suppress my feelings. There’s a huge difference. I plan when I’m going to drink, how much I’ll have and I do this at least 24 hours in advance. Doing this ensures that my prefrontal cortex is in charge of my decisions and that I’m not on autopilot, just blindly following a habit or living in the moment, driven by a momentary impulse. I don’t drink just because it’s there.
When I learned this alternative was available to me, it felt so much better than carrying a label for the rest of my life or white-knuckling my way through saying no to something I didn’t really want to say no to. Now it’s become more of a “no, not now” approach (because I haven’t planned it) and I’m here to tell you, having this control makes me feel so very powerful.
Ultimately, that’s the feeling that I really wanted. Power. One of the greatest turnoffs around AA for me has been that basic tenet of requiring me to “admit that I am powerless.” That just never did sit right with me. I want to own my power, make my decisions, and feel all of the feelings.
I know how to do this now and having that crucial element of control is one that I can definitely live with. I no longer feel the need to numb or suppress my emotions. I don’t react to difficult moments by reaching for a drink. I can now approach every situation from a place of curiosity rather than judgement and I can’t tell you how amazing that feels. Oh, hello, guilt. Hello, shame. Hello, discomfort, my friend. I wasn’t expecting a visit from you today, yet here you are. Alright then, let’s hang out for awhile.
You don’t have to numb away your feelings. You don’t have to relinquish your power. You can choose a very different and truly amazing approach to your own human experience. Ultimately, the choice is yours and you can live your life without apology and with no regrets.