Numbing Emotions and Feeling Feelings
“We cannot successfully numb emotion. If we numb the dark, we numb the light. If we take the edge off pain and discomfort, we are, by default, taking the edge off joy, love, belonging, and other emotions that give meaning to our lives.” – Brene’ Brown, Dare to Lead
Numbing emotion is a skill I mastered as a young TCK during the years of transition, loss, and traumatic events. I became excellent at being strong and independent and was seemingly unphased by events that would be grief-inducing for most. The great thing (I thought) about this approach to not grieving, is that it looked very successful. I looked like I was doing quite well despite all that I had gone through. I was not an angry child or teen, I was not turning to substances or unhealthy behaviors, I seemed to be a parent’s dream child – holding it all together through the difficult times, easily adaptable, very good in school, well behaved, etc. I felt like I had successfully usurped the challenging TCK life and had maintained my persona of the perfect missionary kid.
Fifteen years, marriage, and two kids later, I realized that my skillful ability to not feel emotion while looking like I was successfully handling life, was actually a very unhealthy coping mechanism that my brain never learned to switch off.
A few years ago, in an interview with a therapist who works with TCKs, he said something that stuck with me. He said that it is not the child who is acting out behaviorally or emotionally that he is usually concerned about - though that child is usually why the parents come to him. It is the child who seems to not be struggling, is very independent, and who the parents aren’t worried about that he is most concerned for. The child who is obviously acting out is at least releasing grief and emotion in some way. The other child, however, is not grieving at all and while that seems fine (and is even easier on the family) at the time, sooner or later it will catch up to them.
Emotional numbing is a common trend for TCKs, especially those who:
Feel the need to be/look successful
Are naturally independent
Are the firstborn and/or have firstborn tendencies
Feel they don’t have permission/opportunity to grieve
Feel they will let people down if they are not strong
Have a deep need and desire to have it all together
Have parents who do not demonstrate a healthy grieving process
Some, like me, struggle with this only internally and are able to keep it hidden and contained… for a while. Others may turn to addictive substances and other unhealthy behaviors.
One adult TCK said to me, “I couldn’t handle the intense emotions any other way than by sleeping with any guy that would take me. My emotions were just too intense for me to deal with and I had no other release.”
Like that TCK, the emotions, no matter how well you stuff them, have to eventually come out at some point in some way.
For me, it was the realization of my tendency to turn off emotion during difficult times as easily as flipping a light switch.
As I continue go through the hard process of learning to feel feelings, I am reminded of the importance of caring for young TCKs. By helping TCKs learn to process grief while they are young, you are setting them up for a healthier adulthood - one where they can experience all the feelings: joy, sadness, love, belonging, angst, excitement, etc.
If you are an adult TCK, it is never too late to resolve your unresolved grief and learn how to manage the coping mechanisms that got you through the hard times. Join me in learning to be ok with being in process.