Do you enjoy happy occasions less than you should?
Do you sometimes feel emotionally numb?
Do other people seem to experience more intense joy, love or closeness than you do?
Do you sometimes question the purpose and value of your life?
Do you put others’ needs before your own?
If you answered “yes” to two or more of the questions above, it may be a sign that you’re on autopilot. What does this mean? It means that you do not have enough access to your true emotions.
As a psychologist who has been practicing for over twenty years, I have heard many people express these concerns. Almost all have been fine, good-hearted people who are successful in many areas of their lives. But for them, something feels missing. Some mysterious ingredient that makes life feel full, rich and stimulating is simply not there for them.
I worked for over a decade on trying to determine what had happened to these lovely people to cause them to feel this way. What I discovered was surprising. The answer lay not in what had happened to them. It lay instead in what hadn’t happened for them. Almost without exception, these folks’ parents failed to provide them with emotional validation in childhood. They had grown up in families in which emotion was not noticed, responded to, or valued enough.
Through their parents’ lack of responsiveness, each of these people had received an indirect, subtle message. The message was “Your feelings don’t matter.” When a child receives this message, she copes with it automatically. Without realizing it, she pushes her feelings down and away, so they won’t bother anyone. As an adult, she will have no memory that her emotional needs were not met in childhood, and no awareness that she pushed her feelings away. Instead, gradually over time, she will become accustomed to living without them. She will march through her life with a smile on her face, providing for the needs of others, but out of tune with herself. She will know how to provide care, but not how to receive it. She will know how to help others, but not how to accept help herself. And underneath it all, even when surrounded by people who love her, she will sometimes feel deeply, curiously, alone.
Most people don’t realize how vital their emotions are to their own health and happiness. Emotions are our body’s way of talking to us. Anger tells us to protect ourselves. Passion drives us to create. Hurt tells us to take care. And through it all, by feeling our feelings, we experience the fullness and richness of life. Emotion informs us and connects us. It enlivens and enriches, and gives us meaning and purpose. Emotion is the spice of life.
So what does a person do who is feeling bored, empty, numb or alone? What if you suspect that your emotions are pushed away, and that you are living your life in autopilot? The good news is that you can take over the wheel. Your emotions are still there, and you can get back in touch with them. Here are some basic steps to start this process:
Steps to Recovery
1. Own and accept the problem: This first step is actually the biggest. I have found that when a person recognizes that she is rejecting this vital part of herself, her emotions, a whole new world opens up for her. Accept the problem, that it’s not your fault, and that you can fix it.
2. Increase your emotional awareness: Make a decision to start tuning in to what you are feeling. Here is an exercise to help:
Once per day for 5 minutes, sit in a room alone. Close your eyes, and turn your attention inward. Ask yourself, “What am I feeling?” Try to come up with at least one word to describe an emotion that you feel in that moment, and record it on a sheet of paper. It may be very difficult at first, but keep trying. The more you do this exercise, the easier it will get. Gradually, you’ll start to notice what you are feeling at other times of the day.
3. Work hard to put your own needs first. Taking care of you is a prerequisite to taking care of others.
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