Doctors Numbing their Emotions

Doctors Numbing their Emotions

We All Numb—and why not numb?



Most doctors “numb” their emotions through overworking. In addition, activities, substances, and other escapes are common.

For physicians, our go-to numbing technique is always being busy, including at the hospital. If we stay busy enough, we don’t have to address that nagging voice in the back of our head telling us we might be missing out, or we are not good enough.

And why not numb? We are both evolved to avoid painful emotions, and, of course, society de-normalizes expressing emotions. Add in the loss of empathy with physician burnout and the “hidden agenda” promoting it, and there is no wonder we seek magic to hide from ourselves.

But numbing comes at a cost. It turns everything grey and soulless—blocking both negative and positive emotions.

Let’s look at what we are avoiding when we numb out with substances or busy-ness and discover why numbing may cause us to miss out on what is important in life.

First, one of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having twelve-step meetings for busy-aholics, they will need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us. ~Brene Brown


What is Numbing?

What is emotional numbing? It is “the process of shutting out feelings and can be experienced through emotional deficits or restrictions in the capacity to feel or express emotions.” Numbing is a coping tool to deal with the normal “stress” of living as a functional human being.

The most important thing to understand about numbing is that we all do it. Yes. You, too. We all have coping mechanisms that can become problematic at times. Or, with addiction, a way of life.

More on addiction later, but let’s start at the beginning (with evolution) and then see if there are more adaptive solutions to numbing


Evolutionary Assumptions of Emotions

Humans are adapted to a very different environment than our current western civilized one. We have spent 99.9% of our evolutionary time in non-modern society, and our brains and routines are hardwired as if we are still living in pre-modern times.

Our emotions are meant to drive adaptive behavioral responses. They fail because our current environment means we have very different needs to fulfill than our ancestors. This is sometimes known as the comfort crisis. [sponsored link to a book I enjoyed]

While we cannot outfox our emotions, we have a chance to take the reins and consciously slow down and feel our feelings. Doing so (understanding your feelings) might be a decent barometer for what you lack (or want more) in your life.

Thus, once adaptive behavioral responses driven by emotions become maladaptive today. Seems easy enough to understand. So what is the problem?


Why is Numbing Important?

We have few chances in our life to make improvements.

Every year, new diets and other resolutions fail, and little changes. The years tick by as we chase life, only infrequently pausing to self-reflect.

If we over-numb, however, there is the opportunity to hit rock bottom and make changes that stick. Hitting rock bottom means the pain of not changing is greater than the pain of doing nothing (staying stuck) and getting the same results as always.

Since we all numb, we all have the chance of over-numbing. So why not run the gauntlet now and consider how your emotions might drive maladaptive responses that lead to numbing, and how your current numbing impacts your life?

What does that mean? Instead of trying to find a way to make your feelings go away, try to figure out where the feelings come from. For example, you might need to connect, sleep or play more, or be more of your authentic self rather than self-stuffing.


The Problem with Numbing

How is numbing affecting your life? We use numbing to slow or shut down our emotions. We all do it.

When done habitually, it may lead to a disconnect from both positive and negative emotions. You can’t pick to numb out just the ‘bad’—as a remote stuck on fast-forward, numbing also speeds you past the good emotions. As a result, numb too much, and life may seem grey or blah.

Next, compulsively numbing is addiction.

For doctors, popular anesthetics include work, alcohol, food, drugs, sex, money, being “busy,” perfectionism, affairs, social media, and more. Just a glass of wine because today sucked (again), or just one more night of Benadryl, or that shot of sugar, or two shots of espresso. Set the alarm for 330 to get to the gym before that 14-hour day. Again.

Overuse of numbing disconnects you from what is truly important to you and ultimately leads to failed relationships (both with yourself and equally as important with others).


Mirrors and Numbing

And what is it you are avoiding when you numb? This is an important question as we understand the significance of over-numbing.

Let’s start with the thought that what you numb is the flip side of what you value.

The deeper principle is that life is a mirror where your emotions reflect your inner wounds such that—that which annoys you (or that you critically judge in other people) is something that you want but lack, or that you have but don’t want.

Another way to think about it: in your pain, you find your values, and in your values, you find pain.

That which you numb you value.

Crazy talk, I know, but you need to figure out what you are numbing and then pursue it in your life.

Say, for instance, you are new to town, and you compensate by always being busy. Running around town doing this and that. Since you are new in town, you might be lonely. What you seek when you are lonely is connection, and you will not find connection by being busy. You find it by being the opposite of busy.

Or maybe you drink to numb your anger about your boss or lack of autonomy at the clinic. What are you angry about that led to numbing? In understanding the anger, you might drink less by doing more of what you try to avoid. Is it a loss of control or an inability to care for people like you want?

We all numb; it is self-soothing behavior. But is it particularly well adapted to your current environment?


The Self-Work Needed When You Numb

Only you know how you numb (golf, being busy, staying late to avoid going home). Once you figure out your numbing behavior, try and understand what pain you are avoiding.

But not all behavior is numbing.

Questions to ask yourself: Is that numbing behavior a problem? Does it get in the way of being your authentic self? Are you prevented from feeling like you are enough just the way you are, or that you cannot be emotionally honest and set boundaries. Does it make you feel connected, or cause you to be self-critical and judgmental. In short, are you trying to hide or escape from your life with this numbing behavior?

If so, you might want to change that numbing behavior.


Remind Yourself Why

A quick reminder: if you numb the “bad”—you also miss good emotions. There is no selective numbing. You either feel everything or nothing (or less of both positive and negative emotions).


How To Address Numbing

Some solutions to address numbing. I rely on Brene Brown’s books for this part.

First off, cultivate (practice) hope. Hope is not an emotion but a learned behavior that you must practice. Set a SMART goal, know how to get there, and understand that you will need flexibility and belief in yourself.

Next, practice critical awareness. In other words, reality check your assumptions. Are you trying to be perfect when good enough is enough, or are you feeling inadequate (as in disconnected because you are not worthy of connection)? So much of life is photoshopped it is hard to know what is good enough. Drop the comparisons and judgment and live authentically.

Finally, ask why and what you are numbing (be mindful about your behaviors) and lean into the discomfort rather than “stuffing” yourself (rushing through the behavior just to self-soothe).

Other strategies include setting boundaries and learning to say no, finding healthier or more fulfilling numbing behaviors, changing behaviors/circumstances that lead to stress (rather than just managing and soothing stress), and cultivating your uniqueness while dropping facades and comparison with others.


Summary—Doctors who Numb aren’t Dumb

In summary, numbing isn’t dumb. We all do it. Ask yourself, “why am I numbing?”

Is this truly a comfort—it doesn’t matter what it is; it matters why we do it. What is my intention when I do it: does it nourish and feed my spirit, or does it leave me feeling empty and still searching for comfort?


Align life with your values and set boundaries. Work less hard trying to win over people (or convince yourself that if you are perfect, people will like you, or if I just do more, I am worthy) and spend more time with family and close friends.


We all numb our feelings. However, if you are addicted, you numb chronically and compulsively.

The problem is, of course, that you cannot selectively numb just the negative feelings. Instead, you numb out the positive feelings when you numb the negative. As a result, life loses flavor and spice.


Building emotional awareness can improve mental health and un-rut non-adaptive mental pathways creating new paths for friendlier, kinder, more appropriate feelings. And less numbing.

Remember, there isn’t a path there; the path is made by walking on it. Go walk your path.

Posted in Burnout.