I’ve recently started taking my 3 granddaughters, ages 9, 8, and 7 hiking over Christmas vacation. Our first hike was short, about 1 and a half miles and easy. They loved looking over the mountain top, seeing the vista below. Eating snacks and being with Nana was fun too. They were game for a second hike the next day but wanted it longer and harder.
Being new at hiking myself, I wasn’t sure exactly of the best trail, but used my All Trails App and picked something I thought would work. It was three and a half miles and the app said it was “moderate.”
Going up the mountain was pretty fun. But I’m learning that going up a mountain, even when it’s steep and rocky, is a whole lot faster and easier than coming back down. We hiked for about 2 hours when I noticed on my Trail App that we were only about halfway through the hike and it was already 4 PM. It took us 2 hours to go this far and we had about an hour and half of daylight left and a lot of hiking down the mountain remained. Plus, my phone charge was at 10%, meaning directions for the trail we were on were going to go away soon.
So we walked and walked and walked just as fast as we safely could. I called my husband and told him what mountain we were hiking and my dilemma. Soon my phone was down to 6%, then 2%. I shut it off to save whatever precious energy was left for a final emergency call. It was 5:15 PM and the sun was starting to set and we still had at least 30 minutes of mountain to hike/climb down.
At last, we could see the bottom where our car was parked but it was still a long way off. And, another fork in the trail. Which way was down? It was hard to tell. I turned back my phone app and tried to figure it out. I thought we should turn left so we started hiking that way. Along the rim, we passed a couple going the opposite direction. About 5 minutes later, the young woman came running back and yelled to me, “Hey, excuse me. Do you plan to hike around the mountain again?”
I thought, are you kidding?
“No. I think we’re lost.” I said.
She said, “I thought so, follow me” and she turned us around and took us to a trail I had not seen that headed down the mountain. We made it to our car just as dusk was rolling in, cold and exhausted but grateful we were finally safe.
I learned many lessons but I’ll share a few. First, I need to be better prepared for emergencies. Having a full phone charge, plus an extra back up battery in my backpack is essential. Getting each girl her own backpack to carry water is also crucial because carrying enough water for 4, plus 3 coats got heavy for me. I also learned not to go on a long hike in the afternoon, especially with my grandkids. There is not enough time for emergencies before it gets dark and I never want to be stuck on a mountain in the dark. It is pitch black.
But we all also learned something more valuable. My granddaughters saw God provide help for us when we lost our way and were completely out of our own resources. They witnessed the kindness of a stranger, who ran back to check on us and guided us to the right trail that took us all down. We thanked Him all the way down.
Once we got in the car, after eating Starbucks cake pops and drinking hot chocolate, they said, “We have a really scary story to tell our friends.”
“Yes you do,” I said. So grateful that it had a good ending.
Today’s Question: I’ve read your internet article “Giving Thanks In All Things” with great interest. My question is, most people (including myself) feel numb rather than sad when suffering from depression. Giving thanks switches on emotion, negative as well. I have tried it after reading Anne Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts and it was disastrous, resulting in overwhelming emotional responses to the experiences I have endured.
What advice do you have for those like me, who have ‘numbed out’ in order to survive? P.S. I have to stay with my covert narcissistic husband for at least another 2 years.
Answer: Your question is important for all women because statistics show that one in five women will suffer major depression in her lifetime.
While I was writing my book on depression (Defeating Depression), I began to take notice that many depressed Christian women I spoke with and counseled, were also in destructive marriages. An interesting statistic from the National Institute of Mental Health shows that the highest rates for depressed women are for those who are unhappily married.
You’re correct, depression is a numbing out response to something that is wrong. The million-dollar question that isn’t always so obvious is “what’s wrong?” Is it your biology? Your genetics? Your environment? You’re marriage or other significant relationships? Your coping mechanisms for dealing with pain and stress? Your over-functioning or people-pleasing ways? Past strategies you’ve used to maintain relationships that drive you to exhaustion and resentment? Trying so hard to please those you love but ending up feeling devalued and unloved yourself?
Depression is a multifaceted condition, rooted in both our inner life and our bodies, often triggered by situational and relational difficulties. Click To Tweet
However, as you mentioned, when you “unplug” from your emotions so that you don’t feel so sad, angry, or hopeless you also don’t feel positive emotions either. Antidepressants work to “dull” painful feelings, which can be a great help when you are suffering and can’t function, but they also dull one’s positive feelings, which makes life pretty grey.
I want you to ask yourself a few questions right now. I know you feel like you’re in survival mode while waiting to leave your marriage, but is this the way you want to live for the next two years? Simply surviving? Is depression or unplugging, a healthy way of dealing with your strong emotions and destructive marriage? (Even if it’s perfectly reasonable and understandable why you got depressed in the first place). Will unplugging from your emotions help or harm you long term? Or, will your depression simply add another layer to what you’re not addressing both in your inner life as well as your outer life or relationships?
I also wonder if you are confusing the idea of “detaching emotionally” from a destructive person with what you’re doing, which is “numbing out emotionally from yourself?” They are two different strategies, one healthy, one unhealthy.
Detaching emotionally from a toxic individual means you no longer “need” his or her validation, support, or permission in order for you to be okay or to be yourself. You “detach” yourself from making yourself responsible for what he thinks or feels or does. You let go of trying to fix him, convince him or rescue him. You focus on you and your own work.
Detaching does not mean you can’t care about him or do nice things for him, but if you choose to do that, it’s coming from a full place in you that feels good about you, not from a deficient place in you that is looking for something from him (like appreciation, security, support, validation or being happy). Detaching emotionally helps you create boundaries with someone who you are still in close proximity to because you are no longer giving that toxic person the power to harm you with their words or lack of words, or what they think about you. But detaching from needing him to care about you is not the same thing as you numbing your own self out and you not caring about you.
You said that when you tried to practice gratitude as Ann Voskamp talks about in her book One Thousand Gifts, you got overwhelmed with emotions. I’m not sure what overwhelm means to you. Does it mean you cried and couldn’t stop? Did you get angry and violent? Did you feel suicidal? What happened next? Your strong emotions scared you for sure. Were you able to comfort yourself at all? Validate your emotions? Sooth and calm your body down when you were in all that pain? Did you do anything during that time that shamed you or got you in trouble or had negative consequences?
Friend, your emotions are not your enemy. They are your friends. They are your helpers to warn you that something is wrong. To shut them off puts you at a disadvantage even though you think it’s helping you not to feel. Picture physical pain as a warning bell. When you put your hand on a hot stove, what would happen if you were numb to the pain? Would that keep you safer? No. You would get burned much worse because you did not feel the pain, which would have informed you to remove your hand from the stove immediately.
You asked what advice I would give those like you who have numbed yourself out to survive. I would encourage you to get some help to feel your feelings safely. Because you need your feelings to help you get and stay healthy. Yes, feelings can feel strong and overwhelming at times. But if you don’t act out your feelings in sinful or destructive ways (that cause other problems), you can learn to manage them so that they don’t feel so overwhelming.
Picture an infant who is angry or anxious. He or she screams. Cries. Thrashes around. Something is wrong. She doesn’t know how to tell her caregiver what’s wrong because she doesn’t have words. She just wails.
What does a loving caregiver do? She soothes, comforts, swaddles, validates, rocks, and talks to that baby saying, “I know, you feel so angry right now because you got your shot at the doctor” or “I know you’re so scared. That loud noise just scared you, but I’m here. You’re safe. Everything will be fine.” And eventually what happens? That baby’s nervous system calms down. The caregiver became a safe container for the baby to work through her emotional angst. Her emotions were heard, validated, and soothed and then the baby slept or is calm.
I know it may seem and feel strange to do these kinds of self-soothing things for one’s own self, especially if you never had an adult do that for you in childhood, but you can learn to feel your strong and even unpleasant feelings, without acting out or doing harm to yourself or others. Allow them to have a voice (not a vote). To be heard, listened to, validated, and worked through your body until your body can release them. Stuffing them down or pulling the plug on them will not get you healthy or strong.
This work is difficult for someone who never had the freedom to feel his or her feelings as a child. You may need some professional help, especially because you are depressed. But I’d encourage you not to be afraid of the work, but do it in a safe way. Like my friend and colleague Georgia Shaffer says “Your feelings may be like a shaken-up soda bottle ready to explode if you take the top off too fast. But if you open the bottle just a little bit at a time and let the build-up escape slowly, pretty soon, you can take the entire cap off with no mess.”
Friends, how have you learned to deal with your strong emotional pain without unplugging into depression?
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