Is Numbed Out Better Than Feeling Sad?

Morning friends,  

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.

I felt scared. I prayed. It wasn’t just me. I was in charge of three precious little girls who trusted me and whose feet and legs were getting tired and sore. “Nana,” one said. “I can’t walk anymore. I’m too tired.” Her sisters agreed.
I told them all in a calm yet firm voice, “I know you’re tired but not only do you have to keep walking, but you also have to walk faster. We have to get off his mountain and time is running out. See the sun? It’s going down and we do not want to be on this trail in the dark.” I was imagining rattlesnakes, scorpions and coyotes coming out.

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?


  1. Missy on January 8, 2020 at 9:42 am

    I numbed myself for so many years because I didn’t want to face the truth of my hard feelings and situation. This encouragement to allow space, room and time for them to be expressed are so important. I realized, too, that while numbing myself to pain, I was also cutting off my ability to experience joy, surprise, wonder. I was becoming more and more of a shell. It was terribly challenging to face and deal with the strong feelings – but so very worth it!

    • Debbi Rasmussen on January 8, 2020 at 12:58 pm

      I am three weeks out from finding out that my husband of 21 years has had multiple affairs and lived an entire double life away from our three kids and I. I have been numbing out during the day because the kids are around and then staying up all night trying to process the pain when no one can hear me. But, truthfully, I have been numbed out for a while now because he has so manipulated and abused me emotionally. I have decided to take the step of reaching out to a counselor to get help because I have realized I am in way over my head. I was not taught to process emotions as a kid but instead to be stoic and not annoy anyone with my neediness. Thank you for this post as God used it to move me to contact the counselor.

      • JoAnn on January 8, 2020 at 4:08 pm

        Debbi, I am so sorry for what you are going through. Pay attention to what Leslie said about the difference between “numbing out” and distancing yourself. Walking around numb doesn’t help anyone, and it actually harms you. I do hope you can find a good counselor who can help you.

      • Missy on January 10, 2020 at 10:04 am

        Oh, Debbi, I’m so sorry. I found out similar after ten years of marriage (three children). A good counselor will help you process and learn to accept your strong feelings. I’m praying for you now.

        On a side note, I had a four year old, 2 year old and 3 month old when I first learned of my husband’s affair and you are right, sometimes we just have to do what is needed to get through each day. I began to be more intentional about finding in my children reasons to laugh and smile each day. That season will always be tinged with sadness, but somehow when I look back there is a lot of sweetness, too.

        One of the biggest things I learned, which helps me so much today (more than ten years later) is that both sadness, joy, pain and promise can exist at the same time.

        Thinking of you, Missy

        • JoAnn on January 10, 2020 at 1:41 pm

          Missy, Thank you for sharing your experience here. Everyone needs to hear the success stories, and yours is a beautiful one.

      • Kathi on February 9, 2020 at 4:36 pm

        Debbi, it has been about a month since this post. How are you doing? Did you find a good counselor?

        I can understand what you are saying about trying to grasp the reality of your husband/abuser’s double life. I think it will rake years tI process the deception. It felt to me like I was a widow. The man I thought I married died, so to speak. He was a fake person who created a deceptive alternate self. I loved that fake person and our fake life. I didn’t know it was fake at the time. When I realized it was a sham, I was shocked. Divorce groups didn’t seem like a fit for me, neither were recovery or marriage groups. For me, the man I knew died. Does this make any sense to anyone?

  2. Kim swarts on January 8, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    I was on auto pilot when dealing with my own emotions, but I was fully on all cylinders for my kids and household life. As a codependent. Doing kept me from dealing with feeling and with a narcissist spouse I was discouraged to let anything be about me. He was a full time job . I homeschooled my 4 boys. Ran the admin end of our small business our early years had their share of up and downs. The next 18 years on doing in my own strength, but loving my lif . then the next 6 yeaes started with everything falling apart. Like I was a plate spinner who usually caught the plate before it fell. Id just reset it and keep on spinning all the 10 or more plates at one time like on the Johnny Carson show. But one day, They all came crashing. Breaking into many pieces. I’m a a doer. Not a quitter. I just kept trying harder. No time for sadness or self pity. At a women’s retreat that attended to help another with her pain, I was given hope by watching another gal (one of the servants of the minustey) share how she dealt with the ugliness of life and still believe and live with joy and purpose. I wanted that so bad. I knew God my whole life, but my need for self preservation had swallowed me up. I finally, turned to God as Abba Father. I gave him all the broken pieces. Surrendered to His care and control . He gave me rest, Hope. Eventually direction. I was not depressed. I was not fixing. I wasn’t scared. I was simply resting. He became my great physician. So to answer that question. Avoiding. Numbing just prolongs and steals days and days away. Depression is who you are when you aren’t truly resting in His presence. (Not the clinical hormone type) but the type that comes from losing Hope. Christ is my hope. He gave me a place to detox -i started attending a celebrate recovery group. A place to be real. To not be everyone else’s rock. To be heard. As Emotional air came in, I exhaled the pain and loss. (Many details that were the reason for the crash and took place in the 23rd year of marriage, that knock the floor out and would require an hour to share I’ll just say it came in waves over and over until I was brok . Beyond recognition. I liken it to being in ICU. God used the pain, brought me to me knees and helped me to discover and believ . I am a daughter of the King. I Am Loved and wanted. My identity was redeemed. My life is in christ.

    You asked if being sad would be better. I’d say for me. I didn’t know what I felt. I’d never been asked. In the events that followed into those years, God used my tax man, of all people . he asked me, after the first meeting with an IRS auditor. ” how do you feel?” I was like. ” I don’t know, I’ve never been asked” that was the beginning of my journey of authenticity. With myself . GOD. those I love, people I trust. My vow,be honest and authentic. It can hurt, but it’s better than living a lie and being robbed of the life God has given me. The road has been long. Leslie plays a part. My soul sisters at celebrate recovery are my forever family, but most of all, God saved me from deniel, confusion, codependency and His truth set me free. Daily, His holy spirit is the source of comfort. Love, direction. Strength you name it. He offers it.

    I’ve begun a new chapter. Newly married to an authentic man of integrity who loves God more than me. And that’s a lot. Getting outside of being stuck requires community. Like this group. Find your tribe. Seek the Lord and remember, you are worth it!

    • JoAnn on January 8, 2020 at 1:57 pm

      Wow, Kim! I’m so glad your story has a happy ending. I commend you for your courage and your faith. Praise the Lord!

    • Danica on January 8, 2020 at 2:20 pm

      Oh wow, THANK YOU for your testimony and words, Kim!! So true, how you must give God the pieces, and He can redeem anything. I love your analogy of spinning plates, and trying to keep busy. You put into words how I feel. My therapist, who I haven’t been to in over a year, recommended Celebrate Recovery to me, and two family members also asked me if I had ever considered going. But I thought…..well, I don’t have any addictions, so it probably wouldn’t help me… The way you spoke of how it helped you has given me a hope that it could help me. Thank you, thank you! And I hope you comment on here more often. Please!! 🙂

  3. Eli on January 9, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    Thank you all for sharing…I have just started waking up from being numb for a very long time and am taking steps towards healing. I discovered Celebrate Recovery too and it has opened my eyes to how religious I was without really putting God first. I had made my H and D gods in trying to be the perfect Christian wife and mother. I had forgotten how to love Jesus first and believe that He was all I needed. It is a heartbreaking time but so healing…

  4. Nancy on January 9, 2020 at 6:55 pm

    Hi Leslie,

    Each person having their own pack is such a great life lesson for kids (they make very small back packs for pre-schoolers, even). It’s a boundaries / responsibility habit that is rich in analogies. Galatians says we must each carry our own load but we are called to carry one another’s burdens. The back pack is analogous to the load, the burden is a crisis a person goes through. (Pretty sure I’m quoting cloud and townsend here!)

    I love even seeing dogs on the trail with their own packs on!

  5. Graceiscome on January 13, 2020 at 2:24 pm

    I’m so grateful for this post, and hope that we all learn from it. I’ve been choosing to numb myself from the pain of many things…including a marriage to an emotionally scarred man who also has many issues that I was by no means ready to deal with. I just wanted a family…a place of my own…and used this marriage for that. He is abusive and abuses himself, and I’m in fear for my own mental health. I feel so much freer when I’m apart from him, but continue in the marriage with the wrong? hope that it will change. I’m scared to leave because I don’t want to go back to the detachment I experienced when i was single. But I think I’m more scared to stay if he’s not going to change. So because of all these emotions, I do numb out at times. But like you all have pointed out, this doesn’t work in the long run because it also starts to disable one from functioning well in other arenas such as work, church, etc. Thankfully God is allowing me to experience joys in those areas, but it’s becoming very draining to go back and forth between numb at home, and then animated and feeling in those other areas. When I don’t numb at home I either experience fear, sometimes anxiety, but the most real or cleansing is I have been crying more. I know this can’t continue as it is for much longer….but if I numb, I think I’ll be less able to take whatever steps I need to take to get to the other side of all if this. My own issues, and this relationship. And thank you…this has encouraged me to try to continue with celebrate recovery myself. God bless you guys.

    • JoAnn on January 15, 2020 at 2:12 pm

      Graceiscome, I am so very sorry for the pain you are experiencing. This is by no means what God wants for you. May I suggest that you get the book Redemptive Divorce by Mark Gaither. He provides a plan to either get the abusive husband to get help to change or move ahead with a divorce. If your marriage requires you to numb out to stay with this man, then that is a good signal that this is not what the Lord wants for you. The Lord loves you too much to allow you to stay in this relationship. Can you find a counselor to help you through this?

  6. Anna on January 14, 2020 at 2:22 am

    My husband has been emotionally abusing me for a very long time but I cannot leave the marriage for various reasons. God has been gracious and has provided me with many blessings and most days I can live well. There are other days when I get angry and mourn the loss of a marriage that I thought it was.

    The question that has been worrying me is am I still expected to submit to him knowing that he is capable of manipulation and deceit and financially untrustworthy. I cannot trust him (and his actions indicate that he does not love me) and I have been making important decisions how the family should go forward.

    • Autumn on January 14, 2020 at 1:34 pm

      Until you get past the mind set that you can’t leave the destructive marriage, no one can help you. Can’t means won’t in this case. If only you could begin to image how God will surprise you with his love and protection for you and your family when you leave! Others of us have spoken exactly as you have. We too stayed for various important reasons. Staying gives Satan the victory as he mocks God with his destruction of you, your heart and your testimony.

      You have asked if you must submit to your abusive partner. Every move, as you know, must be strategic in order to survive your own private nightmare. Gage your level of danger with every move you make. Financial ruin is easier to live with than what your abuser is doing to your mind. You are caught in denial (a normal coping mechanism for your survival at this point) but, you are not living in reality. It today’s society, abuse is against the law you husband needs to be exposed. By hiding and sanitizing his bad behavior you are aiding and abetting a criminal. You are exposing your children to parental abuse and modeling for them that this dysfunction is normal in ways mere words cannot change.

      If I remember correctly you are living in a rural community and have many challenges and restraints on your life. I believe you feel you are “living well.” You are not. You deserve better and God wants to give you the victory if only you would trust him. Allow your abuser to feel the consequences of his cruelty. Let God be just. Time for you to step out of the way, make a plan to take legal action, leave the rest to the Holy Spirit. God’s love and protection of you knows no boundaries! Make 2020 your year of clear vision, dear sister.

      • JoAnn on January 15, 2020 at 2:26 pm

        Autumn, I like this statement you made: “Staying gives Satan the victory as he mocks God with his destruction of you, your heart and your testimony.”
        Something important to consider.

    • Nancy on January 14, 2020 at 4:14 pm

      Hi Anna,

      We are not called to submit to sin, but to Christ. We are called to submit to our husband as he submits to Christ. If he is unsubmitted in any given area of his life, it would be wrong of us to submit to our husband in that area.

      Each woman is responsible to The Lord for how they follow and respond to Him. How we follow Christ is our choice, not our husband’s.

      Giving a prideful man submission only feeds his pride more. For sure we have to be careful for our and our children’s safety, but beyond that it is never loving to feed a person’s pride.

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