(Emotional) Numbness

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Human Nature

The Art of Care

[Lawrence has just extinguished a match between his thumb and forefinger. William Potter surreptitiously attempts the same]
William Potter: Ooh! It damn well 'urts!
T.E. Lawrence: Certainly it hurts.

Officer: What's the trick then?

T.E. Lawrence: The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts. (Lawrence of Arabia 1962)Publication bibliography

Lawrence of Arabia (1962).



(Emotional) Numbness

For simplicity I use "numbness" for emotional numbness in many places.




As medical term

Good source for etymology and first use in literature

“… relative constriction in emotional functioning, poverty of fantasy life, and inability to find appropriate words to describe their emotions.” (Sifneos 1973)

Sifneos, P. E. (1973): The prevalence of 'alexithymic' characteristics in psychosomatic patients. In Psychotherapy and psychosomatics 22 (2), pp. 255–262. DOI: 10.1159/000286529.

“… the conclusion is reached that patients with these characteristics may not be good candidates for dynamic psychotherapy.” (Sifneos 1973)

Sifneos, P. E. (1973): The prevalence of 'alexithymic' characteristics in psychosomatic patients. In Psychotherapy and psychosomatics 22 (2), pp. 255–262. DOI: 10.1159/000286529.

I think this is a tragic conclusion. Those patients need it the most - but of course you have to start slowly. The stabilization phase might be long and a bit tedious for the therapist - but it is worth it.

Emotional Stabilization / Challenges

Associated with / A feature of certain pathologies, like:

Eating disorders

Anorexia nervosa


... others

People with the condition:




being emotionless


being impassive


Emotional Numbness is a state of reduced or absent emotional response to a stimulus or thought that is reasonably likely to trigger an emotional response (in most people).



I am comparing here in this definition to "most people", which is somewhat ambiguous.

There are situations where defense mechanisms

... a state of reduced empathy.

/ ... loss of empathy [see. Causes]


reduced Empathy!

this is why I prefer "numbness" over Alexithymia

... is a symptom

... not a condition

... not a personality trait


the process to become (emotionally) numb

2 kinds of emotional numbing/numbness



most frequent

usually as a result of ...

(psychological) Trauma

as a result of a natural defense mechanism

Something has been too painful - that leads to shunning of that emotion


Posttraumatic emotional numbness in a child - Example from "The Colony" Scene Netflix Series

Debunking common myths about emotions

Jacob Blake paralysed by shooting, his father says: "I'm not sorry. I'm angry. And I'm tired. I haven't cried one time. I stopped crying years ago. I am numb. ..."


structural features of the brain cause numbness (e.g. in sociopaths)

... a phenomenon similar

Neurophysiological mechanisms




cognitive-behavioral mechanisms:

not minding the pain, repetitively, systematically

i.e. not giving it importance/meaning

thereby decreasing attention towards it



Alexithymia / Causes

Behavioral mechanisms



Pain and numbness both make me suspicious. Numb is the scar resulting from pain. Not as functional. - not morals as a guide

when individuals are numbing, they are always experiencing something that causes pain in their emotional structure

if many individuals are affected, this can be attributed to a fundamental conflict of that causal experience with "human nature"

need to separate Human Nature from Emotional Structure here

I call emotional numbness a hidden consequence of trauma because people just say well this is who I am now it doesn't really count as a symptom

- the moment something died inside of you - a part of yourself died

Key Points: Numbness ...

... has the most fundamental impact on how individuals experience their lives.

It shapes our sense of meaning - which is, in the end, our essence.

Life is what you feel.

... and when you are numb, you feel less.


It impacts ...

... all our relationships

... maturing and personal development


I believe it is often not given the importance it deserves.

... is inversely/negatively correlated with empathy.


... can be general or specific/isolated

a person can be numb towards one or more specific situations or emotions

like having "blind spots" on your empathy-map

... is reversible

if it was acquired

in most cases

provided an effective approach

partially or completely

more difficult to reverse the earlier in life it was acquired

usually, takes a lot of effort and time

Always a result of stabilization and processing

Emotional Stabilization

Emotional Processing

EC has the potential to reverse numbing

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