Do You “Numb” Yourself with TV, Internet, Work, Food?

Last week, Brené Brown’s new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Work,  Parent, and Lead, hit the shelves. I couldn’t wait to read this book, because I’m such a fan of Brené’s work (and of Brené herself).

The book fascinated me for many reasons, and I took notes throughout, but one passage particularly stuck with me—on the phenomenon of “numbing.”

By numbing, Brené means any activity that we use to numb our feelings so that we don’t experience vulnerability—but by numbing ourselves to vulnerability, we also numb ourselves to love, belonging, creativity, and empathy.

I was particularly intrigued by the list of numbing activities. Anything that “takes the edge off” is a numb-inducer. Wine, drugs of all sorts, being “crazy-busy,” fantasy football, sugar, email…the list goes on and on.

Brené connects this desire to numb with a feeling of anxiety powered by shame.

“Shame enters for those of us who experience anxiety because not only are we feeling fearful, out of control, and incapable of managing our increasingly demanding lives, but eventually our anxiety is compounded and made unbearable by our belief that if we were just smarter, stronger, or better, we’d be able to handle everything. Numbing here becomes a way to take the edge off of both instability and inadequacy. [Also,] Feeling disconnected can be a normal part of life and relationships, but when coupled with the shame of believing that we’re disconnected because we’re not worthy of connection, it creates a pain that we want to numb.”

Brené points out that the same activity could be numbing for one person, and energizing and truly comforting to someone else. Watching TV can be a numbing activity, or an engaging activity. Working, eating, drinking wine…how do they make you feel? The same activity can be numbing at one time, engaging at another. We must look closely at ourselves, to know.

Do you have any activities that you use to numb yourself? I try to watch for the bad trance state. Often I go into good trances, but they are nothing like bad trances.  From my own experience, and from what I hear from other people, watching TV, cruising the internet, and eating are the most common bad trance inducers.

Mindfulness, always mindfulness! Thinking about happiness always brings me back to the issues of self-knowledge and mindful action.

  • I really want to connect with Brene Brown’s messages, but I really struggle with the word “shame”. I just can’t identify with it, and find it off-putting. I do like her message and am trying to embrace the parts of it I can, but all of the SHAME speak is not for me.

    I am an INTP, so I wonder if my T is getting in the way.

  • Brené Brown

    Thanks for the great post, Gretchen. It’s an honor to be here! Sarah – I totally get the “off-putting” feeling about the word shame. I think most of us have a very negative visceral reaction to the word. Interestingly, naming shame and using the word emerged from the data as critically important to shame resilience. Shame came survive being spoken. When we name it and talk about it, it starts to dissipate. The great point you make in your comment is exactly why it’s such a powerful emotion!

  • Kristen

    Sarah, out of curiosity what about “shame” is off-putting to you? It is fascinating to me how certain words rub us the wrong way. One of mine is “temptation”. 🙂

    • I’m sure my reaction to that word is connected to growing up in a cult-like church. I felt a lot of shame, guilt, and worry for no good reason.

  • apol

    I enjoy Brene’s work. I’ve read 2 of her books, and even have to read some passages daily to get through the hour or moment. Thankfully I no longer feel the need to be perfect; but I do struggle with numbing. My “drugs of choice” are wine, Facebook, TV. I am trying to incorporate walks outside into my daily routine, as well as cutting back on coffee.

  • peninith1

    I was VERY struck last week by this quotation from someone named Adept Godrakpa: “Relying on solitude is easy, giving up things to do is hard.”
    Uh Oh! It is so American to feel as if we have have something to DO every living minute, that we often find meaningless things to do, just to fill the time. I remember that when I smoked (more than 20 years ago now, happily) lighting up a cigarette and watching the smoke drift away seemed like ‘something to do.’ Computer games, TV, internet surfing, all can be ‘something to do.’
    I enjoy my mostly solitary life, but I’ll tell you, I fill it up with things to do all right. Sitting still is hard. When I sit ‘still’ I am usually listening to an opera and doing cross stitch–in other words, multitasking. Yes, eating mindlessly, and doing, doing, doing can be an opiate. This reminds me that happiness should perhaps include sitting still and doing . . . NOTHING . . . for at least a few minutes every day, but appreciating breathing in and breathing out. I remember a sister telling me when I went on retreat one time that coming to the convent was like a mountain climber coming to a lake. “You can’t climb the lake,” she said. So.
    As for the discussion about ‘shame’ and not liking that term. Try guilt? Or just try listening to your own inner self talk for a day or an hour–‘when am I going to lose the weight?’ ‘I really should go get on the treadmill!’ ‘why can’t I . . . ‘ ‘I ought to . . ‘ ‘I wish I could. . . ‘ It’s all about not being able to accept ourselves as we are.

    • Nicole

      Missed that quote; glad you reposted it here. Relationships can be a challenge, but I think they’re the reason we’re here.

  • Stefanie

    Wow, this is so strikingly true I had to read it twice.

    In my worst days I used to numb myself with watching America’s Next Topmodel for DAYS up to the point where I felt sick. I now remember that time whenever I catch myself spending a lot of time in front of a screen. I don’t like to think about how many days and weeks of my life I have wasted doing that when I could have spent the time making changes.

  • Cruising the internet is a huge numbing activity for me. I do it when I don’t want to face something that scares me, usually work.

  • shaeon

    Good post. I specifically like that you note that what is numbing for one person is engaging for another. I watch a fair amount of TV, but I tend towards programs that I can discuss with other people (it’s so frustrating to get engaged in a show that none of my friends watch, because then I have no one to talk to about it!).
    This also reminds me of my ex whom I’d been with for over a decade, who broke up with me last year. She used a few things to numb leading up to the breakup, and spent a LOT of time on the internet. But she also spent a lot of time disengaging from the relationship by making herself very busy with creative projects. She especially went for massive projects that would take a long time to finish, and it was pretty clear to me after the breakup that she just wanted an excuse to be disengaged rather than deal with the fact that she was thinking of breaking up with me.
    So having been through that, I can say that even creativity can be a numbing activity.
    This post really makes me want to read this book. Since the end of that relationship I’ve realized that my ex found it very difficult to ever be vulnerable, and I responded to this by being less vulnerable too. It’s had the effect of making the simple action of sharing my feelings with another person difficult. I’ve been striving towards more vulnerability lately, though, just out of a basic sense that it’s better than what I had been doing. It’s good to see support for that here.

  • Oh… I’m well-versed in the numbing process: food, wine, television and even books. Anything to avoid the harsh reality of my life (okay… that’s a tad dramatic!). My last post was about finding happiness from external sources so a bit the same and it is a HUGE problem for me!

    The food/wine habit is kinda obvious but I have to watch for the TV and book habit. I recently went bookless for a week or so because I was obsessively reading a book a night – which would be a good thing if it didn’t impact on the rest of my life (having to go to work each day etc).

    Mindfulness is something I SERIOUSLY need to work on.


  • I think I used to numb myself with TV, food and beer. Over the past decade or so I have learned to avoid contexts in which I may feel that I need to “take the edge off”. I stay away from situations where I think that I’ll be bored or irritated. That way I am off learning and doing something I really want to do, rather than settling for whatever, or whatever may pacify someone else at the time. As Gretchen said, mindfulness. It keeps me outta trouble and away from the need to numb.

  • Nicole

    Numbing out is deceptive – in the moment it feels like relief, but in the long run you’re surrendering your LIFE. One of the things that broke me of the reality TV habit was finding out that a high school friend is a reality show writer/cast creator/cast director. He’s a great guy, but I DO NOT need him “directing” what goes on in my head.

  • Sarita

    I’ve recentrly became aware what treagers my eating and it mostly emotional. It is very true that food and T.V. are numbing. I cut off the cables and now I have so much free time which I need to use. It is difficult and frigthening at first, but I’m sure I’ll find my way.

  • Fireflyeyes

    I am going through a stressful time with losing a job and am definitely doing a lot of numbing activities, such as marathon TV watching and unnecessary household chores, to keep me from thinking about it. I think to a small degree it’s beneficial – I have problems with anxiety and if I don’t distract myself from my stress it can easily turn into a panic attack. But when it gets to the point where the numbing activity keeps me from functioning and doing the things I need to do…then not good.

    Also the same activity can be numbing or relaxing/energizing for me depending on how I go about it. One new episode of Sherlock? Making a fancy dinner? Makes me soooo happy. Marathon session of a show I’ve seen a dozen times? McDonald’s? Numbing.

  • Great post… I love Brene’s work. I struggled to understand it initially but now it resonates so deeply! I am not so much more aware around making myself vulnerable that I do not spend too much time on numbing activities, a big thanks to Brene!
    But if I do, internet and TV definitely eat the majority!

  • KatieB

    Is numbing always such a bad thing? If we are mindful in our numbing action, does that make it okay? I don’t know. I think of my mom who was a superintendent of a school. Her job was stressful. She came home at night and cleaned and straightened the house to “numb” herself of those stresses. My husband also let’s go of his day by having a couple beers between work and supper. If they don’t “numb” in this way, they tail spin into a big stress hole. I think there is such a delicate balance between healthy, mindful numbing and destructive numbing. Whatever it is we use to free ourselves, can become dangerous if we aren’t mindful.

    • shaeon

      Katie, having not read the book I can’t say whether or not the book would call this kind of thing numbing or regard it as a bad thing. However, what you’re describing here sounds a lot like winding down to me, which I personally don’t see as the same thing as disengaging from other people. Just from this post I got the sense that the focus was not using numbing activities to disengage from your relationships in a significant and harmful way. Whereas winding down strikes me as a kind thing to do for those you care about – that way you don’t dump your work stress on them.

  • s_ifat

    umm…i didnt like the book, i thought it was written in a boring way, can i say this? i really love her blog though…

  • Paul

    Thx, this is a great article!

  • ladyrideraz

    Noting I do “numbs” me – if I watch a TV show that I enjoy it’s because I enjoy it period. Doing research on the Internet might be for personal or business. Not numbing – it’s relaxing or enriching my knowledge (usually of useless information but still…) 🙂