Before we had kids, Ryan and I often watched shows like American Idol or Top Chef. They’re the type of shows where you can enjoy one episode, but it’s much more fun to watch the whole process and recognize the competitors at various stages in the contest. Last year, during lock-down, we decided to watch the current season of American Idol with the kids. We were pretty far behind, so we had to binge the episodes in a couple of days in order to be able to vote in real time for the finale. As you can imagine, the kids had a blast. They loved all the hype and excitement involved in a singing contest like that.
Fast forward to this year. School, dance, and sports kept us from being able to keep up with the long, weekly episodes, so we binged a little over the weekend. Hours into the binge, one of the contestants was telling her sad story and I sort of yelled at the TV, “Shut up and just sing.” My kids were like, “Mommy! She was taking about her sick baby! Do you have no heart?”
It gave me pause. Do I have a heart? I mean, why didn’t I care? Obviously, this is a producer-driven show and they need us to connect with the players so we’ll continue it tune in, so that can feel a little put on after a few episodes. And there’s the former director in me that knows it’s good to use your pain to help your performance but inappropriate to try to use it to help your chances. I know those things are true, but I was still shocked by my emotional numbness toward the crying mother on the screen. I thought about social media and how, recently, I’d read something a friend is going through and instead of engaging like I typically would, I’d just continue scrolling.
As I write this, I hear certain voices in my head:
“Social media isn’t a natural connection, so the fact that I’m checking out isn’t a big deal.”
“It’s actually probably healthy to not be so engaged online.”
“It’s too much to connect with every story and you have to choose where to spend your emotional energy.”
This numbness feels like a “check engine light” for my heart.
I’m what’s called a highly sensitive person. If you’re an HSP like me, you know we don’t just feel more than others, our empathy acts like a sponge. We take on the emotions of others when we interact. We love time with a good friend, but if our friend is struggling with something, we feel drained after time with them because we don’t know how to not absorb their stress.
If you’re not an HSP, you might be thinking, “Jeez. A little emotional numbness must be a welcomed change for you, right?” Sort of. I looked up causes of emotional numbness, and I wasn’t surprised. It can be caused by trauma, depression, anxiety, or substance abuse. From that list, the one I circled was trauma. Whether we are the ones suffering the most or not, we all must come to grips with the fact that this year has been marked with trauma. We will all carry scars from this year for a long time. Some longer than others.
When I’m on facebook, and I see a link which includes a picture of someone, I automatically assume it’s an obituary. I don’t know how many times someone has received some sort of award or gotten a new job, but at first glance I assumed they were dead. That’s sad, but in the midst of a pandemic, most of the time it’s not a new job or award. The link is often an obituary. Over time, I’ve become desensitized by the constant storm of sadness and instead of feeling with the person, I’ve started to feel numb.
I know my trauma means I can’t take on everyone’s hurt and in a way the numbness is acting as a buffer, but I don’t feel like myself and that’s unsettling.
Here's what's working.
The fact that my kids are back to doing outdoor sports means sideline time with some of my favorite people. One of the perks of having my husband as the league president of lacrosse is he makes the teams, so we get to pick who we hang out with. In the past few weeks, that actual face time with a friend has been chipping away at that emotional numbness. Real connection is real and I believe it has the power to heal my emotional numbness. Social media is fine. It’s great that family members who live far away know my kids from pictures and stories I post. I like connecting with old friends and I love a good meme. But something this year has taught me is that there’s no substitute for time with a friend in person. Even if it’s tiring, it’s real and that realness makes me feel more like myself.
I trust that God will not only bring me out of this, He’ll use this trauma for his glory. And in time, I’ll feel less numb. Maybe I’ll still be annoyed with the sob stories on American Idol, but I probably won’t yell mean things to crying women on TV. I’m not making any promises, but probably not.
How have you been coping with the trauma of this past year? I was reminded in church this weekend that it’s not healthy to ignore it or let it define us, that we need to deal with it and move past it. What things are working for you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in comments. We can heal, but we can never do it alone. Please don’t keep trying to do it alone.