Much of our lives is spent numbing out what we’re experiencing.
We don’t want to feel uncomfortable, so we seek comfort and procrastinate.
We don’t want to feel fear, so we avoid uncertain situations.
We don’t want to stay in the present moment, so we distract ourselves with technology, or get lost in thoughts about the past or future.
We have become very good at numbing ourselves to our experience. This is not a judgment—I do it too.
But what if we blocked all of our exits, and stopped ourselves from numbing or escaping our feelings and the moment in front of us?
Favorite Numbing Methods and Some Alternatives to Numbing Out
Let’s consider some of the most popular kinds of numbing methods and some alternatives:
Procrastination and running to distractions when you feel like a task is too overwhelming, difficult, uncertain, or scary.
Alternative: Pause and feel your discomfort, your resistance, your aversion to doing the task. Feel the insecurity in your body. You might be able to do the task anyway, after feeling this.
Social media, messaging, and online reading is interesting but it’s taking you away from the present and putting your mind on your device.
Alternative: Open your awareness to everything around you and keep your attention on that for a few minutes. You might check in with yourself and notice you’re feeling irritated, anxious, or insecure. Feel it anyway.
Video games can be engrossing, fun, and addictive, but you can’t actually feel anything or notice anything around you (or within you) if your attention is absorbed by the game.
Alternative: Same as with social media. Feel, notice, and be in the present moment. See what it’s like to stay.
Watching TV and videos because it’s pleasurable, interesting, or fun. Those feelings are fine, but these habits can numb us to other feelings, like loneliness, frustration, guilt, pain, or inadequacy. Why feel those things when great TV shows or Youtube channels are available?
Alternative: Avoidance never solved anything, it only makes it worse. Stay in the feeling. Open up to it. Be in the middle of it, immersed, curious, relaxed, and courageous. Or see what it’s like outside!
Busyness from the moment you wake up. Maybe you work like a maniac and rarely go on social media or watch videos. But your busy schedule may be keeping you from being present. And allowing you to avoid feeling whatever you’re feeling, which is probably some anxiety and insecurity.
Alternative: Stop. Don’t take any action for at least 10 minutes. Just recenter yourself in the present moment. Feel the insecurity. Notice the urge to do something, and just sit with the urge.
Porn and sex are where many people run to find sexual gratification when they’re feeling tired, lonely, sad, or tense. It’s a way to get a quick pleasurable hit and a feeling of release. And a way to avoid feeling the feels.
Alternative: Don’t let yourself run here. Block it out for a month. Be present with the feelings. See what it’s like to feel an urge for release without actually acting on the urge. Woah, you’re moving beyond your teenage mindset!
Addictions to alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, gambling, biting your nails. These are some of the most common addictions people use to numb out to the difficult feelings they don’t want to face. You are triggered to go to your addiction when you need stress relief, tired, lonely, sad, angry, or tense. They are classic ways to not feel these feelings.
Alternative: You guessed it. Pause, feel, and face what’s inside.
Comfort foods, shopping, other comforts. When you’re feeling sad, lonely, tired, stressed or inadequate, do you let yourself feel it or just run for comfort?
Alternative: It’s OK to feel sad or stressed. Allowing ourselves to experience our feelings is not a negative thing. It’s actually an act of self-love to not reject your feelings and the present experience.
Lashing out when we’re feeling insecure. It often surfaces as frustration or anger, and we lash out at others in various ways. This can, of course, be hurtful to the other person and harmful to our relationships.
Alternative: Try allowing yourself to feel the insecurity. Just be in it, without having to resolve the feeling. Just stay in it, without having to take it out on someone else.
Consider Closing Your Exits
What if you committed for a month (or three) to not going to any of your usual exits, your usual numbing out methods? What would that be like for you?
If you created a practice container (see below) for not going to any of your exits, you’d be forced to feel and be present to your experience.
It wouldn’t be easy. But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. You are going to do this because:
- You want to learn to be fearless with your fear, courageous with your feelings, and fully experience them instead of avoiding them.
- You want to be present to your experience and the current moment, appreciate the life in front of you instead of constantly avoiding it.
- You want to explore a more mindful, intentional way of being and change your relationship with life.
To do this, you have to close your exits.
Creating a Container for Closing Your Exits
A practice container is simply a set of boundaries, rules, agreements, or structure to hold you in practice.
For example, if you go to a yoga class three times a week, and have a teacher leading you through practice, with rules for not checking your phone or talking during practice, this is a structure that helps you go deeper into the meditation—it’s a container for your yoga practice.
You’d set the same kind of container for sitting meditation (no going on your phone or laptop, for example, or otherwise you’re not even meditating), for relationship practice, for therapy. Structure helps you see when you’re running to your exits and helps you set an intention and stay with it.
Some ideas for creating a container to keep from exiting or numbing:
- Decide on a practice period. Set a period for your practice (let’s say 1 month) and commit to it. It’s ironclad.
- Define your exits. Set the things you’re not allowed to do during this period. For example: no social media, no video games, no porn, no alcohol, no pot, no sweets, no fried foods, or no going to your favorite online sites (Reddit, YouTube, blogs, news, etc.).
- Define other triggers. Highlight other triggers. When you find yourself being busy without intention, or procrastinating, pause and practice facing your feelings for a minute or two. When you find yourself mindlessly going for food, pause and practice.
- Set allowable things. Create small containers for things you need to do, for example: messaging and email just twice a day at predetermined times. Other things you might want to allow yourself to do: yoga, meditation, talking with a friend when you’re struggling and being open-hearted with them—but being fully there with the experience and your feelings as you do it.
- Define your practice. Set what kind of practice you want to do when you’re feeling urges you to go to addictions, distractions, etc. For example: When you feel the urge to exit, pause and first turn inward, noticing what you’re feeling. Then give yourself at least a minute to actually feel it, dropping into the sensations of your body, fully feeling it, being curious with it, being friendly toward your feeling. Also allow your awareness to widen beyond your body, noticing the sensations of the world around you, feeling it as pure experience.
- Commit to others. Tell your plan to others. Ask for them to hold you to this commitment. Make sure they’re the kind of people who won’t let you off the hook. Tell them you’re going to be accountable.
- Report daily. Start an email thread for your commitment to others, and report to them every single day. Ask people to check on you if you’re not reporting.
Can you do this? Absolutely you can. Your fears, resistance, and rationalizations for why you can’t do this are exactly why you should.
Leo Babauta is the author of six books, the writer of “Zen Habits,” a blog with over 2 million subscribers, and the creator of several online programs to help you master your habits. Visit ZenHabits.net