Why do I feel nothing? Emptiness and borderline personality
‘I feel nothing, detached from reality and people, walking around like an empty shell....' - Anonymous client with Borderline Personality Disorder
What is the relationship between emotional numbness and extreme emotional sensitivity?
As human beings, when we face danger, there are three responses: fight, flight and freeze. When faced with extreme situation such as childhood abuse, trauma or grief, it is natural for our body and psyche to go into ‘numbing mode’ as part of a freezing response. However, sometimes such protective reflex remains for much longer after the actual danger has passed and becomes a way of life. This is when a person becomes emotionally detached, and experiences life in a ‘dissociated’, or ‘depersonalised’ way.
At first glance, it may seem counterintuitive to think that emotional numbness can be a result of emotional intensity and sensitivity. Yet emotional numbing is often not a conscious choice; you may not even be aware of the pattern building up until it has become your ‘normal’ way of functioning. You may have developed emotional detachment as a protective shield because you have learned from an early experience that revealing the true extent of your intense feelings would lead to rejection, abandonment, or shame. It maybe from your authority figures or society pressure that you have learned in order to survive it is better to hide your intensity and sensitivity. Although the pattern started off as a way of protecting you from others, it can eventually morph into you hiding from yourself or denying your own needs altogether. This is especially likely when someone has experienced repeated wounding, emotional deprivation, or neglect.
Emotional detachment is experienced differently by different people: You may feel a lingering sense of boredom and emptiness; you may feel that you are not able to show or feel any emotions, to respond to events with joy or sadness as others would, or to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. You may feel that you are holding back, watching life goes by without being ‘in it’. Although the pains of life seemed to have been dampened, you also do not feel the full extent of positive emotions such as love, joy, and connections.
This protective shield can seem effective at first - you feel that the pain has temporarily gone way, that you can ‘get on with life’, perhaps you even feel empowered and confident. You may feel that you can function normally - get up in the morning, get dressed, go to work… Although things are fine on the ‘productivity front’, you may at times feel overcome by a wave of sadness or loneliness.
The problem with over-using the shield is that when the emotions are not digested, they remain suppressed and accumulate in your system: You may feel particularly sensitive or irritable, especially when the tension, pain and frustration reach a boiling point. Then certain things, often seemingly minor events, may catch you off guard and cause you to ‘blow up’. Suddenly, you are being knocked back into the reality of having to feel real feelings. Yet because you have been ‘cut off’ from when these feelings build up, these outbursts can seem like they have come out of nowhere.
Sometimes, because you are cut off from parts of yourself, you do certain things that are not congruent with your true will. Since the underlying needs for comfort and safety are not met, you may resort to self-soothing by over eating, over spending, and engaging in impulsive behaviours without knowing why. Some people also experience memory loss as a result of living a ‘robotic life’.
They do not remember much of their life, and feel surreal when they look at old pictures of themselves. At its extreme, remaining cut off can lead to serious consequences. One example comes from someone I know who, in her detached mode, became convinced that she had no feelings or love for her husband and decided to end the relationship. It was only afterwards that she realised it had been an impulsive decision and deeply regretted it.
Psychologists such as Dr. Jeffrey Young call this as a ‘detached protector’ mode, and sums up its presentation as the following:
"Signs and symptoms of the detached protector mode include depersonalisation, emptiness, boredom, substance abuse, binging, self-mutilation, psychosomatic complaints, “blankness,” may adopt a cynical, aloof or pessimistic stance to avoid investing in people or activities.’’
According to Dr. Young, most people with BPD spend majority of their time, including during therapy, in the ‘detached protector mode’. This is not surprising because as the therapy process stirs feelings up, your subconscious mind receive the signal of ‘threat’, and feel the need to put up this protective shield even more.
In fact, it is entirely natural for you to want to hold onto this protective shield in the beginning, especially before a level of trust is built between you and your therapist. However, it is important that your therapist is aware of this pattern and is able to have an open and non-judgemental conversation with you. Given that therapy is an invitation for your ‘true self’ to be seen, your progress may remain stagnated if you remain ‘shielded’ for the whole time you are in therapy.
Many people who operates in a shielded mode has a fear of being ‘dropped in the deep end’, they fear the uncertainty of not knowing what it would be like to start feeling things; they are worried that they will go into a depressed/crisis state, or that they will be hurt by others again. In this case, a skilled therapist would work with you to build the emotional skills and resilience up, so that you feel safe enough to tap your toe into the feeling field. Your therapist might work with you on strategies such as learning to label emotions, learning to self-regulate and self-care, experimenting with feelings in ‘small doses’, and expressing them in a safe context. Once you feel that you have some degree of capacity, the ‘thawing’ process often naturally follow. At that point, you would have re-opened the door to experience life’s joy, abundance and aliveness - things that a hidden part of you have long been yearning for.
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About Imi Pui Yin Lo
Imi is an award-winning mental health professional, accredited Clinical Psychotherapist (UKCP) and Art Therapist (HCPC, BAAT). She specialises in Emotional Intensity, Sensitivity, and Borderline Personality traits. She is the founder of Eggshell Therapy Centre for the Emotionally Intense based in London, UK.