How do I cope with being detached from my emotions? I used to be very suicidal, so this seems to be self-protective. Is it ok?

Protecting ourselves through managing our emotions is important, especially if we’ve been suicidal. Acknowledge it: “I’m looking out for myself. Go me!”

There are three types of self-protection:
A) Protection that works in the short term, but not the long term
B) Protection that is hard to do in the short-term, but improves life overall in the long-term (and becomes easier over time)
C) Protection that works in the short and long term, but not that well overall

Type A protection includes suicidal thoughts, self-injury, binge-eating and drinking, shoplifting, acting on anger, and unsafe sex. Each of these can create short-term relief (protection) from strong negative feelings, but also physical, emotional, legal, and relationship problems. If these behaviors didn’t cause problems, doctors would write very different prescriptions—something like “Drink 4 beers in less than 2 hours, or more as needed.”

Type B protection involves doing things now that are hard so it will be easier to avoid Type A short-term solutions later. Doing things like managing sleep, acknowledging but avoiding suicidal thoughts, drinking less than 1-2 drinks or not drinking at all, and recognizing and feeling emotions takes a lot of work. These things are easier to do with the support of people you trust and if you have specific skills for acting opposite to your urges. Our brains pick up on anything that creates relief. Our brains also remember. This is why using Type B protection is especially difficult—it involves rewiring our brains and creating new pathways to relief.

Type C protection is what you ask about in your question: numbing or ignoring emotions. This can feel very safe and can even be helpful if you don’t yet know how to feel negative emotions without acting on them (Type A). Ignoring emotions or numbing can also be helpful in meetings where screaming out of frustration would get you fired. But they are not the end game. In order to have a full life—some would say a life worth living—we must be aware of and feel our emotions at least some of the time. They allow us to connect to those we love or will love. They make us more in tune with ourselves and our behavior, making it more likely we will choose what to do next rather than letting our emotions choose for us.

Would you like to live in the realm of Type B protection, which is hard now but works over the longer term? If the answer is yes, or maybe, it might make sense to start by creating greater awareness of your emotions, your thoughts, and your behaviors. No one gets to Type B on a rocket ship from Type A or C. If it were easy, you’d already be there. But, you can begin your travel to B through mindfulness, which we often call the middle path. Mindfully choosing to practice acknowledging and labeling your emotions (“I feel sad.”) is a first step to re-attaching to them. If suicidal thoughts come back up, you acknowledge them and then direct your entire attention to sleep or rest or an engaging activity, even a game on your phone. Detaching or ignoring emotions, or acting on the urge to think about suicide and plan for suicide, prevents you from getting to B. Over time, doing more of Type B protection and less of A or C helps rewire your brain for long-term relief.

About the Doc

About the Doc

Dr. Ursula Whiteside, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, CEO of NowMattersNow.org, and Clinical Faculty at the University of Washington. As a researcher, she has been awarded grants from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the American Foundation for suicide prevention and also treats high-risk suicidal clients in her private practice using DBT and caring contacts. As a person with lived experience, she strives to decrease the gap between us and them and to ensure that the peer voice is included in all relevant conversations: nothing about us without us.

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