The Mighty Logo

13 'Habits' of People Who Felt 'Emotionally Numb' Growing Up

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

If you grew up with a mental illness or lived through trauma as a child, chances are you might know what it’s like to feel emotionally “numb” to it all.

Emotional “numbness” is a prolonged state of being disconnected from your feelings. Being numb is a common experience of depression, and can manifest in isolating yourself from others, not finding pleasure in activities you previously enjoyed and not having the emotional reactions to things you might normally.

When you’re a child, emotional numbness can show up in a number of ways. For some kids, that might look like bad grades or apathy in school. For others, it might look like joining every club and taking on every extracurricular possible — all in an effort to “feel something.” Whatever your experience was growing up, we want you to know you aren’t alone.

Because the effects of childhood emotional numbness often extend out of childhood and into adulthood, we wanted to know what “habits” people have now as adults because they grew up feeling emotionally numb. To open up this conversation, we turned to our community. Below you can read what they had to say.

Here are some “habits” of people who grew up feeling emotionally “numb”:

1. Not Having the “Appropriate” Reaction When Opening Gifts

“I hated holidays and birthdays (I still do) because my brothers would get so excited about gifts and cake and the such, but it didn’t matter to me. It was nothing. I always felt like my grandma would be so disappointed if I didn’t have a big enough reaction, but as a kid, I didn’t know how to fake it.” — Alice W.

2. Dissociating

“Derealization. As a kid, I thought it was cool that I could make the world not seem real. [Because of] traumatic experiences, it came easy to ‘remove’ myself. Now as an adult, it’ll happen when I get anxiety and have less control than when I was a kid. I’m working on it in therapy.” — Angelica R.

3. Having No Emotional Response to Difficult News

“Staring blankly instead of responding to something triggering. Oh, you just told me your grandmother died or you’re going to hit me? Better just stare right through you instead of actually continuing the conversation.” — Marie V.

“I don’t react to things. I don’t know how, or my body just doesn’t get there. I don’t know. Someone could tell me their loved one just died, and nothing. Someone could say they survived cancer, nothing. Two very drastic examples, but it sums it up. I don’t know how to respond to things, thus I don’t. Or maybe I just simply *don’t* respond and because of that, I think I don’t know how. It’s hard to explain. It leads to very awkward moments when friends and family don’t get the responses they were looking/hoping for.” — Tristin G.

4. Repressing Emotions

“Not letting myself experience emotion. I stuffed my emotions until about the age of 22. They came bursting out in a devastating depression. I’ve learned to let them out, communicate my needs better and write. I’ve always found comfort when putting pen to paper.” — Kimberly T.

5. Not Trusting Others So You Never Feel Disappointed

“I find I’m never really disappointed by anything anymore. My dad was my biggest contributor of being disappointed my entire life. Now, even if I was really looking forward to something and it doesn’t happen, I feel nothing. It’s also hard to accept people’s word and get excited about anything because I assume they’re lying, they don’t care and that nothing good will ever happen.” — Kat M.

6. Not Knowing What You Want

I can’t answer the question, ‘What do you want?’ whether we’re talking about food or clothes or anything else. I literally don’t have an answer. It never mattered so I never learned to figure out what I want. Bless my husband for trying to help, but most often my answer now is, ‘I want to not have to decide’ because of the anxiety it triggers.” — Heather H.

“Indecision. My choices didn’t matter because I didn’t feel strongly either way if I was even given a choice. Still, have trouble committing to a decision and always deferring decisions to someone else when presented with options. ‘I dunno, whatever you want/think/feel/say/do is cool with me.’” — Emmie E.

7. Not Knowing How You Feel

“Not being able to identify how I’m feeling. I remember in the early days of therapy my therapist said, ‘How does this make you feel?’ And I just couldn’t answer. I’d talk about my thoughts or change the topic. I was always ‘OK’ and I genuinely didn’t know how to feel otherwise.” — Laura T.

8. Struggling to Prioritize Your Mental Health

“Feeling like I needed to be the one to counsel and help my parents when they had problems. Thus, I suck at taking care of my own mental health.” — Jonathan C.

9. Overcommitting Because Your Stress Threshold Is Really High

I don’t understand how to live my life without being overcommitted and stressed. Work, moving, grad school, church — I’m always committing to things so I have what, to me, feels like a healthy level of stress.” — Kristen G.

10. Self-Harming Behaviors

I never told anyone about any pain I was feeling because I was always dismissed. It made me make everything seem numb and I used to pick all my spots and scratches to make me feel something… leading down to a terrible road of regular self-harm.” — Jade N.

11. Oversleeping

“I slept. Like I was in a coma. Literally almost slept a whole day away because I’d rather have been sleeping than faking every emotion I was forced to show.” — Pierce S.

“I would go to my room and turned the TV on so nobody thought I was actually sleeping. Sleeping was an escape for me.” — Brittany L.

12. Giving Good Objective Advice

“Giving advice to others and being the supportive friend to as many people as I could. Being numb made me incredible at analyzing situations objectively rather than subjectively which leads to better solutions. I guess I was hoping to come up with my own solutions by solving problems for everyone else. If I found out their 5+5, 3+3 and 1+1, then maybe I could figure out my own 2+2.” — Torry T.

13. “Day-Dreaming”

“I have an incredible imagination. As a kid, I could simultaneously be narrating my own cool fantasy world and [be] present enough to function in whatever this one was hitting me with. I’ve lived a huge number of imaginary lives or situations while not-so-good things were happening to me and it probably kept me reasonably sane. I knew fantasy from reality — fantasy was the one I wasn’t being abused in. There is a dark side, though. It’s also too easy to see every worst-case scenario possible for every decision or just randomly, and that can absolutely [freeze] me in anxiety and panic.” — Selena W.

If you grew up feeling numb because of childhood trauma, depression or another health struggle, we want you to know we see you and we care. When you’ve lived through adverse childhood experiences, it’s common to struggle with identifying your feelings, feeling apathetic or struggling to feel anything at all.

We are so grateful you’re here and in our community. If you’re struggling, we encourage you to post a Thought or Question about it on the site to get support from other people in our community who get it.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

For more on emotional numbness and ways you can cope, check out the following stories:

Originally published: April 22, 2019
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home