Why do we reward ourselves with numbness?
- 26 October 2017
- Posted by: Michael H Hallett
- Category: Anxiety
Wine o’clock? Is the sun over the yardarm? Fancy a chocolate? I’m hanging out for a fag. I’ve brought cake. I could murder a drink. “I have become comfortably numb.”
Have you ever noticed that a lot of the rewards we give ourselves involve numbing our senses? Whether it’s alcohol, sugar, nicotine or something harder, whenever we feel we deserve a reward we automatically reach for something that has a numbing effect on our senses.
Whether it’s alcohol, sugar, nicotine or something harder, whenever we feel we deserve a reward we automatically reach for something that has a numbing effect on our senses
We reward ourselves for a lot of reasons. A hard day at the office… a good job well done. It might be over-the-hump day (Wednesday), Friday—or simply for just-the-fucking-hell of it. Why do we reach for numbness? Why don’t we reward ourselves by going for a swim, getting a massage or drinking a nice glass of cool, sparkling water?
Even shopping, another favourite go-to for feeling rewarded, has a numbing—or at least distracting—effect. We spend money we can’t afford for a few moments of consumer elation. It’s not that different to smoking a joint, though hopefully you have a better wardrobe to show for it.
It’s that distracting effect seen in ‘reward shopping’ that holds the clue. We’ve decided that we have earned the right to be someplace other than right here, right now, dealing with whatever is on our plate. The common denominator among our most common rewards is escapism.
This raises the question: what are we trying to escape?
A quick look at social media reveals a society full of happy, shiny people doing happy, shiny stuff. People are never happier—or shinier—than when they are rewarding themselves with escapism. Whatever it is people are escaping, it must be pretty serious.
People turn to escapism when they can’t escape. If they could’ve escaped, they would have—so numbness becomes the only option. Getting numb is the act of consciously diminishing our capacity to feel. That last word is crucial.
People ‘reward’ themselves with numbness to escape from themselves—more precisely, to stop themselves from feeling their own emotions. And if we don’t want to feel those emotions, we can infer they must be painful.
Perhaps it’s time we stopped trying to escape those feelings. Perhaps we should consider whether they’re painful for a reason and they’re trying to communicate that reason to us—except we keep escaping as soon as we feel we’ve ‘earned’ the right to do so.
I wish I could say I didn’t resort to such escapism. Even halfway through writing this post I made myself a piece of toast with cherry and cognac preserve. We all do it. We’re all in the same boat. And we all keep reinforcing the direction our communal boat is sailing in.
We need a change of course, a mind shift, a new compass heading—not only for rewarding ourselves but also for dealing with those painful feelings. Only then might we discover a world where people aren’t so desperate to escape from themselves.