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Feeling emotionally numb? The problem of ‘learned psychopathy’

Watch the video above, or read the written version below


It can be pretty common for modern-day men to feel like they don’t actually have emotions.

I felt like that for most of my life. I had suppressed my emotions so much that I started to believe that I genuinely wasn’t experiencing them. It was actually a tragedy – in my pursuit to be stoic, unaffected, macho and cool, I ended up repressing my ability to even enjoy life.

I remember going to see my favorite band in concert and not being excited about it. I remember going to a funeral and not feeling very sad. I started to worry that maybe I was a psychopath.

This is common

As a coach, I’ve worked with a lot of people who have the same problem. They spend so much of their lives holding down their emotions that now they can’t even feel them, and they start to worry that they’re no longer going to be able to enjoy life or connect with other people.

I’ve identified that there are four different reasons why somebody might feel like they don’t have emotions.

The first one is suppression. You become ashamed of emotion. You’ve been told that it’s bad and wrong to feel certain things, like anger or sadness or confusion. And so you stuff it down, you don’t express it, you try to stop yourself from feeling it.

Another reason is hedonism – being overstimulated. I think this one really applies to the younger generation of today. When there are so many highs and lows, after a while you start to become numb. You’ve kind of seen it all and felt at all, and now nothing really affects you greatly.

The third one is to be genuinely psychopathic. About 1-3 percent of the population are psychopaths or high in psychopathic traits. This doesn’t mean that they’re all serial killers and criminals. It just means that the limbic system in your brain does not function like other people’s and you just don’t feel a lot of emotion.

Another one that’s come up in my life more recently, is philosophical apathy. People who get really into Stoicism or anything that advocates mindfulness and detachment can actually go too far with it (usually based on a misunderstanding of the principles), where they’re so detached and clinical in their observations of life that they no longer feel connected to it.

Is there a problem here?

Just because you don’t feel things strongly doesn’t necessarily mean you’re psychologically unhealthy. But if you’re worried, then it’s worth exploring. For a lot of people who are numb emotionally, it’s because of very dark and traumatic reasons that need to be healed.

Only a few of us are genuinely psychopathic or detached in a healthy way. For the rest of us who are detached or unemotional in an unhealthy way, it causes us problems.

The four major problems are:

1. Weak connection. It’s hard to build a solid romantic or intimate connection, or even a friendly connection with someone else, if you can’t feel anything or express yourself.

2. It reduces your confidence. If you’re ashamed of your emotions, then essentially you’re ashamed of yourself. And if you’re ashamed of yourself, you cannot be confident.

3. It can skew your moral compass. Emotions are probably the most powerful guiding force in deciding what is right and wrong, what’s good for you and what’s bad for you. So if you don’t feel emotions strongly, you can often breach your own morals and values without really noticing that you’re doing it.

4. You lose a sense of purpose. Passion for life and meaningfulness come from emotional attachment to ideas, people and things. If you can’t feel attached to anything, you’ll start to wonder if there’s actually a good reason to go on living.

So let’s tackle each of those four different types of emotional apathy one at a time to see what the solutions are.

If you’re suppressed…

Being suppressed means that you are emotionally numb. You kind of feel something start but then it quickly gets dampened down.

You never really have an emotion fully emerge… until you explode. Quite often, people who are emotionally suppressed eventually explode under the pressure. It all comes out at once and they do something detrimental to their career, relationships or health.

You may find that you’re apathetic and existential, you no longer have any strong purpose or connection to life. You wonder, “What’s the point of everything?” because nothing makes you feel.

And you may also notice that you’re generally avoidant of emotional situations. A classic example is that you deflect with humour, using jokes and banter as a defense mechanism against intimate or emotional situations that are potentially uncomfortable.

The solution is to express yourself like a child. It begins very basically. You’re going to start with not really knowing what it is that you’re feeling, so you’re just going to have to guess because you’re so suppressed that you probably no longer have clear emotional language.

Rather than doing what you normally do – which is pretend to feel fine or pass it off as humour or whatever your defense mechanism is – start honestly expressing feelings in the most basic, simple, childlike terms.

I’m sad. I’m angry. I don’t like that. That’s fun. I’m a bit bored. I don’t know how I feel.

Start to show what you feel, even if you only feel it a little bit and not enough to get enthusiastic about it. Notice that it’s enough to give it a name, like happy/sad, angry/calm, like/dislike, curious/bored etc.

If you start expressing yourself in this basic way instead of pretending to feel nothing at all, eventually your range will open up and your language will develop alongside it. You’ll be able to become more expressive as you feel it more.

If you’re overstimulated…

What this essentially means is that you’re burned out on neurotransmitters, especially dopamine (indulgence can block serotonin – the confidence/happiness chemical).

It’s like somebody abusing drugs or getting involved in a lot of high-risk dangerous situations. Eventually, nothing shocks you anymore. Nothing really stirs up the system, because you’ve kind of used it all up.

Have you ever binged on offensive or shocking comedy, and then found that your old favourites no longer made you laugh? I remember how I binged on Family Guy and then no longer found The Simpsons funny, even though it was one of my favourites for decades.

This can make you feel disconnected and cynical, like nothing is exciting or meaningful anymore. You’re overstimulated by media and other emotional provocations, and now nothing really gets through your armor.

The solution is to essentially go on a detox from stimulation. A great holiday would be good, somewhere where you’re not using a phone or accessing media, somewhere where nothing particularly exciting is happening. Somewhere that you have a chance to be bored. Yes, really.

You can start to practice mindfulness meditation, and start to simplify your experience. It’s about getting back to the basics. What do you feel? What do you smell? What do you see? What do you want? What’s going on inside you?

Start to connect with the simple things in life and enlarge their meaning, while dampening down the external stimulation – avoid drugs, high-risk thrilling situations, hedonistic lifestyles, and stimulation from the media.

If you’re psychopathic…

You may have spent your life wondering what other people are talking about when they go on and on about ‘feeling’ and ‘connection’ and being ‘attached’ to things. It may have made you feel like an outsider.

As a certain infamous icecream truck serial killer once said, “I only feel alone around other people.”

It is possible that you’re simply high in psychopathic traits, which means you’re unable to experience most emotions.

Now, if you are genuinely psychopathic, there’s actually nothing wrong with you! Though psychopathy is often talked about in the media and the world of psychology as being a ‘disorder’, it’s essentially just a personality type. Whether you behave in a disordered or harmful way is up to you.

There are plenty of psychopaths out there who make great leaders, who take risks where no one else can, and who do a lot of great stuff for society when most people are too scared to act. They are often our presidents, and CEOs, and lawyers, and generals, and sometimes even high-school principals (you know who you are).

There are also the psychopaths who become master criminals and keep people’s skin in their closet as trophies and all that kind of stuff as well.

If you’re psychopathic you can kind of go either way. It comes down to a moral compass that you’re going to have to design for yourself. You’re not going to feel it, you’re not going to want to do nice things, perhaps, but you can understand a rational analysis of what’s going to create the best possible life for you.

Generally speaking, doing what’s best for everyone is probably also what’s best for you. Being a criminal usually means constant conflict, life behind bars or an early grave. But being, say, a high-frequency stock trader, could make you very wealthy and create a fun hedonistic lifestyle without undue risk, and trust me: you’ll be surrounded by people who get you.

The solution is to create a code of honor that you’re going to live by. One that satisfies you and creates a good lifestyle for you without causing harm to others or requirement excess manipulation.

Rather than waiting to feel a desire, you can just set up your own rules – like a lone wolf, doing the right thing because you’ve chosen your own standards.

Learn to become shameless about your psychopathy. If it’s genuine, learn to talk to people about it. Let them understand that you don’t really feel things the way they do and you don’t really connect to people the way they do, but you can still be a good resource and you can still be a valuable friend to have, it just won’t be the same type of friendship that they used to.

Now, all that being said, some people are what I call ‘pseudo psychopathic’ or they have ‘learned psychopathy’. It means that they are not actually psychopaths (their limbic system is fully functioning), but they’ve trained themselves into psychopathy.

Some people do this for reasons of a career. A surgeon can’t worry about the person they’re cutting up or they won’t be able to do a good job. They’re able to turn on a kind of temporary psychopathy when they when they’re doing a surgery, so they can risk killing them in order to do what’s right.

The same happens a lot in the military and the police. People learn how to ruthlessly ‘turn off’ their emotions to get hard jobs done, but they can still go and be a loving father when they go home after work. Think about some of the decisions someone like Barrack Obama had to make – he had to be able to suppress compassion or he would never have been able to call a shot with such high stakes.

But if you’re a learned psychopath, sometimes you can start to believe you’re a genuine psychopath, and so you start becoming ruthless and cruel in other areas of your life. In that case, I suggest that you go and see a therapist or get some coaching.

If, at any time in your life, you have experienced anxiety, depression, true joy, love, or sadness, then you’re not really a psychopath. This means that if you feel psychopathic now, you’ve probably learned to become that way as a defense mechanism, in which case it’s not really healthy or genuine.

If you’re philosophically apathetic…

If you spend too much time looking at the big picture, being clinical and analytical about everything to do with life, compartmentalizing and pulling apart all the reasons why everything happens, it kills the magic.

It’s like being a magician and knowing how all the tricks have done; they no longer thrill you. Somebody who gets into philosophy can become very detached and nihilistic, especially when coming at it with an extremely analytical view rather than focusing on practical application (they just read and talk about it a lot).

Eventually, they can start to lose the love of life and of people and of doing things. They stop seeing the point, because anything viewed from a very detached perspective for too long does indeed look pointless. The “Why are we here?” question is not solved by reading and debate, it’s solved by living fully.

Essentially, the solution is to get your hands dirty. If you spend too much time with your head in books and too much time having left-brained arguments with people, then you need to go out and explore life more.

Get away from the theoretical side of philosophy for a while and get more into the practical application. Help people and volunteer. Support your local community. Set yourself some meaningful projects to complete. Interact deeply and meaningfully with people – try to get to know people well and share who you are to a deep level.

Express yourself emotionally more than rationally, and watch what happens as you start to combine a theoretical understanding with real-life application. Let go of your ego – stop trying to prove you’re some wise sage and instead start showing you understand by doing it and feeling it. That’s when philosophy becomes fantastic.

If you’re always coldly analytical, all it’s going to do is detach you from life and make you feel apathetic and, eventually, depressed.

The cure-all

Regardless of the reason why you are not emotional, the cure-all solution is to express yourself honestly, which I know is kind of my answer to everything, but it’s only because I think it is the answer to everything!

Start learning to say how you feel more often, more directly, and more concisely. You don’t say, “I feel that you’re not treating me very well,” you say, “I feel hurt.” Express yourself in terms of emotion, rather than in terms of analytical thought and cognitive reasoning.

The more often and honestly you do this, the bigger your emotional range will be, and with that your vocabulary of emotion will grow. You’ll become better able to connect with other people, build your confidence, and find meaning and purpose in life.

Support

We’ve got two courses in BROJO for this issue, and they’re both free at the basic membership level. One is Overcoming Shame, and the other is Mastery of Emotions. Both of these courses will help you to expand your range on this and they’re both really applicable to people who suffer from apathy.

If you join BROJO today, you can try out those courses, and that will take you on to the next level from what we’re talking about today.

Thank you so much for reading/watching. Please subscribe to the YouTube channel and if you want any further support or you have any questions about this email me dan@brojo.org

I’ll see you next time.

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