How many people do you know who seem to be “stuck” in situations they don’t really want? They feel trapped in bad marriages or relationships; jobs in which they are overworked, underpaid and undervalued; living situations that are far less than ideal; the list goes on. But rather than own their unhappiness and begin making changes for the better, they choose to stay in their misery even as they complain about it. They are walking through life disconnected from their true selves and their feelings.
Perhaps you’re in one or more of these situations yourself. Either you feel locked into an unhappy situation, or maybe you feel nothing in particular—just a lack of emotion or motivation.
An Epidemic of Disconnectedness
There can be many specific psychological reasons why we find ourselves in these situations, but they point to a widespread problem in our culture: we have an uncanny ability to disconnect from ourselves and our feelings. Our subconscious contains a powerful mechanism that allows us to create distance from our own feelings, emotions, and desires for long periods of time. The problem is that those emotions never go away—they just get buried deep in our psyche and fester there unresolved. Left unaddressed, they can lead to a wide range of complications ranging from chronic illness to depression, or sometimes even explosive breakdowns.
Why We Disconnect
If this tendency is so dangerous and potentially harmful to us, why does our subconscious create this disconnect so easily? It’s likely an evolutionary trait initially designed for our survival. To illustrate, let’s compare it to another evolutionary trait—the fight-or-flight instinct.
In times of acute stress, our bodies and minds react with an injection of hormones that give us a burst of energy. We call this the fight-or-flight instinct because it’s designed to help us detect danger and rescue ourselves from it fast. But when these stress hormones keep getting triggered and released over long periods of time (as so often happens in our modern world), it results in chronic stress, which can lead to anxiety, depression and all sorts of long-term health problems.
By the same token, we likely developed the “disconnect” instinct as a mechanism to protect us from emotional trauma. It causes our minds in extreme situations to “block out” traumatic or painful events like abuse. Our mind is effectively putting a guard on itself to maintain sanity. But like the fight-or-flight instinct, when the disconnect instinct gets repeatedly triggered by lower-key events, we begin a more consistent pattern of emotional suppression, losing touch with our true selves in the process. At best, it leaves us feeling chronically unhappy or numb. At worst, it can lead to serious physical and mental issues.
What Is Causing the Disconnect?
Why does this disconnect mechanism seem to be operating on overload with so many of us these days? Like anything else, there’s not just one reason—but let’s look at a few common triggers:
- Cultural norms, pressures, and expectations. Society has a tendency to pressure us into pursuing or accepting certain things out of a sense of duty. We work a 9-to-5 job we hate because we’re expected to—because we’re supposed to make money, and besides, everyone supposedly hates their job. We date because society says we need a mate in order to be happy—and we settle for bad relationships because we think we don’t deserve better. We let our culture decide what’s best for us instead of looking inward, so our personal desires and passions take a back seat.
- Childhood trauma and/or abuse. Sometimes the disconnect mechanism kicks in to protect us as children from an abusive parent or dysfunctional household, and we never learn how to turn it off when we get older.
- Complications from other disorders. People on the autism or Asperger’s spectrum, for example, may have a natural difficulty connecting with or expressing their emotions.
The Dangers of Living in a Disconnected State
People can live for many years in this place of inner disconnectedness without showing any outward symptoms other than a lack of passion. However, studies have shown that repressed emotion can be linked to a wide range of physical and mental health complications in the long run. The list includes:
- Depression and anxiety
- Low self-esteem
- Memory issues
- High blood pressure
- Increased aggression
- Suppressed immune system
- Digestive issues
- Fatigue, loss of energy
- …and more.
When this emotional disconnect is particularly severe, mental health experts may diagnose the issue as Emotional Detachment Disorder (EDD), marked by a noted inability to express emotions. Obviously, not everyone who struggles with self-disconnectedness classifies as EDD, but a therapist may recommend specific types of treatment if the symptoms present themselves.
Most people who feel out of touch with themselves and their feelings didn’t get there overnight. Being disconnected became second nature over a long period of time. Reconnecting with those emotions can be a long process. You may not want to go through it alone. Whether you are experiencing detectable health issues or you just feel chronically unhappy or passionless, one great way to reverse this sense of disconnectness is by talking regularly with a therapist who can serve as a guide. The process can be painful at times—especially when you begin experiencing emotions you haven’t felt for some time. But the good news is that learning to reconnect with your true self can lead to a much happier, more fulfilling life on the other side.