Emotional Anesthesia: Not all Emotional Information is Useful

I am sitting in my dentist’s chair and I am exceptionally grateful.  No one is grateful, let alone exceptionally grateful, in a dentist’s chair, I know this.  But I also know that my dentist is going to be gentle.

Now when I say gentle, I don’t just mean with her words or her ways.  It’s not that she is going to be all politeness or has very tiny hands.  What I mean is that she is going to shoot me up with enough Novocain to probably put down a small horse and I’m not going to have to feel pain.  I realize this is a weird thing for someone to say who does endurance races and is an emotional resilience coach, speaker, and author. You might think I’d be chomping at the bit to sink my teeth into some good old resilience-building pain.

But this isn’t the type of thing that would build my resilience.  The anxiety and fear, let alone the actual physical pain I would feel, are not helpful emotions at this moment.  The dental work has to be done. These emotions are not something to listen to, something that can help me. Instead, the pain would be telling me straight out, “GET OUT OF THIS CHAIR!  SHE IS DRILLING INTO YOUR TEETH AND IT HURTS!” The information that my severe discomfort would give me would be spot on and send me into flight mode. But, since I need to be here getting a cavity filled, I am grateful to silence that physical pain signal by way of the Novocain. 

There are times in our lives when pain is just pain.  When there’s no different action to take, or a different perspective falls short.  There are times when the only thing that helps is being able to put aside the information that our emotions provide for a while.  Some people put their emotions in a ‘box,’ while others minimize emotional information by willing all their focus on their thoughts, allowing reason and a logical approach to have a greater say in how they develop their perspective to a situation. 

It is a fine practice in many situations to use your tools to ‘sidestep’ emotions for the time being, especially when difficult or immediate pain is imminent…as long as you go back to your emotions.  My dentist may numb me to the max while drilling my mouth, making sure I don’t feel a pin prick. But the very first thing she says after the procedure, before she lets me out of the chair: “Don’t forget to avoid eating or drinking anything hot or really cold!”  Why? Because she doesn’t want me to burn myself or have a slurpy stuck to the side of my face. She doesn’t want food to get stuck in places it shouldn’t and cause me pain later. Because she knows that I will not be able to feel those things. Just like applying Novocain, when we cannot get the information our emotions provide over a long period of time we are at a severe disadvantage.

How many of us go through our lives not feeling at all, sticking our heads in the sand?  How many of us don’t allow our feelings to tell us what they need to tell us? Like physical pain, emotions such as fear, self-doubt, anxiety, or whatever you’re feeling that you’d rather not, all have information to give you that is necessary and important.  It could be telling you that something is going on that’s wrong, may harm you, or is harming you!  So, while with my dental situation the physical pain would cause me to flee as fast I could from the dentist’s office, my cavity wouldn’t get fixed, my tooth would continue to be excruciating, and it would do serious damage to my health.  The temporary physical and emotional ‘numbing’ allows for the important work to be done. But it is the feelings coming back that allow me to eat again, monitor hot and cold in my mouth so I don’t burn myself, enjoy and savor the taste my food, and have the sensitivity NOT to chew the side of my cheek off.

So, when you are questioning whether it would be easier just to live the rest of your life in that Novocain-numb place, keeping a lid on your emotions so that all physical and emotional pain is kept at bay, consider this: if you used Novocain every day you might avoid ever having to experience tooth pain again, but you would also miss the joy from the taste of the food you ate that caused the cavity.  If you similarly numbed your emotions, you’d miss the love you felt for the person you were with while you ate, and any curiosity and uncertainty to try different restaurants or food in the future would disappear as well. All emotions ultimately serve a purpose, even the painful ones.