On Running Out of Feelings, and What to Do Next

Hello, internet.
This is where I come to spill my secrets, right?

Sometime between last week and this one, I went numb–ran out of feelings. I think it was somewhere after the third friend in forty-eight hours contacted me with questions about leaving abusive relationships, between finals and Steubenville and painful anniversaries and suddenly having a living situation that went from Absolutely Planned to Horrifyingly Tenuous. Oh, and it’s my last day of therapy this week.*

And that’s the simple stuff.

Add in friends who need a Social Kate who smiles and has opinions and wit and does not resemble a posed block of wood. Sprinkle in academics, and taking a quarter off to work at a small agency that expects a lot from me.  Roll it all in the stress of attending a competitive university where everyone Accomplishes Things that can be itemized on a resume–things that don’t contain scary words like atheist…and feeling anything outside Ron Weasley’s teaspoon involved too much work.

So I just started feeling numb.

It’s awful. I hate it and I go round and round between being irritated at not feeling anything, and getting angry about it…and then giving up because even anger feels muted and exhausting. It’s not terribly unusual–when you run out of emotional energy, that’s how it goes. It sucks, and I know I’m not the only one who gets this. So here’s how I minimize suckage. (The technical term, ya know.)


An idea stolen from someone–either the indomitable Captain Awkward or Keely. Each day gets two lists. List One: everything I have to accomplish that day in order to prevent the week from crashing and burning, and nothing more. Anything else you accomplish goes on List Two.

List Two starts out empty, and you have no obligation to fill it. It can be empty at the end of the day, and you will still have survived and accomplished important things and can sleep easily. If there is anything on List Two, you get to feel proud of it. You have gone above and beyond. Congratulations! Well done, you.

Excuses ahead of time are your friend.

Because the socially appropriate answer to a concerned “How are you feeling?” is almost never “My brain is being awful and I can’t feel anything and also everything fell apart last week.”, stock phrases are your friend. Among my favorites:

I haven’t been sleeping quite right, thanks for asking!
Because this is true even if it means you’ve been sleeping constantly and your brain feels like fuzz.

Oh, you know, long week. [Tired smile.]
Where a “long week” is defined as any set of days where life was hard and not worth explaining.

I’m a little out of it right now. It’s probably [related thing that may or may not explain your actual problems.]
Poor finals. I’m constantly blaming them–this is my most used phrase. I actually rarely find exams overwhelming, but they’re a fabulous explanation for why I’ve developed the habits of your average hermit crab.

Sorry, I have a touch of a stomachache.
People with stomachaches tend to get all silent and huddle in the corner of any given gathering, trying to force their gastric juices to cooperate. I don’t particularly advocate lying, but if this gets you out of an nosy stranger’s headlights, I approve.

This terrible clip art is not the Feelings Police
This terrible clip art is not the Feelings Police

Numb is okay.
There are no Feelings Police. They will not come find you and lecture you into submission for not possessing the correct emotional range. Feeling numb is weird and uncomfortable and unpleasant, but it goes away and you can survive it. Give yourself permission to feel as bad as  you do, to nap as long as you need to, and to feel a little hollow.

Be greedy.

And along with that, be greedy. Will taking day off to paint your nails and consume only popcorn make you feel better? Do it. Will skipping that party to play videogames in your room feel better than pretending to feel social? You suddenly have new plans for the evening. Within the limits of your wallet and abilities, do whatever seems as though it could improve your day.

Hide in groups.
The thing about large groups of people is that you can get lost in them. Everyone else will jump about and make noise and try to figure out how to split the check when Susan ate half of the onion rings that Johnny ordered, David and Sarah split an entree, and Jacob only brought large bills.  And you can just sit there. Let everyone else have wild, sweeping feelings. There’s less pressure to say interesting things when everyone else is being exciting. You can tune out, drop in for the occasional murmur of agreement, and still be holding up your little corner of being social.

Update: Puzzles
Stephanie explains.


So there it is. Ideally, these will work this time around, and I’ll kick the fuzzy-brain feels sometime before the end of my spring break.  What do you do?

* NU requires that I take the coming quarter off from classes to work Monday-Thursday, from 9-5. Therapy is only available Monday-Thursday, from 9-5. I’m sure there’s a witty name for the choice between skipping my lunch hour to get therapy and not having therapy for an eating disorder, but right now I can’t manage to find it.

On Running Out of Feelings, and What to Do Next

26 thoughts on “On Running Out of Feelings, and What to Do Next

  1. 2

    Puzzles. The emotional capacity and thinky capacity don’t tend to run out at the same time, so my brain wants to work on something in those periods. Without much in the way of emotional input, I find it’s not very helpful to let it work on anything real. So, puzzles.

      1. I have an iPad app called Everyday Jigsaw. Comes with a few free ones, but you can make your own out of photos. Plus, you can fiddle with the shapes and number of pieces. I crank them up to the maximum number of pieces and spend an hour or so before bed sliding pieces around.

        It’s very relaxing, free (if you ignore the cost of the tablet), and there’s no risk of losing or missing pieces (very important for those of us with anxiety disorders).

          1. rsm

            Because they didn’t think of it… It’s a long running problem in the boardgaming industry that is only has only recently begun to be addressed by adding symbols in addition to colors or ensuring that the colors are better suited for color blind players. I haven’t looked, but I’d lay good money that boardgamegeek.com has a decentl list of suggestions for colorblind friendly games, both for the ipad and in cardboard form.

            Also, thank you Stephanie for the puzzle suggestion, that makes a ton of sense to me and I would have never thought of it.

  2. 3

    Thanks for this, Ashley. I read it at a timely moment. To make a long story short, I have a friend who thinks nothing of calling me late at night (seriously, death-in-the-family late) to complain about her boyfriend or the apartment maintenance. It’s always a complaint. Tonight she called close to midnight to complain she can’t sleep because she’s worried the apartment maintenance guy won’t come fix her bathroom sink. I’ve had a bad couple weeks myself, ill and depressed and taking care of two very sick pets, and I couldn’t deal with it.

    After I read your article I realized I wasn’t unreasonable for telling her to call back at a decent hour unless it was a real emergency or I wasn’t going to talk to her at all. Her response was “I can’t sleep and it’s going to affect my health, isn’t that an emergency?” I told her a bit snarkily that I understood because I was having the same problem exactly. Ironically I can’t sleep and I’m complaining to you. 🙂

    1. 3.1

      Hey 🙂
      I’m sorry you can’t sleep, and glad you liked the post.

      You were definitely right to get yourself some space–and I think if you hadn’t, you would have been exhausted by your friend, and then you would have stayed up even later. And then you probably would have felt terrible tomorrow, where all the stressful things in your life would still be.

      Somewhat relatedly, I think you might like this post: http://captainawkward.com/2012/02/06/186-the-lie-of-strength/

  3. 4

    OT; Good call. On occasion I make chloropleth maps of disease incidence and mortality for work. There’s an online color picker called colorbrewer that helps one pick color schemes for optimal viewing for people with color perception issues.

    It’s a valuable tool that’s adaptable for all sorts of web and print purposes.

    I’m sure there are all sorts of accessibility tools out there, but that’s one I know of.

  4. 5

    Because the socially appropriate answer to a concerned “How are you feeling?”

    My answer the past month or so has been, “Oh, hangin’ in there!” It’s honest (I am indeed still living), it’s reasonably optimistic, yet it also conveys between the lines just enough to let people know, “Hey, rough times, so go easy on me.” heh…

  5. 6

    I’m sorry, Kate, I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. Teach me to look at the bylines 🙂

    I’m really grateful for your kind words. They were enough. And I’m doing better this morning for sleeping in. 🙂

  6. 7

    Fear not. You will soon develop feelings about running out of feelings. Hence you will learn (the hard way) what things exhaust you emotionally, and what things replenish your emotional energy. The hardest lessons to learn are patience and temperance i.e. learn to pace yourself. You only have so much energy each day.

    Just like a kid grows up and runs into walls, so do young adults grow up and learn their limits the hard way. Do not panic, do not resort to stimulants, don’t beat yourself up or getting angry with yourself, don’t binge eat. When you are tired, relax, treat yourself, pamper yourself, distract yourself. Easy for me to say, I’m probably twice your age and I’ve been through the depths of depression and emotional exhaustion (dieting and depression quickly brings you to emotional exhaustion).

    Good luck. Relax. Take your time. Pace yourself. You will soon be a master at controlling your emotional energy levels and knowing your limitations.

    1. 7.1

      I’m not sure if this was intentionally patronizing, but it definitely read this way.

      I’m well aware that I shouldn’t beat myself up or use stimulants or get angry with myself–you’ll watch me doing none of those things in the above post. In fact, I’m doing everything you just told me about–heck, I even wrote a blog post about it…right above your comment.

      Please don’t mistake my age as an opening to tell me about how I’ll figure it out when I grow up. I know my limits, I hit them, as one inevitably does in universes where they don’t have control over every single thing to occur, and I not panicking, bingeing, beating myself up, or anything else you stepped in to tell me to avoid doing. I am, however, getting irritated by your comment.

      1. Er, no it was not patronizing. I simply saw a younger version of myself, and was trying to offer some general sympathy and advice. But apparently I’m wrong, we are quite different.

        1. Sir, you gave all of the advice I myself had given, under the guise of “you will learn”, while a glance at this post shows that I have–I’m giving the same advice you did, pointing out that it does work for me, I’ve learned.

  7. 9

    The “stomachache” one usually isn’t a lie for me – either the anxiety triggers stomach cramps or the depression leads to crappy eating which leads to stomach oogieness. Also, this really has been a long week – between work and travelling I haven’t had an actual “day off” since the 16th and won’t have one until the 3rd.

    And I love those lists! Today my list two contains “worked on the frame for my new garden.” Of course, I also managed to gouge the tip of my thumb when the saw slipped, which led to the other item on list two: “Bought bandages and antibiotic cream to keep in my apartment.”

    (I wonder how often people who work in pharmacies see someone walk in holding a tissue to some bleeding spot and buy bandages one-handed? None of the employees seemed surprised.)

    1. 9.1

      I’m so glad you like the lists! I was actually just reviewing my list two (bought detergent, made a fun dinner, cleared off floor) when your comment came in. They really do keep me balanced.

      I really hope your week eases up on you–or at least that you can take care of yourself until it’s over. I’ll be thinking of you.

  8. 10

    If you feel addicted to emotion and pleasure then you have a problem. A personal problem.

    This is a case of frustrated secularism. The life of hedonism and political rhetoric leaves any normal person empty and unsatisfied. True happiness can be found only through compassion and inner peace.

    All radicals are like you. The Brownshirts, the Red Guards, the McCarythists, you name it. They enslave the prime of their lives to the service of their radical agenda. Rely on it to avoid dealing with their personal demons. It gives a purpose to their sorry existence. They are in the spotlight for a time, then the world gets tired of their nonsense, they are discredited, and they wind up like Magneto in the last scene of X-Men 2 – old, forgotten, burned-out, alone and forgotten, left behind by a world that has moved on.

    As long as you refuse to face your own demons, you will fall further into the hole. You will wake up one day, an old, angry woman, alone and unloved, with no reason to get up in the morning other than her flask and pills.

    1. 10.1

      Dopamine, sweetie. We’re all addicted to pleasure. That’s just how we evolved.

      Why are you so unhappy that other people like being happy? That they have a purpose? Unhappy enough that you’ve crapped in multiple blogs here about it?

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