Survivors of trauma, especially childhood abuse, often use numbing as a technique for dealing with strong or painful emotions.
When abuse is present, emotions are often negative (fear, doubt, rage, shame, humiliation) and are often associated with pain. In an unconscious attempt to avoid painful emotions an abuse survivor may numb all emotions. For a survivor, the lack of any emotions may become the new definition of "happiness".
Cultural norms may further communicate to an abused child that numbing emotions is the way to deal with them. Have you ever watched someone crying? People shush them, tell them everything is O.K. or everything is going to be O.K. and actually tell them to stop crying. We often do this because it causes us discomfort to see someone in pain, but it sends a very wrong message. Everything is not O.K.. If you are talking to someone who has just been raped, been told they have lost someone they loved or been told they have cancer themselves things are not going to be O.K., at least not anytime soon. They feel pain and need to express it. But we shut them down. If they were previously traumatized and already know this coping mechanism they are now encouraged to employ it again. If they are facing a new issue, this kind of interaction encourages them to adopt numbing as a method of dealing with the emotions. Everyone uses numbing at times as a method of coping. The problem is when it becomes obsessive or addictive. When the numbing is so often and so intense it blocks all emotions.
It's unusual for me to work with an abuse survivor who doesn't actively employ numbing behaviors in most areas of their life. Numbing behaviors can be normal behaviors which are done excessively, such as: working, shopping, gambling, spending, cleaning, smoking, sleeping, exercising, eating, video gaming, masturbating, having sex, running, going to the movies or watching television. Survivors may become fanatical participants in something as a way of numbing themselves; religious fanatics, collectors (of cars, stamps, thimbles, whatever), Star Trek fans or alien abductees. Survivors may become obsessive about taking care of others. Being totally involved with other people prevents you from thinking about yourself or how you feel. Survivors may intellectualize everything and deny the emotional aspects of situations, relationships or interactions. They may also "space out" or dissociate as a way of numbing themselves to what is going on.
If numbing is preventing you from experiencing your life fully, you may want to work with a counselor to get back in touch with your emotions. It may be really important to work with a professional to do this in case you encounter memories you had repressed or if you are afraid your emotions will be too powerful for you alone.
See also the article, "Are We Thinking Beings Which Feel or Feeling Beings Which Think?" or visit the Trauma, PTSD, Abuse or Sexual Abuse sections of this blog for more information.