I grew up as a missionary kid and was abused by my missionary father. Emotional, spiritual, physical. Every girl friend of mine had been sexually or physically abused. I’ve heard it all. Seen it all. I was depressed for years. I dealt with my pain. I’ve healed and forgiven. Now I’m married with 2 young kids and run a youth ministry and dance ministry. I still hear and see it all.
My question is… I don’t have big emotions anymore. I don’t cry when I hear someone’s awful story. I feel for them and want to help but I can’t cry. Or feel surprised. I kind of feel numb. I’m not sure if this is just normal or if something is wrong?
Dr. Zoe Answered:
What you are describing is called desensitization. Our minds and emotions become desensitized to repeated information over time. This is God’s design for protecting us. Many people think defense mechanisms are unhealthy. They can be, especially when our main way of behaving is through our defense mechanisms, but our defenses are there to protect us. And even denial can be a healthy reaction in certain circumstances.
I’m very sorry that you suffered abuse from the man that was supposed to protect you and teach you what healthy love is. Kudos to you for working on yourself and getting to a place where you feel healed.
You are in an interesting place because as a child of abuse and a possible secondary trauma you experienced from hearing others’ stories, you have built up your own wall to numb your feelings and protect yourself. But as a minister, you are in a helping profession where people bring their pain to you as well. Yes, as you said, you hear the stories.
My question to you is do you not have big emotions ever? Or just not in response to hearing other people’s trauma? If you don’t ever have a healthy range of emotions, this may be an area of concern and you could be battling some depression. If you just don’t respond as you used to (or as others do) when you hear people’s pain, this is to be expected and nothing is wrong.
In truth, you actually cannot do your job well from a place of constant hurting for others. You have to have a healthy boundary system, which doesn’t include falling apart at the devastation of others. I can relate, because as a therapist, I hear the worst of the worst on a daily basis. I have learned to feel sympathy but not empathy. I do not cry or take these stories to bed with me because it doesn’t serve me, my family, or my clients.
My only concern for you is that I get a sense that you seem to feel that abuse is something that happens to “everybody,” which could lead to trust issues in your relationships. I wonder what the story is that you tell yourself about people in general and what story you are sharing, consciously or otherwise with your children. A hardened heart is different than a protected one.
So, to answer your question, yes, your response is absolutely normal. You don’t need to take in everyone’s abuse story as your own. It’s okay that you don’t cry or feel severe emotions when you hear horrible stories. You don’t need to cry. Your role is to be a support. But you need to explore whether it comes from a place of pain because you feel like you can’t take any more or if it comes from a place of health, that you are protecting yourself.
Regardless, all helping professionals need someone else they can lean on. We were not meant to serve in a vacuum and many in your profession get burned out because they feel that they should be able to handle everything all on their own. Not true! I seek out professional help from time to time and so should you. This is not a sign of weakness or abnormality, but health.
You are an amazingly strong woman and I know that God is using you to help others heal. I hope that you are sharing your story because it can be healing for others and for yourself. Thank you for your service to our youth!
You’ve got this! It just takes a little grit and grace. Hugs!
To hear more from Dr. Zoe, listen to this podcast episode from This Grit and Grace Life: Is it Time for Counseling? A Therapist Helps You Decide (with Dr. Zoe Shaw) – 004!
Read what some of our writers have to say about trauma and healing: Posttraumatic Growth: Finding Meaning in the Pain, Are You Suffering From PTSD? Here’s How to Know and Get Help, When Life Gives You a New Normal, A Woman of Grit Without a Hard Heart, Why I Share My Story of Healing After Domestic Abuse, Overcoming Shame in the Grit and Grace Life, and There Is Hope and Healing for the Fatherless.