I can't just stop thinking, though that would probably fix things.
November 11, 2011 7:45 PM   Subscribe

Breaking out of habitually intellectualizating my feelings - I'm looking for a how-to guide of some sort. Preferably not all about mindfulness.

I intellectualize my emotions to such an extent that I'm not even sure I have them, and I spend a lot of my time either trying to figure out what I should be feeling/how I should be reacting or criticizing myself for not feeling/reacting correctly (even though I never sorted out how to feel or react.) Are there self-help resources that specifically focus on this issue?

I've read a few AskMes on similar themes, and the big take-aways for me were "mindfulness" and "don't feel bad about not feeling very strongly." The trouble is mindfulness exercises put me to sleep (this may be in part a meds issue - we've yet to lick the fatigue thing - but I find them boring even when I'm not sleepy.) And it's all well and good to tell myself that I'm OK, but I'm nearly completely certain that I'm not OK. Besides, I'm really at the "not having feelings" level, even about things I should.

For example of what I mean by intellectualization: in therapy this week I said that I have a great deal of trouble (mind blanks out, can't make eye contact, can't speak up, flight-or-fight response, etc.) with unstructured interactions, conversations that have no point, and situations where I am expected to produce a response without advance notice. My therapist responded that she thought it was really that I have these problems when the question is of a personal nature. Like, I can "tell someone about my childhood" in the sense that I will, when asked, give a narrative of the events that happened between my birth and whatever age the person is likely to deem of interest. But I can't say that it was sad, or frightening, or happy - not even about specific incidents. The most I can say is that the question itself frustrates and annoys me, or that I'm upset when put on the spot with questions like that. All I can drum up is facts and generalized discomfort. I can't think of a "happy" moment from my childhood, for example, at all. Or a "sad" one, really. Of the linked AskMes, the "unfeeling robot" one comes by far the closest to what I experience. The more thought-oriented feelings (annoyance, frustration) are about the only ones I can definitely say I feel, and even there I wonder if it's more of a "I am annoyed because it makes sense to be annoyed" kind of experience. The only time I get carried away is when I'm crying hysterically about what a terrible person I am and how everything is hopeless. Sometimes (often) this is brought on by people trying to get me to identify how I feel about something.

I don't like being the focus of attention (except on stage with rehearsed material, where I'm fine,) and I don't like watching other people express emotions (weeping, kissing, arguing,) and I don't know how to accept compliments or criticism (I freeze up in exactly the same way regardless of which it is,) and I can't stand the question "how are you doing." I'm deeply embarrassed when I exhibit unconscious feeling behaviors (like wanting to hold a boyfriend's hand, in public or not.) This is probably the point where I say "and I still don't agree with my therapist about the PTSD diagnosis and my neglectful/difficult childhood, but I recognize she has a point." When I watched this episode of Star Trek as a child, I couldn't figure out what was so bad about wanting to be just like Data. I also thought Lwaxana Troi was the worst villain (and most difficult character to watch) in the entire series.

I would like to be comfortable with my emotions and actually feel them and be aware of them and be emotionally competent overall, and I am none of those things right now. Googling around is finding me a ton of "use mindfulness" and stuff about Freud. I am especially interested in exercises - like DBT, except for the part where what I experience is exactly opposite of having overwhelming emotions taking over your life. Books, websites, etc. are all awesome.

For those following the continuing saga of my life, the first week back to work went OK, other than the part where I had a meeting where I got a ton of compliments and "how are you" and "tell me how you are feeling" and froze up like I was facing a firing squad instead of helpful friendly people. And people wanted to hug, which makes me deeply uncomfortable in ways I can't begin to articulate. For those not following closely, my diagnoses are bipolar II, panic disorder, ADHD, OCD, and avoidant personality disorder. I see my therapist and psychiatrist and EAP counselor frequently. My therapist is a lovely woman but she stinks at finding me things like this - I'm often the one bringing books to her.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: She came up with zero suggestions - raised the topic as something to contemplate and work on (she does that a lot, and asks me what I did with what we talked about.) And she likes the books I find for her - writes down the author and title, or has me email them to her. She's encouraged me to find stuff on my own a lot.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 8:03 PM on November 11, 2011

I was in a similar spot about having no memory of emotions growing up, and I addressed it through writing.

I'm not particulary fast on my feet and always felt under pressure when my therapist would ask these questions. When he asked a question that I thought was important, I would write it down and bring back my thoughts on paper to the next session.

I also kept a daily log of what I was doing and how I was feeling. Going through the day slowly after the fact it was often clear to me that I had reacted to situations differently because of different moods I was in. I was later able to apply that real-time, e.g. "I'm reacting this way, I must be in a **** mood."

I guess the primary benefit was that I was able to examine my feelings on my own time rather than with someone sitting there waiting for me.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:46 PM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Maybe try expressive or intuitive painting group. The idea is that you paint whatever you feel like - not knowing is OK - the facilitator just asks you to pick a color, a spot on the paper, make a line and then see if you want to make another line in the same color or a different. It doesn't matter what it looks like - this is about the process not the product. Part of what makes it work is that you avoid filtering everything through words/logic. When you are done, you can look at and think about what it means but in the moment, you do whatever you feel like doing with the paint. You would probably find it hard to let go of trying to make it look "right" but you would learn something about yourself in the process. I've found this a really cool experience for myself. (Can you tell?)

The other thing that helped me was to just check in and ask myself what I am feeling at random times. Not spending a lot of time doing 'mindfulness" but just getting in the habit of asking myself "what am I feeling here?" My usual answer in the beginning was "I'm not feeling, I'm just thinking" With practice, I could recognize that I felt "focused" or "worried" or "intense". The advanced question is "how do I know that is what I'm feeling?" - in other words, what do you notice in your thoughts and especially in your body that makes you choose that label for this feeling instead of a different one.
posted by metahawk at 9:26 PM on November 11, 2011

For getting through social interactions while you figure stuff out, have you hardwired some common responses? I find that if I'm under a lot of stress, I get out of touch with my feelings. Sometimes I even (subconsciously) drum up some stress in my life to avoid feeling feelings!

When someone compliments you or expresses concern, you say "thank you" or "thanks, it's kind of you to think of me". When someone (not your therapist) asks how you're doing, the answer is "fine, thanks. and you?" Miss Manners has some excellent responses to a variety of insults/criticism; a good general-purpose one is "please don't concern yourself over me in this matter." Think on your feet questions get "can I think about that and get back to you?" Have a ready response to as much of this stuff as possible. You don't have to talk about your health status or exactly how you're feeling with coworkers.

Do you have a list of feelings in a place you can refer to it often? Having the prompt of a bunch of options helped me become aware of my feelings. Journalling was/is also great.
posted by momus_window at 9:27 PM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Mod note: A couple of comments deleted. As a reminder, the OP is looking for self-help resources via books, websites, etc., and is especially interested in exercises. It's fine to mention things that work for you, but answers that just try to psychoanalyze the OP's situation are not what is wanted here.
posted by taz (staff) at 10:31 PM on November 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

This may or may not be helpful, but have you ever looked at materials designed for people with autism? Or books by people with autism describing their experience? (Note: absolutely not saying you have autism at all, but a lot of what you describe sounds quite a bit like what folks like Dr Temple Grandin describe as their inability to relate to emotions in others or "conversations that have no point".)

Dr Grandin, in particular, has written some very interesting stuff about how she learned (more or less by rote) how to manage everyday interactions (see the linked web page for details). There is also an autistic author named Donna Williams who writes about strategies for high-functioning autistic people to cope with social anxiety.
posted by anastasiav at 10:49 PM on November 11, 2011 [2 favorites]

Well, as a preface, try not to lump disparate things together, such as the stuff about avoiding unstructured interactions, responding to over-the-top emotions in others, and the issues of feeling and identifying what was felt. These are all related but separate. I imagine that the basic one would be to get to the point of feeling that is comfortable and somewhat conscious. Here I am assuming you're not autistic because the approach one would take with an autistic and non-autistic individual are very different. The former would necessitate some degree of accepting that things may well never be 'okay', but there's some benefits to not being neurotypical (in this I'd refer you to Temple Grandin's writings, and to Oliver Sacks' books on non-neurotypical individuals, such as 'An Anthropologist on Mars'). In that book, Grandin describes feeling relief, safety, 'comfort' when she created a 'hug machine', a feeling which was inaccessible to her if she was hugged by human beings. But then, she is autistic, as I said. That said, it may be useful to appeal to your body responses and tactile pleasures without involving human interaction-- pay attention to your response to soft sheets, warm baths, even try hugging one of those huge teddy bears. Smell is another sense that goes to a primitive part of our brains-- some scents have a great capacity to be soothing, warming, and so on. You can go to a Bath & Body Works (or equivalent store) and note your desired degree of attention to various scents. That is to say, some scents will draw you to experience them at length, some will seem less interesting. Explore the 'family' of scents which hold your attention more.

On that note, you can explore your 'attention rates' to all sorts of sensory stimuli. Note which sort of days you like-- sunny or rainy? Blue sky or twilight? Do you like open spaces or more closed-in shady spots? Where is your attention drawn to in a park, or a garden? Do you feel more interested in an ordered garden such as a Japanese one, or a forest? Do you find your attention drawn differently to complex music (try Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin, jazz, etc) vs something like rap? Expose yourself to a variety of music, from complex classical pieces to rock to jazz to punk and rap. At first, focus on the things that are similar in mode to what holds your attention intellectually. Then branch out to related but more atmospheric or jagged offerings. Finally (weeks or months later, once you get comfortable with a range of music), start introducing more emotional genres (punk and goth and metal, some hip-hop) and begin a process of understanding these works both intellectually and more non-verbally. Don't attempt to pin down the 'meaning' of all music-- in part, that's impossible. But all music should have a 'safety valve' of mathematical complexity/form to give you structure to fall back on.

More so than painting, I really think music is a great bridge for people who're very rationally inclined. I think that painting and writing (writing down your dreams, for instance, or free-writing nonsense when you're really tired and your mind wanders) are more advanced exercises. I would say take at least 6 months to a year (if not more) before you feel really ready to explore creative work of any kind, given you don't do it now. Do experiment with different kinds-- some involve physical labor (like, for instance, glass blowing or pottery) which has the potential to draw off some of your conscious attention and energy, and allow your unconscious 'feeling' mind to emerge or give physical signs of itself in your work. Piano and other percussion instruments (wind instruments more mildly, and least of all string) also have a physical aspect which engages your body, which is a useful thing in connecting with emotion. But this is a slow process. Art is simply useful because it creates a physical medium to express things you may not be aware of, so I do encourage you to pursue some form of it. Also look into either books, or ideally a practitioner of art/music therapy once you're ready to delve in, at least to give you initial guidance. Another thing to look into in the future is Jungian therapy, which also incorporates art and archetypal/emotional reasoning a lot more than contemporary rational psychiatric practice. Something to keep in mind. Try dancing (alone I mean). When you feel really ready (we're talking years, potentially), try dancing in a structured school environment with a partner (formal dancing lessons, etc). Alternatively, try acting lessons, but dance would probably engage the musical aspect I'd encouraged before.

Finally, and I say this carefully, consider stuff like having a few glasses of wine to blunt the edges before exploring some of this stuff now and then. Obviously, I don't want you to become an addict, but mild depressants such as wine used in moderation may be helpful as part of as structured evening where you have a variety of other activities to pay attention to-- complex music, a subtly-spiced dinner, an aesthetically-set table with different textures to notice (maybe a hand-blown glass vase with fragrant fresh flowers, decadent chocolate cake for dessert and a multiplicity of other flavors, a fuzzy/brilliantly-colored table-cloth, an engraved set of differently-shaped forks and spoons, etc). Sit with the wine and close your eyes and focus on the music. Don't try to feel, simply try to relax instead. Become a receptacle for your sensations, which is what you are already; it's not a process of transformation but simply paying attention. Start with taste, touch, smell, proceed to hearing, then to movement, and finally to improvisation. Feeling is ineffable, and best evoked rather than chased after.
posted by reenka at 11:17 PM on November 11, 2011 [5 favorites]

I wish I could tell you what worked for me, because I've had a lot of trouble identifying my feelings. Most of it I've just worked out painfully slowly over the course of regular interaction with a therapist, which has sometimes been helped along by the odd therapy- or chance- or weird-relationship-inspired breakthrough.

This may not be helpful at all, and it may be old news you can't use anymore, but I always found that after I smoked some pot, I could not avoid being hyper-aware of what I was feeling and what I did and didn't like. I quit a couple years ago, but having this as a reference was not unhelpful. A very occasional reference.

Some problems with this strategy, aside from the legal ones (if you don't have a medical card): it makes ADHD worse the next day, it's not a hot idea if you're prone to mania, you probably want to make sure you're getting an indica (rather than a speedy sativa), you don't want to start relying on it or getting too into the escape factor, and soaking yourself in paranoia is counterproductive from a mood-regulation standpoint. I countered the last one by exercising immediately after smoking, avoiding paranoia-inducing situations (i.e. places with people in them), and reading only the gentlest of self-help books. That Which You Are Seeking Is Causing You to Seek by Cheri Huber made a big impact on me when I was delicate and super-receptive. It may have sunk in better that way, actually. (I also tend to avoid work/exercises, though, so I'm not really the target market for these books.)

Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach was good both high and sober. It's big in DBT circles, radical acceptance. If the only feeling you can ever get in touch with is an intense sense of personal unacceptability, it's not unreasonable to suspect that you're repressing the others because they are NOT OK. "NOT OK" in a blink tag.

I'm only half-recommending the pot. It was extremely useful to me in small doses but also a tough crutch to give up, even though I often didn't enjoy it that much and knew it clashed with my meds. I am wholly recommending those books. The other thing I would recommend is getting yourself a massage when you can. (Maybe you're one of those lucky few whose insurance covers it as physical therapy?) I mean, the tears indicate that your capacity for feeling is intact. You're reacting to things, if only with annoyance and frustration. So chances are good that there are clues to what you're holding in -- rage, fear, sadness -- in how your muscles react, even if you don't know how to read them yet. Massage will make you pay attention to your body for a little while, which is a good first step to getting out of your head and into the moment and all that jazz. You might even find yourself getting emotional during and/or after bodywork. Maybe not.

If nothing else, though, you should consider doing it because it would be nice for you. Consider that you're trying to persuade a frightened, unhappy, deeply wary animal to let its guard down. You want to be as kind and patient as possible. Don't skimp on the treats. Give yourself every indication that you're safe and valued and won't get yelled at or abandoned.
posted by Adventurer at 1:51 AM on November 12, 2011 [4 favorites]

I've spent the last year working on this and I've found the following very helpful. I don't have a alternate me to compare against so I'm not sure what worked best

- Alexander technique: This has the idea that how we hold ourselves is a way to limit painful feelings. Gently, we learn to experience them more. It can be quite expensive but I found it very useful. If you can find some sort of bodywork, that might help. Yoga's great too.

- clearing my mind of any thoughts and focusing on bodily sensations. I specifically tried to not think at any point. It's hard to explain and I can only do it for short burst but it helps.

- a awareness that intellectualisation is a defence mechanism, so my emotions were something I felt I had to defend against. Getting to this realisation and then gently exploring what I was frightened of helped a lot (via therapy). From there, I began to experience more and more. Being kind to myself was a bit part of this, as did the idea that my feelings were part of my childhood experience and I wanted to honour that, I wanted to remember them. This was a big decision, you might want to ask yourself with your therapist how thinking about that feels.
- this sounds very banal but I found seperating my responses into thoughts, feelings and sensory experience as very useful. This helped reenforce for me that by trying to analyse as much as possible, I wasn't getting to my feelings.

Good luck with this, and look after yourself.
posted by eyeofthetiger at 2:19 AM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am especially interested in exercises

Connect language to body/unconscious and body/unconscious to language:


It's one of the most important books I've ever read, with step-by-step instructions.
posted by zeek321 at 2:34 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Sometimes I wonder if this way of being isn't hereditary. So much of my childhood I can remember, but not how I felt really... My memory is very CCTV... I can totally see what went on, but on a very superficial/factual level. My dad just the same.
posted by misspony at 5:18 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

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