Waking up from emotional slumber
July 18, 2012 4:04 PM   Subscribe

For most of my life I've been a bit of a cold self-interest-maximizing unfeeling robot. Lately I am feeling things and it's amazing. But it's hard to manage this and make sense of it. Has anyone been there?

Male, late twenties. I was bullied and was very very shy and socially awkward as a kid and teen and I think the coping strategy I developed was basically to not express any emotions or personality -- safer if you go unnoticed. Gradually started opening up in my early twenties, started dating, having real friendships, following impulses rather than suppressing them, and have had things go really well, to the point where people tell me I'm not shy at all anymore.

So far this is fine and maybe not that abnormal. But in my long-term relationships, of which there have been a few at this point, there has been a persistent issue, and I finally recognize the pattern which is originating within me (not the partners). Namely, my emotions don't feel real to other people. When I say I love someone, they're not sure if they should believe me. I often miss important cues and cries for support, and sometimes behave selfishly as if the other person isn't there. For a long time I wondered if I just didn't love the people I was with. But now I'm with someone I do love, unquestionably, and still this problem persists. And more importantly, we've noticed it.

I've made a lot of progress in recent years to the point where I sometimes feel expressive, vibrant, full of life, emotionally present, and just generally "there". I feel very comfortable in this state and I feel like this is the true me which has been locked in a cage for most of my life, and I feel I have a full emotional range, which is something really new for me. My emotions feel very real in this state and seem to carry weight, because they just pour out of me. However, at other times, maybe when I get kind of nervous or unsure of myself, I start monitoring my own behavior to make sure I don't do something wrong, and eventually I'm thinking about every action and every word before I say it, and my senses are turned inward, and all the emotion flutters out of me and what's left is something cold. Robotic. The man who wasn't there. Not an unpleasant person, because I've learned to be kind and generous, but strangely absent, like a cardboard cutout of me. (According to my girlfriend). And non-expressive, because I suppress the impulses that come to me instead of acting on them. It feels like I'm somehow 'frozen'. Recently, while we were talking about this I felt a kind of mild rush come over me and then I sat up and realized I had been absent and was now present. And all of a sudden there was colour and shape to my voice, and expression behind my words, and I felt strongly connected to my girlfriend, able to feel and respond to her emotions. So for the first time I'm aware that there is a difference between being asleep and awake. And she notices the difference as well, immediately -- it's not just in my head. Going back over the relationship we can identify days when I was present, in which we had a great time together, and days when I was absent, in which there was a strange awkwardness or tension in the air.

I plan to start seeing a therapist soon, but I'm curious if anyone has been through this and can help me deal with it. In particular I find myself being 'frozen' a lot lately (possibly due to external stress) and when I'm in this state my relationship suffers severely, for good reason -- I often behave selfishly, because I just don't seem to notice emotional cues that I should, and I come off as cold and distant instead of warm the way a partner should. I want to spend more of my life 'awake' or 'present'. I find if I sometimes monitor my emotional state and kind of concentrate I can determine whether I am 'there' or not and sometimes snap out of the 'asleep' state. But I'm kind of grappling with the unknown here. Has anyone else been through this kind of feeling? Can you offer suggestions for how to cope, and how to spend more time 'awake'?
posted by anybodys to Human Relations (7 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
You are already doing the first thing that helped me. Therapy. The other I would recommend is meditation.

A daily routine of sitting and just observing what is happening inside helped me immensely. Before I felt nothing and couldn't tell you an authentic emotion I felt. Now I feel deeply and feel alive.

It has also helped me stay more present. It helps me observe NOW and when I notice myself away in other situations a quick check in on my breathing brings me back to the present.
posted by kanata at 5:03 PM on July 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

To me, it sounds like checking out is your way of dealing with anxiety. If you make everything intellectual, then you don't have to feel things. I had a pattern of dealing with things in a similar way. When I actually started letting myself feel things, it was pretty overwhelming at first, it felt raw like the skin under a callous. I worked with a great therapist to learn how to make emotions not seem so overwhelming so I didn't have to shut them off.
posted by kamikazegopher at 5:07 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

This book helped me enormously in terms of being able to access emotions usually hidden under paralysis - getting unstuck, feeling awake rather than asleep. What struck me most was the personal stories of these sorts of experiences. I simply hadn't realised it was at all possible - I didn't realise before then that there is a) a reason for the paralysis and b) a way to safely experience what's behind it.

(You ask if anyone else has experienced these feelings - the name for it is dissociation, and it happens at all sorts of levels, big and small. Literature on it can sometimes be quite alarming, but I think you have a good handle on your own experience, and can place yourself in reference to it without getting sucked in.)

sorry for mixed-up language, it's late at night here. can do MeMail when I'm more awake, if clarity's needed
posted by lokta at 5:07 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yes... I went through something pretty similar in my mid-twenties. In my case, I called it "growing an empathy"... I'd been entirely introverted and self-involved and "cold" for my entire life, and all of a sudden, I could - in the classic words of Dinosaur Jr, "feel the pain of everyone". It was exhilarating and awful, often within the same moment.

Talking and talking and talking and TALKING to other, more emotionally-intelligent people that me helped a lot. Not necessarily therapists... just people I felt were warmer and more in-tune with their feelings than me.

Other than that? Just try not to freak out too much about how you "should" be acting or feeling. You're no longer a caterpillar but not yet a butterfly. You're kinda emerging from the chrysalis, and any kind of frantic struggle will merely exhaust you. It'll take many, many months/years of slow contortions and awkward feelings before you're totally out, and that is a-okay.
posted by julthumbscrew at 6:09 PM on July 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Seconding mindfulness meditation.
posted by ead at 6:24 PM on July 18, 2012

Thank you so much. Seeing all the favourites makes me feel much less alone -- and these responses are very helpful. For what it's worth, I've never really felt like I've been depressed, but I've got anxiety in spades. I think I am ready for the next step of contacting a therapist, something I never would have been open to even a few years ago.

One more thing I'll share, I received a private message from someone and have permission to re-post it here:

I didn't want to post this on the public forum because 1) I am not in any way a doctor and 2) I'm not 100% sure about this.

I have Asperger's Syndrome. Everything I've been told about this means your post is screaming to me 'here's a dude like you'. Introspective, analyitical, shy and bullied at school, always found it difficult to express emotion - although nobody told me they doubted what I said I felt, I always had trouble being convinced I was expressing my own feelings rather than the ones I was -expected- to feel. Recently (yes, late 20s) I'm making the effort to communicate more and better, and admit that maybe I don't always know what I'm feeling. And it's okay to not always know, so long as you're not pretending because you think you're expected to feel a particular thing.

So yes, absolutely go see the therapist. I can't give you a personal story of success from that front because I got sent there as a teenager by my parents, and as a surly teenager I reacted by pretending to say and do what the doc wanted. Luckily, by now I'm beginning to take on board the things I was supposed to learn back then. But you sound like someone who's prepared to be honest with the person who's trying to help you, which means you should do a whole lot better from the start, whether it is Aspergers, some other syndrome or even just plain ol' being you and different from everyone else.

But also have a look round Asperger's resources because even if it isn't you, a lot of the things there will apply to you. Treat the symptoms empirically as it were.

Good luck, and feel free to ask me anything.

Reiterating, I am not a doctor, this is just a recation of "wow, that sounds familiar".

posted by anybodys at 11:09 AM on July 19, 2012

From what you've written in your post, I'm pretty sure you don't have Aspergers.

You say you "often" miss cues, which indicates that you don't always miss cues. Are you capable of reading body language, facial expression and eye contact when specifically asked/reminded to do so? Then you don't have Aspergers. The fact that you understand what it means for there to be a "strange tension or awkwardness in the air" would strongly indicate that you don't have Aspergers.

It seem that what my therapist is fond of telling me -- "you're equipment works, now you need to work on using it" -- applies to you, too. I'm not surprised -- because, biographical details aside, just about everything you wrote applies to me. I cannot tell you how much I identify with having to guess at whether you really love someone or not -- for me, it was like trying to think me way through something other people just felt -- and I think you really hit at the core of the problem when you said "when I get kind of nervous or unsure of myself, I start monitoring my own behavior to make sure I don't do something wrong, and eventually I'm thinking about every action and every word before I say it, and my senses are turned inward, and all the emotion flutters out of me." Turning off is a defense mechanism because our negative feelings can be too scary to deal with, and our positive feelings are collateral damage.

I don't have a ton of answers for you, because I'm pretty much still in your boat -- sometimes present, and sometimes abstracted, and though I recognize the things that tend to bring the behavior out of me, I'm still seldom able to do anything about it. During therapy, my shrink helps me practice staying in the moment by calling me out at the exact moment I start to check out, and recently, I've started to try to replicate the exercise in conversations with people, catching myself just as I start to go abstract.

My therapist also has me reading Feeling Good by David Burns, a basic cognitive behavior therapy primer that is intended to provide me with more healthy and less limiting defense mechanisms to substitute for emotionally shutting down.

I've also started taking a medication called Lamictal, a relatively old drug that has very recently started getting 'trendy' again for treating patients with a mix of symptoms associated with depression, anxiety disorders, attention deficit, and other recognized mood disorders, but don't quite fit neatly into any of them. It seems to have helped me better manage the flood of bad feelings that drive to me repress them by "going away."
posted by patnasty at 1:21 PM on July 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older What bank should I open an account with?   |   Can you identify this beautiful-looking... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.