Who are you??
April 12, 2016 6:27 PM   Subscribe

There's this strange feeling I get with certain people, most often romantic partners who have become very familiar to me. Suddenly I get a very strong sense that they are an entity who is distinct and separate from me, and I feel this very acutely for a few moments at most, until it fades and things feel normal again. Or similarly, I will feel very strongly that they are a different person when we're alone together than when we are in other environments. What's going on, and is there a name for these effects?

It's hard for me to describe these sensations, but I'll do my best.

In the first case I mentioned above, it's almost like I'm suddenly seeing them as a stranger would, observing them for the very first time. Suddenly their features and mannerisms that were so familiar to me feel new and foreign. The feeling is very fleeting. It might be there for just a second, or a few moments.

In the second case, I'll feel like someone is maybe a different version of themself when they're with me, than when other people are around. It's more than just the way people naturally act differently, say, with their friends than with their colleagues. It's closer to the feeling that they are not even the same person, to the point where I feel like I don't even know them and hold myself back from interacting with them the way I usually do. Because our usual way of interacting suddenly feels as unnatural as it would feel to give a total stranger a peck on the cheek or hold their hand. I struggle to reconcile my memories of being with them, with the person who is actually in front of me.

For example, if I have a boyfriend I've been intimate with countless times, and who I have no hesitation to touch or be touched by in private. I'll look at him when we're with friends and suddenly I can't fathom being naked with our bodies all squished together and just being SO intimate and vulnerable with him. It seems absurd.

In both cases, I think it is always with a romantic partner. It's possible that it has happened with someone who is just a friend, but I can't recall any such instances. The feelings are somewhat unsettling, and they make me feel uncomfortable and distanced from the partner, which makes me feel sad. The feelings pop up rarely, and I can't force them to happen. They take me by surprise.

The closest psychological phenomena I've found have been Capgras delusion and other delusional misidentification syndromes. But those seem much more severe and they don't exactly describe or explain what's going on in my head. I don't actually believe that the person is an imposter or someone else is inhabiting their body. I know it's them.

Has anyone else experienced this? Is it a documented thing, with a name?
posted by keep it under cover to Human Relations (10 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I believe the term you're looking for is jamais vu.
posted by telegraph at 6:44 PM on April 12, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think you're on exactly the right track with Capgras delusion. It's part of a spectrum of anomalies of familiarity. Just because you don't always suffer from a severe delusion doesn't mean that it's not possible to feel twinges of feelings related to that phenomena. What you're describing sounds like jamais vu, which is the sensation that something familiar is not real or suddenly strange. The classic psychology experiment with this phenomenon involves writing (or saying) the same word a few hundred times. After a certain number of repetitions, subjects began to doubt that the word they were repeating was a real word. On the other end of this spectrum is the schizophrenic who believes that his parents have been replaced by imposters. Or so the thinking goes, anyway.
posted by xyzzy at 6:45 PM on April 12, 2016 [3 favorites]

I can't be of any help with what this is called, but I have experienced the first case several times with my wife and I've described the feeling to my best friend and she told me she's had the same experience with her husband, so at the very least, you are not alone.

I completely understand why you find it unsettling (and it bothered me the first couple of times it happened), but now I kind of like it? It reminds me that she is a totally separate person with her own thoughts and feelings and way of viewing the world and I appreciate the opportunity to see her for the first time again.
posted by vakker at 7:02 PM on April 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

This may also be related to mild experiences of dissociation. Dissociation can refer to anything ranging from a dissociative fugue state to much more common and less debilitating things. You may be interested in reading about depersonalization and derealization. The jamais vu mentioned above can fall under derealization. It's basically when your perceptions shift so that the rest of the world feels strange or unreal. There are extreme cases where it's a distinct disorder, but it's also something that can happen as a result of anxiety, medications, drugs, alcohol, lack of sleep, or just about any thing else.

More subjectively, I've experienced both depersonalization and derealization. For me, derealization would often make me feel like everything was the same, but different. I would be walking or driving along a road I'd been on a million times, but it wouldn't feel the same any more. It would feel alien, or strange, in ways I couldn't completely pin down.

I've also had what would probably be more of depersonalization, where I just felt like I was observing whatever was happening to me but not experiencing it. Things that I normally would find upsetting didn't affect me at all, because I didn't feel anything. (Although I would intellectually know that I should be upset, just couldn't feel it.)

It's been awhile since I've experienced this, and I don't know that I've had exactly what you've experienced, but this basically just falls under "brains are weird." But if you're interested in reading more on this, I would definitely look into derealization and dissociation.
posted by litera scripta manet at 7:18 PM on April 12, 2016 [4 favorites]

I'm so glad you all informed me of the term jamais vu because yeah, I get this too. Otherwise I'd describe it similar to an out-of-body-into-someone-else's experience.

I wrote my husband's name in all caps on a box for him to put hats in while organizing the closet. I started think about that's his name and he writes it all the time - how weird is it that it's his name? Woah, he's his own person, I can't even imagine how many times he's written his name in all caps. And thus went on thinking about how things must be from his perspective writing my name and living with me as his wife and "my section" of the closet, etc.

It's especially prominent when I look at high school friend's Facebook page. Because you know them so well and you saw them every day, but then you start really examining their facial features and they seem like a stranger. I especially imagine like how it must be to style their hair or how they put on makeup in contrast to how I do mine.

So yeah, I feel ya, I get this a lot. I think it's actually healthy in a relationship to have that feeling sometimes to realize that they have their own thoughts and feelings that you don't get to see inside and you get to see yourself from another perspective.
posted by Crystalinne at 7:24 PM on April 12, 2016 [2 favorites]

I used to get this when I was younger, but now that you mentioned it I realized it hasn't happened for years. I think the last time it happened was with my cat. I adored him beyond all measure, but sometimes he would be purring on my lap and I would suddenly realize he was a little inhuman creature with weird yellow eyes and chow-flaps instead of people lips. When it happened with people it was to varying degrees, sometimes just a moment of weird distance and sometimes this rather horrifying thing where suddenly a human face didn't make sense and watching them talk was like watching the works of a machine made of meat.

R. Crumb included this in a diary comic he did with his wife, Aline Kominsky. They were talking about something and he suddenly went blank and said, "Just for a moment, I didn't know you." They'd probably been married about 20 years at that point. I think Sartre wrote some stuff about people he knew suddenly looking like monsters to him.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 8:12 PM on April 12, 2016

In my twenties I used to get this thing I called "losing people." It most often happened to boyfriends and most often right when I woke up. I would wake and be fully awake next to a stranger that I knew I should recognize. Slowly I would become aware that this was my boyfriend and I lived with him. Occasionally it would happen in broad daylight. I remember walking towards him from some distance, being unable to call out his name because I had "lost" who he was. I'd been dating and living with him for over a year but suddenly just couldn't place who this was. I had to walk all the way down the hill, trying to think of his name so the episode must have lasted well over a minute. This stuff stopped in my thirties and has never returned.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 9:24 PM on April 12, 2016

I recently came across the word "sonder," a neologism coined by John Koenig, the author of the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows:

sonder: n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

This seems to be very close to the sensation you're describing.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:12 PM on April 12, 2016 [21 favorites]

If I just repackage your questions as a general statement about human interaction, the puzzle seems to disappear:

People attempting emotional connection inadvertently mirror each other. When you see a person who you are accustomed to see mirroring you to not be doing that, and from an unusual angle (observing a person talking, but not directed at you), it may suddenly feel strongly odd. Your unconscious attunement -- the expectations it creates -- and his facial muscles are dancing on different tunes, while you are used to them to be in harmony.
posted by Free word order! at 4:19 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

You say this happens when you and your partner are out with others. When you're one on one you allow yourself to be completely vulnerable with him. So perhaps it's just the feeling of two worlds colliding. You look at him and think of the vulnerable, naked moments you share together and simultaneously realize those moments are so far removed from where you two are now. Basically, you don't allow yourself to get into that vulnerable headspace around these other people, so the idea of it seems preposterous.

Just a thought.
posted by blackzinfandel at 8:16 AM on April 13, 2016

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