I'm not a sociopath, am I?
March 29, 2018 7:39 AM   Subscribe

I tend to have shallow emotions. I don't think it's quite the same as depression, as I've been depressed and gotten better. Most times, I have a rather numb baseline feeling. This doesn't go away so easily. I'm pretty much unable to cry and worry I don't react strongly enough to deaths and sad events. Sometimes, I think I sort of fit the definition of alexithymia, although it's a difficulty in feeling and not just a difficulty in describing feelings. I'm uncomfortable in realizing that this quality seems to be something seen in pop culture sociopath characters. I can't help but shake the idea that this could be part of me, and I'm not sure how I'd be comfortable with that.

I'm a trans woman. I probably have some kind of autism spectrum disorder (I was diagnosed with "shadows of Asperger's" as a pre-schooler when my mom took me to a neurologist). I'm a software engineer, too. I suffer from imposter syndrome to do with both my career and my gender. And I always worry I'm lying to myself, which is probably because I have a general sense of surreality from my dissociation and depersonalization. I feel like I fit the idea as Zinnia Jones explains it in this blog post.

In my childhood, I was the older sibling of two kids. My sister is autistic, and my mother was convinced both of us are entirely defined by autism. She was big on early intervention child rearing, which to her meant really aggressively coaching us on how to talk and behave. I could rarely wash a dish or have a conversation with her without getting a lecture about doing things a certain way or about word choice, tone, and intonation. She could get fairly severe. I apparently did ask to present more feminine a few times as a small child (I don't recall, personally, but she told me), but that was not negotiable. She tells me she regrets this, and would have followed my lead if she knew trans children were a thing. I believe at one point she compared my monotone male voice to a jackhammer in the middle of her getting angry I said "Like" in a conversation. And she'd lectured me at length over small things, emphasizing that she thought I'm lazy or don't care about other people. She's the same way with my sister. My sister eventually freezes up and stops talking, at which point my mom starts lecturing loudly (she insists it's not yelling when I bring it up) about how much she's spent on speech therapy. In my teen years, I got in the habit of yelling back. I've mellowed out, but I felt trapped and it hurt to have no control over being told I was things I was very uncomfortable with while I was dealing with clinical depression. (She refused to accept it was depression for years, because she figured anything I perceived as depression was autism symptoms) It's still like that when I visit home for more than a few days.

My father passed away when I was 12. I think that was the first time I realized something was wrong with how I processed feelings. I would get overwhelmed, and then the bottom would fall out. I'd feel nothing, like I was in shock.

This pattern sort of continued. Puberty brought it out more, since being trans but not knowing it, I didn't know how to deal with what my body was doing. I felt basically nothing my senior year of high school. And I had a really bad depersonalization episode the summer after I graduated high school and read about the futurist simulation theory (that thing Elon Musk says where we're inside a computer simulating the universe), which felt like it validated the feelings of insignificance and unrealness that lingered at the edge of my mind. I wasn't the same for years.

I've been pretty happy with transition. My friends and family have been supportive. (Although my mom yet again insisted I couldn't be trans because I was too autistic in her eyes) I sort of hoped the hormones and change in presentation would shake me out of this place emotionally, and it sort of has. But in a minor way. I can feel a bit of joy just because a day is nice, which was rare in the past. I could say I had a tendency towards anhedonia pre-transiton, but post transition, joy is there, just not easy or loud. I get anxious about passing as my true gender. I don't see this as being a matter of safety or even evading soft bigotry, I just feel most at ease when people read me as I see myself, and treat me accordingly. I can get into this more, but it's partly to do with the fact that cis women tend to be more platonically intimate with women than people they perceive as men. That's comforting and validating as somebody who only had close male friends and romantic girlfriends pre-transition (I'm straight leaning bi, but I was closeted and read as a heterosexual male). And I find myself being more social, and feel a lonely kind of boredom if I stay in my apartment too long. I'm not great at making friends, (My mother was big on early intervention autism therapy, which meant I was taught rather rigid ways of communicating, enforced pretty strictly) but sometimes I'll go to a bar to be around people, when before I'd scoff that alcohol costs more out and I don't enjoy getting drunk that much to begin with. And I feel happy with my body in a way I didn't before. I've been living as myself for over a year now. I'm starting to look into my options for SRS.

Morally speaking, I grew up Presbyterian and had a strong fear of hell. And in late high school, I became an agnostic but I've never come out about it to my mother because she's deeply faithful. I think I haven't told her because it'd scare her for my soul. She's high strung and she would not take it well, and it could strain our relationship. Losing this fear of hellfire, I mostly just started feeling less shame for watching porn. I still remained a liberal concerned about the environment. I won't eat red meat because I think it's wasteful ecologically and cruel to animals and workers even more so than other parts of agriculture. I've thought about cutting out poultry, but I feel like it'd make eating out harder.

And after I transitioned, I broke up with my ex-fiancee, because she had grown emotionally dependent on me in an unhealthy way, and refused to see a therapist to treat her anxiety. This was becoming a nightly occurrence before then. And she'd feel neglected if I sat at my computer desk to study so I had to balance my books and laptop on my lap to sit next to her on the couch. I loved her, and I still miss her. It was a reluctant breakup. I've sent some ill-advised texts asking how she's doing or wondering if we could make it work when I've experienced things that churn up a memory of us. And I sometimes feel guilty I promised her a marriage, but then "made it weird" by transitioning and ruined it completely by leaving her.

So to some extent, I think I care about society and other people. And I do experience some degree of shame and guilt. But I can also be weirdly fearless. During my job interview, I sort of let myself slip deeper into my depersonalized state so that I could focus on the interview questions and not appear nervous. I can be affable and seem more present than I am in that state, my emotions are just distant and it's hard to leave it. And when a cis lady friend invited me to a clothing swap at her apartment, I went even though I feel like common sense says that I should not have. I had a good time trying on second hand clothes and drinking wine in my underwear with women I just met. I liked that I could be included in such a thing, and mostly changed facing the corner. I also took my autistic sister to a waterpark (my mom rarely has energy for such things, but my sister loves waterparks), knowing that meant I'd be wearing a bathing suit all day around a ton of strangers. And I went to my 10 year high school reunion knowing it'd mean meeting a bunch of people who explicitly would know I transitioned, and who I got to know at a difficult time in my life as a depressed loner. Some of these, I think, appealed to me because I knew they'd be at the edge of my comfort level.

I'm seeing a new therapist in a week, and I've never had anything like ASPD suggested for me. But I also don't want to suggest a hammer to her before she gets to know me. I've had a couple diagnoses. "Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Specified" as code for Aspergers, ADHD, Major Depression, and Bipolar 2 (which i don't think is true, my psychiatrist just happened to meet me after I had a productive weekend, so that's been quietly dropped).

Should I bring this up to her? Am I confused as to what sociopathy is? And if there's any way to have more typical emotions, I'd love advice. I've tried SSRIs, Adderall, Welbutrin, Abilify, and so on.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like you have a wonderful control over your emotions. The ability to enter a focused state during an interview, to put yourself in situations where you might be uncomfortable but aren't, and being less motivated by sketchy religious pressures is strong evidence of a level-headed, productive person.

I, and few here are doctors, but what you have described makes it sound like you are relatively high-functioning and care about the people around you enough to have regrets and want to improve in the future. You are seeking therapy and etc.

What I can tell you, anecdotally, is that I definitely have phases where I feel a little "numb" to the world, and I've had phases where I feel bored with life, but other times stressed like everything is going crazy. I also am extra-comfortable doing things around other people like you described, like I would have no problem skinny dipping. If you are not ashamed of co-mingling in a state as you described - I think that shows an incredible self-confidence and show of character. A lot of trans people would be jealous at your level of self-confidence and ability to ignore those stupid social pressures.

So, suffice to say, no, it doesn't sound like you have a sociopathic bone in your body. You might have some minor depression, you might feel bored in life, you might feel a little numb to the world. Nothing you have described has seemed extraordinary to every day life - so much so that I'm tempted to recommend the standard trite (find a hobby that excites you! exercise! go on a fun vacation!).
posted by bbqturtle at 7:48 AM on March 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

Also, my understanding of sociopathy from my undergrad in psych is that it's not about emotional reactions to situations - it's about how you feel about your own actions.

Doesn't cry during funeral >< sociopath.

Wouldn't hesitate to steal something from someone in need if you wouldn't get caught = sociopath.

Have a breakup where you didn't have feelings anymore = completely normal.

Can't be bothered to help anyone but yourself = sociopath.

Some more trite advice - I recommend finding a CBT pyschologist - they will help you re-examine how you interpret your day-to-day activities, and help you establish a good guideline for "normal" thoughts vs "abnormal" thoughts. Also, if you are afraid you are a sociopath, a step toward non-sociopathy would be volunteering. Maybe at the local LGBT shelter or another organization who's views you align strongly with.
posted by bbqturtle at 7:52 AM on March 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

With the usual caveat that I am not a doctor: my understanding of sociopathy/ASPD is that it's more about getting an enjoyment out of hurting/torturing other people and animals, and a compulsion toward reckless, self-destructive behavior. Nothing you've described sounds like that. You're dealing with trauma from having a parent who was hyper-critical of you, yelled at you, and basically made you feel shame for just existing. (I think there's also an element of trauma in dysphoria, especially during puberty. YMMV.) I think the emotional numbness and depersonalization you describe sounds like a response to that kind of trauma, and it could also be a different aspect of depression. I also think that having the "wrong" emotional reactions to things is a big part of autism spectrum disorders.
posted by capricorn at 8:13 AM on March 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

Sociopathology: personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience. I don't see this. In any case, it's extremely difficult to diagnose yourself. Many people have a variety of diagnoses; mental health is not always approached with rigorous science. Honestly, you sound like you're doing well at managing an awful lot. See the therapist, if it's not a good fit, see a different one. Instead of thinking about a diagnosis, think about what you want your life to be like, and how therapy can help you get there.
posted by theora55 at 8:18 AM on March 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

I've also had these concerns about myself based on lack of emotional reactions to big events and a long history of alexithymia/weird/flat emotional response, but on balance I've ended up coming to the conclusion that I'm probably not a sociopath/psychopath. Reading this interview with a non-violent psychopath helped give me some perspective, as there was a bunch of behavioural stuff this guy and his friends and family talked about that really didn't resonate with me at all (especially the stuff around taking crazy risks and not caring enough about the people closest to him).

I also had a lousy abusive childhood with controlling parents, which from the sounds of your post was true for you as well in some ways, and I'm currently trying to treat my mental health stuff from the assumption that a root cause might be complex PTSD rather than (or potentially alongside) any of the other various diagnoses I've either received or considered about myself. It makes the most sense to me at this point that my emotional response is weird and dampened because I grew up in a house that was very repressed and emotionally neglectful, rather than because anything else is fundamentally wrong with me; have you considered this angle?

The stuff you wrote about your parent refusing to acknowledge that you were depressed because they thought all of your behaviours and experiences resulted from autism sounds like a pretty clear-cut case of having your true feelings repeatedly denied by a primary caretaker. I was told constantly that I wasn't feeling what I was feeling, or that I was feeling something other than what I was feeling, or that I should be feeling something different, and hey guess what my emotions are pretty confusing and non-intuitive to me now.
posted by terretu at 8:32 AM on March 29, 2018 [13 favorites]

I am not an expert, but the fact that you are even asking this question tells me you're not a sociopath. Your comments show real concern over your effect on others, as well as a strong moral sense.

One thing I wondered about while reading your analysis is how much of it has been influenced by traditional gender role expectations. I'm a CIS woman who tends not to be emotionally demonstrative and sometimes feels pressure to "perform" emotions to appear "normal" in the eyes of others. I generally don't give in to that pressure any more, and have found other ways of communicating my feelings when I want to share them, but it took a while to get to that point, even after going through the whole socialization and rejection of conventional role process for years.

That said, you do seem to want to do things differently, and the advice from Theora55 above to think less about a diagnosis and more about what kind of life you want and how to get it is excellent. There's a huge range of options out there and if you don't like where you are, there are ways of changing things.
posted by rpfields at 8:38 AM on March 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

I feel like you might want to talk with trans people on the spectrum to work through some of this, because they know what it's like to be you more than I do.
(Have you considered getting on Mastodon? I'm not sure it it's just my instance but there's a noticeable population of autistic transgender folks.)
You are not a sociopath. But you should feel free to bring up this concern during a session to put your mind at rest/have a deeper conversation about how you feel.
posted by sacchan at 8:43 AM on March 29, 2018

I am not a psychologist, I am not your psychologist. Don't take any of this as medical advice or a diagnosis, but there's a couple things you might want to consider that could help your conversation with your therapist.

First, I want to point out that you've identified a lot of feelings in this post--feeling hurt by your mother, feeling overwhelmed when your father passed, feeling happy with transition, feeling lonely, feeling anxious, etc. I think from what you describe maybe you don't feel these things as intensely or frequently as many people, but they're definitely there.

Second, antisocial personality disorder (the closest DSM diagnosis to the non-medical term sociopathy) has very little to do with not experiencing emotions. People with ASPD experience plenty of emotions; they just generally only care about their own emotions and not other people's. What you may be thinking of is "lack of remorse"--that's one of the symptoms of ASPD, but it's not very closely linked to numbness or lacking emotions. Rather, it's about knowing you hurt someone and not caring, or even getting pleasure out of it. And that's only one of 7 symptoms in the DSM-5 that would qualify someone for a diagnosis of ASPD; the rest are things like deceitfulness, impulsivity, irritability/aggressiveness, repeated unlawful behavior, consistent irresponsibility, etc. So I really don't think ASPD is high on the list of possible explanations.

Third, what you're describing can be pretty typical of autism. There's a reason that autistic people are stereotyped as "robots" or having no feelings. Part of it is alexithymia--difficulty identifying emotions--but also part of it can just be difficulty noticing emotions. It's difficult to describe, but... often autistic people experience emotions but don't really understand or interpret their body/mind's cues as an emotion. They may have some vague sense of being "stressed" or "burned out" but have difficulty realizing that what they're feeling is sad or anxious or irritated. Often emotions are interpreted as bodily experiences, e.g. "I'm tired" or "I'm feeling sick." They can also get overwhelmed by emotions and then just "shut down" (as you put it, "the bottom would fall out") and not process them. This can often appear like "not having emotions" when that's not really the case.

Similarly, with feeling "weirdly fearless"--this can also be typical of autism because of either not understanding social cues, or just not being bothered by them. The stereotype is that autistic people are super shy and withdrawn but this isn't necessarily the case. Often it can present as behaving in ways that are bold-to-inappropriate simply because they either don't think about or don't really internalize/care about other people's perceptions or reactions to them. They also often do a lot of things that seem like common sense says you shouldn't, because "common sense" is something that's taught and internalized through social cues.

That said, when you talk of depersonalization and numbness, I would still consider depression a little bit more. I know you said you don't think it's that because you've been depressed before but gotten better... but have any of your previous therapists talked to you about persistent depressive disorder (also called dysthymia)? If this is something you experience regularly, then it's much more likely to be that than major depression (which is generally episodic). Further, you can have PDD and then have a major depressive episode on top of that (sometimes called "double depression"). That would seem to you like you had depression and got better--but it may be that while you recovered from a major depressive episode, you still have PDD.

It sounds like you've been through a lot, and are struggling with some things that have been a burden for a long time. But it also seems like you're managing things pretty well, so I would commend yourself on that! I think it's important to bring up to your therapist anything that you want to work on. Keep in mind that if she doesn't typically do assessments, she may not be interested in finding a specific diagnosis for you so much as figuring out treatment that works. It sounds like you've tried a few things that haven't worked, so it may be good to bring up possible alternative explanations (e.g. autism, persistent depressive disorder, a personality disorder, etc.) but try not to get too stuck on the specific diagnosis so much as how you can approach the problem.

That said, if it seems like therapy isn't working or hasn't been helpful for you, it may be useful to specifically seek out an assessment, because sometimes the specifics do matter. For example, autistic individuals who are also depressed often don't respond to the treatment typically given depressed individuals. If you think your problem is a combination of autism and depression, then it may be useful to 1) get that assessed, and 2) seek out someone who specializes in treating autism and depression. I wouldn't jump straight to that, but if you don't seem to be making progress, it might be something to consider.
posted by brook horse at 8:44 AM on March 29, 2018 [10 favorites]

Me and my therapist talk about this sometimes. She says, with kindness "If you are concerned you might be a sociopath, you are not one" I'm maybe spectrumish, definitely a little rigid in my emotions, definitely have that "Can't tell if this is an emotion or a bodily sensation" issue but am otherwise okay, just anxious. You seem like you care about things and have feelings but had an upbringing where those feelings weren't really validated AND maybe had a mom with some mental health issues as well which is tough when you're a kid and tougher when you're maybe a non-neurotypical kid.

You've been through a lot. Your self-description includes a lot of emotional content, just not expressed emotionally, if that makes sense (you talk about happiness, love, concern, boredom, in ways that sounds totally appropriate). So yes by all means bring up these concerns to a therapist because that's what they're for, but also maybe realize that you're doing pretty well to outside observers, but your "self talk" meters may be a little maladjusted. Congrats on all you've been able to do and best of luck moving forward.
posted by jessamyn at 8:50 AM on March 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm not a therapist, I have not been trained in psychology or psychiatry or any medical stuff for that matter.

I have, however, been through a period of "kinda flat emotions", and was asking myself the same questions; but I then considered the enormous amount of stress I'd been under for several years previous, and I realized that going numb was part of my coping strategy for not going totally bugfuck nuts while that was going on. I reached out to a therapist I've used in the past asking if maybe I could have a few sessions with her, but things have started to seep back in on their own, by my simply being aware of what's going on, and by my gradually trusting that "okay, the world is not out to get me any more and it's actually okay now".

Seconding the "you've been through a lot" and it sounds like you grew up keeping very strict control of your emotions just to cope.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:57 AM on March 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

As others have said, I suspect it would be helpful for you to read about the effects and treatment of trauma, and to talk about that some with your therapist.
posted by lazuli at 9:08 AM on March 29, 2018 [3 favorites]

You are not a sociopath! People experience emotions differently; the spectrum of normality is very broad. You sound like someone who really cares about what kind of person they are, and about other people as well. You sound like someone who spends a lot of time thinking about how to be a good person in the world. That's the opposite of sociopathy.

I'm sorry you're struggling with these thoughts right now. Sending you love, wherever you are. Being a person is tough.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 9:34 AM on March 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm not able to comment on your concerns save this very narrow one: "My father passed away when I was 12. I think that was the first time I realized something was wrong with how I processed feelings. I would get overwhelmed, and then the bottom would fall out. I'd feel nothing, like I was in shock."

My dad passed away just over a year ago. Many of our family did not exhibit strong outward emotions during the service or graveside memorial, or in the gatherings that happened later. I was kind of numb the whole time, and as I was kind of expected to take the lead on a lot of it, just put my head down and focused on getting the things done that needed to be done.

Grief came later, and in ways I don't always expect or immediately understand. Many of my family members are the same, it's something we all mutually understand about each other, and respect. We talk later, sometime months later and in private.

It's not abnormal or unusual to have delayed or muted reactions, especially if you kind of have a robot inner person who can take the driver's seat for a while. That doesn't mean you don't feel though, just that you can code switch and compartmentalize well. Those aren't necessarily bad things, as long as you can integrate later.
posted by bonehead at 9:51 AM on March 29, 2018 [4 favorites]

I worry sometimes that I have less natural sympathy than I "ought to", but on the other hand that has also made it possible to be the calm useful person during stressful times, so I've decided it's just part of the natural variation in individuals that makes our social species adaptable.

Still takes practice and luck, alas, but seems to be an advantage.

Other than that, seconding everyone else who points out that your self-description definitely has moral strictures and what sound like emotions. (I am also from a long line of engineers and daughters-and-wives-of-engineers, and we suspect we've been mostly on an autism spectrum for a while and the women have been running Lady Simulations. Much milder than your upbringing, but the underlying pattern looks familiar.)
posted by clew at 9:55 AM on March 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Agree with all the gentle, sympathetic advice here. You're certainly not a sociopath.

Also want to suggest that you actually do experience strong emotion -- anxiety.

Feeling the need to post this question in the first place is evidence of anxiety. The length of it is evidence of anxiety -- people who are anxious about something have trouble being concise because they're afraid of being misunderstood, they want to give all the information to reduce that possibility.

My guess is that you have lived with such omnipresent background anxiety that you don't even register it as an emotion anymore because you're never free of it. I think anxiety can be so all consuming that it blunts other emotions.

I hope this reads in the spirit its intended, which is sympathetic. I absolutely struggle with anxiety, and I hope you'll investigate the possibility that finding ways to manage yours will make you happier and possibly change the way you experience other emotions -- some bad, possibly, but also some good.
posted by mrmurbles at 9:58 AM on March 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

Nthing the suggestion to read up on trauma, and particularly complex trauma. (Janina Fisher, Pat Ogden, Bessel van der Kolk, many others.) What you’re worried might be sociopathy sounds a lot like a shut down / freeze response to stress.
posted by schadenfrau at 10:10 AM on March 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I’m agreeing that you can experience a severe blunting of your feelings when your parent has raised you to deny them, or has refused to “allow” them. It doesn’t mean that you don’t have those feelings, it’s just that you’ve learned to stuff them down during childhood, and it’s hard to unlearn. Years of repression of your true self does manifest in maladaptive ways, of which anxiety is one. It’s not your fault this happened to you, and absolutely nothing about what you’ve written suggests sociopath.
posted by Knowyournuts at 10:23 AM on March 29, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'll echo that this is a normal response when you are raised to minimize your feelings. I've had sessions where I've used very similar language as you're using now, including questioning if I'm on the spectrum or a sociopath. MeMail me if you want to chat details.
posted by politikitty at 10:29 AM on March 29, 2018

Like others have said, emotional numbness doesn't have much to do with sociopathy or ASPD. Neither do pop culture 'sociopath' characters. By relating to those kinds of emotionless usually-villains, are you worried your lack of emotions makes you a bad person? You're not! If this was just how you were as a person, it wouldn't be harmful or evil.

However, it sounds like you've spent your entire life learning to pushing your feelings and reactions down from both your mom's behavior and hiding your gender. You talk about literally dissociating from yourself, probably to get through hard times easier. That takes some time and effort to reverse, but you say you're already enjoying things a little bit more after transitioning. You'll probably continue to the more comfortable you get! It might be that you need help getting back in touch with what your emotions feel like or practice doing things to deliberately make you feel an emotion. You also might start experiencing strong negative emotions, maybe about things from a long time ago, that might overwhelm you because you're not used to them, which sucks but is also part of the process.

Your new therapist can help you get through this transition period. You could also look into flat affect or the kind of unusual experiencing of emotion that gets read as a lack of empathy in autistic people, but I think the dissociation and depersonalization are the most important factors here.
posted by gaybobbie at 10:41 AM on March 29, 2018

I am a survivor of childhood trauma and have felt this way most of my adult life. I self diagnosed myself and thought maybe I had an inner serial killer in hiding. This is not the case.

My life lately has been accepting, owning and being comfortable with the fact that I don't do emotions like other people . Sometimes this is both a blessing and a curse. I found I have to be very aware of other peoples social and emotional cues otherwise I may not be able have the solid connections with others that I seek.

I have also found it essential to reduce the level of drama in my life to near zero. Keeping the drama level low helps me to see my emotions more clearly if and when they occur.

I have been married for many years, have a couple of close friends and am usually comfortable in my own skin. I have chosen not to seek trauma therapy but that may be a wise choice for others.

It "is" all about me and I am comfortable with that.
posted by Xurando at 10:48 AM on March 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've got pretty shallow emotions too. I don't think that makes me a sociopath and I don't think that makes you one too. I know many people who have "deeper" emotions, my wife included, and for the most part I just think they need to self-regulate better.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:29 AM on March 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm not a sociopath, am I? ...

And I always worry I'm lying to myself, which is probably because I have a general sense of surreality from my dissociation and depersonalization. ...

...I had a really bad depersonalization episode the summer after I graduated high school and read about the futurist simulation theory (that thing Elon Musk says where we're inside a computer simulating the universe), which felt like it validated the feelings of insignificance and unrealness that lingered at the edge of my mind. I wasn't the same for years. ...

Morally speaking, I grew up Presbyterian and had a strong fear of hell. ...
So I'm not a doctor or a therapist: feel free to disregard this if it doesn't sound helpful. But these statements I quoted strongly pinged my personal radar for OCD. OCD is a misunderstood disorder in some ways: it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with hand-washing or cleanliness. The criteria are more that you get repetitive, unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and end up doing things (compulsions) to try to get rid of them.

What a lot of people miss, though, is that compulsions can be entirely mental: they can include things like endlessly ruminating, checking to see if things "feel" real, reassuring oneself, imagining what others would do or say or advise, combing over memories to try to figure something out, doing endless internet research trying to find the exact risk of a feared outcome, asking questions like this on AskMe (lol slash sigh), etc. I don't know if you do things like this, but it might be worth paying attention to what happens when you get, for example, the thought that you're a sociopath or that life is a simulation. Does it trigger anxiety/fear/guilt that you feel you have to try to resolve by figuring it out? Do you find it hard to resist the urge to figure it out?

The thing that made me think of OCD the most is that obsessions about not being real/being in a simulation, actually being a sociopath, not being the person you think you are (e.g. worrying that you're lying to yourself), and going to hell are really, really common among people with OCD. (Sometimes people call OCD with these features "pure O," but precise labels for subspecies of OCD aren't necessary for treatment, and that label can be misleading because identifying your compulsions is necessary to do therapy effectively.) Derealization and depersonalization is also a super common symptom of OCD. Take a look at this video, for example, from someone who experienced them and recovered, and see if it feels at all familiar. Worrying about whether you're feeling emotions "correctly" can also become an obsession. And OCD can also be triggered by trauma, in the same way as PTSD, and they can occur together. Finally, people with OCD (especially less "canonical" varieties that don't involve a lot of overt, obvious compulsive behaviors) often get tons of misdiagnoses before they get the right therapy.

On some level diagnostic labels aren't really that important, because it can become just one more thing you feel like you have to "figure out" in order to feel better, in a way that ends up distracting rather than informing. But if you've never considered OCD and the stuff I'm saying sounds at all like it resonates, you may want to try a therapist who is specifically focused on OCD, because the type of therapy is different and may not be like what you've already experienced. General talk/insight therapy can be great for unpacking trauma but is not super useful for OCD, and generic CBT often ends up not being that helpful either because people with OCD are doing so much overthinking that they are often able to "rationally" argue themselves into or out of anything. But exposure and response prevention (ERP), the gold standard therapy, can help people fully recover. Mindfulness-based approaches like ACT can also be really helpful, BUT: you want someone with specific experience in applying mindfulness/ACT therapy to OCD, because there are some unique pitfalls in applying it to this situation.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:39 AM on March 29, 2018 [7 favorites]

>I've tried SSRIs, Adderall, Welbutrin, Abilify, and so on.

Maybe a contributing factor: Apathy is a possible consequence of SSRIs.

(Agree that growing up in a wash of stress hormones can mean it’s harder to experience a wider range of emotions than anxiety. But there’s always time to learn.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 2:19 PM on March 29, 2018 [1 favorite]

Surprised no one has mentioned hormones yet. Maybe everyone else in this thread is cis. Hormones drive a lot of emotions. I'm coming from the other direction (trans man on testosterone) and my reactions and emotions are different than they were pre-transition. I'm not in any way suggesting you do this, but I bet if you went off your HRT for a few weeks you'd feel a lot different. (Do not do this.)

And look, you have a lot going on. Breakups are stressful. Job interviews are stressful. Relationships with parents are stressful. Being trans is super fucking stressful - I'd imagine more so for a trans woman than a trans man. Lack of family support is the #1 cause of mental health issues in trans people. And we're taught by society that we're damaged, perverted, etc and lots of us internalize that. Depending on where you live, the current political atmosphere is toxic to us. To be honest you sound like a lot of my AMAB trans friends.

Do you have trans friends? That is the biggest factor in my happiness. Cis people just absolutely cannot understand a lot of what we go through no matter how hard they try. If it's not possible where you live, search for online communities. If you need help finding people, memail me, I have a pretty big network in the US. I'm happy to chat too although I don't have much insight into being a trans woman.

I won't eat red meat because I think it's wasteful ecologically and cruel to animals and workers even more so than other parts of agriculture.

A sociopath would never say this. You're fine.
posted by AFABulous at 2:41 PM on March 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

I identify a lot with what you wrote - I'm a trans woman who has been gradually unlearning disassociative/depersonalization techniques from a traumatic childhood. Like you, transition has helped, and in some ways it has felt like just the beginning of a longer journey.

The only thing I wanted to add (and hopefully this isn't way too vague) is that I have found it very helpful to think about transition these last ~4 years as a process of deepening my relationship with myself. Like any relationship, deepening a relationship is a kind of elusive process that takes time. It occurs over many diffuse moments - just like those little blips of joy you describe. For better or worse, I found medical transition certainly fast-tracks some of these bonding moments -- it's in the context of gender affirming surgery that I learned how to let myself be really, truly afraid, and cry hysterically in my therapists' office, for example. Letting myself be that afraid made space for me to eventually feel other things, like relaxed and content. Developing a relationship also requires paying attention, asking questions lovingly, giving space to unfold.

I guess I'm trying to say that you might find yourself surprised as time goes on how much your relationship with yourself changes. For me, I feel much less disorganized and disassociated, but it has taken its sweet time over the last four years too. A lot of paying attention, taking risks, therapy sessions, keeping at it. I think your instinct to bring this up to your therapist and talk honestly about this struggle with your emotions (and explore how it may relate to the tough stuff you've experience in your life) is a good instinct. It might take multiple passes. Sending you love.
posted by elephantsvanish at 2:41 PM on March 29, 2018 [5 favorites]

So... it does not sound to me like you're lacking empathy, for your sister, for your former fiancee, and for your mother, and like everyone else is saying, I do not at all think you sound like a sociopath. Full warning: I am not a therapist, and I have next to no experience with/understanding of autism. I am a trans woman though, and a lot of what you're saying is awfully familiar, and I am 99% sure I am not a sociopath. I can't say 100%, because years of being told--not specifically, by parents, but generally, by every aspect of our cisnormative patriarchal society--that my deepest instincts about my identity where wrong has left me psychologically incapable of ever being 100% certain about anything, and it sounds a lot to me like you have the exact same issue.

A LOT of what you're talking about--depersonalization matching what Zinnia Jones wrote about, emotional distance for a significant period of adolescence, ruining a previously heterosexual-appearing relationship by "making it weird"--anecdotally these are very common trans experiences. Even reacting to this depersonalization by embracing a simulationist worldview, I mean, The Matrix was written by two trans women. All of that is fucked up, and it sucks, and it shouldn't have to be that way, but it all CAN be symptomatic of just trying to exist as a trans person in a cisnormative society, and it does not mean you're a sociopath.

Again, I am not a therapist, but it sounds like your upbringing was very strict, which can absolutely exacerbate neuroses you may already have naturally had and DEFINITELY can exacerbate the already significant symptoms of gender dysphoria.

Unless I missed it, I don't think you say how long it's been since you started transitioning, but sometimes the mental and emotional effects of hormone replacement therapy can take a while. (It sounds like it's been a while, based on saying you "transitioned," past tense, so that may be unhelpful) But like AFABulous said, hormones may be having more of an effect than you're giving them credit for. Not everyone experiences the highs and lows of emotion the same way! Having a numb baseline, not being able to cry--these things don't mean you're a sociopath. These may be symptoms of depression, they may be symptoms of dysphoria that hormones can't treat but that are psychological results of stifling your identity as your grew up. These are all very good things to talk about with your new therapist, but not reasons to give up hope or jump to conclusions.

I agree with Theora55--maybe don't try to diagnose yourself, as you're doing now. Again, I absolutely do not think you're a sociopath, but you don't have to go meet your new therapist and just rush any self-diagnosis like that to her. Talk to her, share your experiences, engage in therapy basically, and ideally you'll be able to tell if she's helping.

And if you need another trans woman to talk to, please go ahead and memail me. Again like AFABulous said, being able to talk to other trans folks about what you're going through and compare their experiences to your own can be the difference between feeling like you're helpless and having the support to give yourself more confidence--not just validating your identity, which it sounds like you have a pretty admirable grasp of, but confidence in your own emotions and place in the world.

You sound like you are doing a very good job of managing a lot of stressful situations, and I think you shouldn't forget that.
posted by elsilnora at 5:04 PM on March 29, 2018 [8 favorites]

In addition to what everyone is saying about the trans depersonalization experience and the Matrix, I think there is more of a correlation between an upbringing full of emotional abuse and wondering as an adult if you are a sociopath, then there is between the stuff you’re talking about here and anything even close to ASPD. A lot of the people I know who spent their childhood being made to feel as though they were horribly wrong in some way have gone through the “am I a sociopath” fear phase, ime because the diagnostic criteria for ASPD is so vague, and because it seems like a really good catchall for those feelings of being intrinsically bad, like there is finally a scientific label for whatever it was that was so horribly wrong with you that your parent was in constant distress over how bad you were.

I also noticed you're describing a similar dynamic with both your mother and your ex: you're in an intense relationship with a highly emotionally demonstrative person who fixates on you instead of taking responsibility for their own emotions, whether that means chilling out about your child's supposed autism making them do everything "wrong" or seeking help for your clinical anxiety that's so bad you can't handle being in a room alone. In both of these important relationships, you describe yourself either getting explosively emotional only in reaction (yelling back at your mom as a teen) or just shutting down in response to these tantrums or meltdowns or anxiety attacks/whatever. How much time post transition have you spent being on your own, not cohabiting with your mother or your ex? How long of a stretch have you gone without being close to someone who is "high strung" or has an untreated mental illness or whose emotions you otherwise need to manage?

IDK, I don't want to sound like I'm forcing another narrative on you because it sounds like your mom spent your entire early life doing that in an incredibly destructive way, and because it's generally not great Ask etiquette. But when you (the general you like vous, not you specifically) have been surrounded by people with Big Feelings that it's your job to caretake, it is really, really easy to lose touch of what you're feeling, because that always takes second place to the person who is yelling or freaking out and making sure their emotional state has top billing in the relationship, and eventually you can compartmentalize your own emotions away so well that you almost manage to forget where you put them. Drawing boundaries with people like this is also incredibly hard and makes you feel like an awful person. When the entire relationship has been disproportionately about one person scrambling to meet the other person's emotional needs (to do things the ~right neurotypical~ way, to soothe your ex's panic attacks) and suddenly you deny them that, it feels like you're wronging someone in a major way. Or like if you aren't having the same level of visible emotional pain as someone who is usually in a crisis state, there's something morally wrong with you. Like, again, I don't want to force a narrative on you, but I've always gone through "am I a monster, am I an abuser, am I a sociopath" guilt spirals when I have to pull away or set limits with people who act the way you describe your mom and your ex acting, only to later realize that making and keeping those boundaries was completely reasonable, and I didn't need to have a commensurate emotional freakout reaction in order to justify doing that.

Anyway, you're not a sociopath. It sounds like you're actually in the process of blossoming as a person and coming into yourself and your feelings? The stuff you're describing is all really good, wanting and making intimate friendships with other women, being happy to go to a friend's clothing exchange, taking your younger sister to one of her favorite kinds of park, and having your joy at being able to do these things outweigh your fears — that doesn’t sound like sociopathic risk-taking, it sounds like gender euphoria. It sounds like stepping out of depression and being able to be your own person who has days full of joy that you deserve. I know a lot of trans folks and especially trans women are overwhelmed by social anxiety + legitimate worry about being out and about while visibly trans, and I really hope I'm not overstepping here, but I know sometimes trans social media can make that experience incredibly overwhelming, like, on any given day your whole fb timeline can be one post after another about dysphoria, trauma, and terrible experiences. But as real as this stuff is, I don’t think your not being too overcome by it to socialize with friends or take your sister to the park means that you’re having some kind of inappropriate emotional experience or are acting like a psychopath.

You aren't a bad person. You're doing a lot of good right now, and you are going through A Lot. Take care and be gentle with yourself.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 4:01 AM on March 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

« Older Active Walking Holiday Alps/ Europe with baby and...   |   What are some creative ways to score a performance... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.