How to be more expressive with my emotions
December 13, 2019 9:33 AM   Subscribe

It has come to my attention recently (through multiple friends telling me) that I'm very "flat" in the way I express my emotions. Apparently I speak in a monotone even when discussing things I'm excited about, and my facial expressions also don't reflect how I'm feeling. How can I start working to fix this?

Maybe it's an autism spectrum thing, maybe it's due to my social anxiety, I don't know -- but it does explain a lot about how I've had trouble my whole life forming deep connections with people. A lot of my friends probably don't realize how much I like them, which makes me sad!

When I force myself be more expressive in conversation, I find it incredibly exhausting and have to stop after a few minutes, and it also makes me really self-conscious. What are some practices, exercises, or techniques I can use to start working on this? I feel like drama or drama therapy could be a possibility, but I also just... don't enjoy acting that much, so it doesn't really appeal to me. One thing that does help is being around highly energetic, emotive people, because I pick up on their energy and it feels natural.
posted by mekily to Human Relations (12 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I've been taking voice/singing lessons. I started 'cause I thought that it was about developing resonance and tone and all that stuff but it turns out that that was (at least for me) kinda the easy part, and now we're into working on why I read some songs as completely flat and some songs as completely hammed up and overdone, and other people read them in entirely different ways.

It's helping me a lot in seeing what people perceive as which emotion, and learn how to portray that emotion to people.
posted by straw at 9:47 AM on December 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

First, I'd encourage you to not assume that your way of expressing yourself NEEDS fixing. But you have shown a desire to change, so here's the first thing that occurred to me: Have you tried a role-plying game? Games that encourage you to build a character may give you a platform for experimenting with emoting.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 9:47 AM on December 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

It sounds like I have a similar natural affect to yours, and I tell myself that what feels like being WAY OVER THE TOP is probably other people's normal. Sort of how my French teacher used to tell us that when we thought we were doing an outrageous cartoon French accent, we were probably getting close to correct pronunciation.

(I kinda hate doing it though, and I would encourage you to accept yourself as you are or at least see this as a tool for some social situations and not a flaw in your you.)
posted by missrachael at 9:50 AM on December 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

They want something from you, that you are not giving them. I feel strongly that you should be allowed to be yourself, by friends. This is especially when you are not all over the road, needy, demanding, dramatic, hamming it up, manipulating and all. Being flat, or a little flat seems admirable to me. But one thing I do for everyone's well being is an exercise I call, 100 Smiles A Day. Yup. It works like this, stand in front of a mirror and smile 100 times. In the beginning, it is just to exercise the facial muscles of smiling, so they are in tone, when you feel like smiling. If you have a steep bridge to cross between your feelings and your social expression, this exercise helps with the positive expression.

After you have done this for a week, and you get more used to coping with the sight of your efforts, then look for motivators, memories, objects, experiences that naturally make you smile. Incorporate them into this exercise. Once this gets going it can leave you with the feeling, later in the day, and throughout the day, that something nice happened earlier. Your tendency to smile with increase.

You can use this when exercising with you come to the hard part, or the last push on a long hill walking or running. You can use the circuit you open between your emotion and your physical expression of happiness, to engage with these friends when they please you. The "bridge" between people is all sorts of a passage, and getting used to carrying the "current" of joy, makes it easier to share.

Happiness or taking pleasure in friendship is just one emotion, but it is a great place to start. Oh yeah, if people are fishing for exchange of energies, etc, make sure you have a good feeling about connecting. Connecting with yourself, and your own reservoirs of feeling, bringing them to the surface is the best place to start.
posted by Oyéah at 10:06 AM on December 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

If the "problem" is that your friends care about your emotional state and want to be able to adapt to it better, perhaps it's an equally good solution to just use words to tell them about your emotions more often.
posted by quacks like a duck at 10:31 AM on December 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

Focus the energy of being expressive on the times when you're saying how you feel at that moment. Saying "I'm excited!" in something other than an excited tone could come off as insincere. But "I was excited" or "I will be excited" can be flat and sincere.
posted by Former Congressional Representative Lenny Lemming at 10:58 AM on December 13, 2019

I don't think it needs fixing. But you asked, so, Acting/ Improv/ Standup Comedy Lessons are a way to learn to express yourself in order to show others emotion, or tell stories effectively. Even public speaking would probably help, and they are all useful ways to learn.
posted by theora55 at 11:21 AM on December 13, 2019

I do a great deal of my work via phone/audio, and it can be very hard to read other people's emotions via voice alone because you have natural affect, accent/regional conversational norms, sound quality, etc etc etc as additional layers, with no facial expressions.

It just seems to work best when everyone makes sure to make their feelings explicit. We say a lot of things like:
- I'm not overly stressed about this, but we do need to (action)
- I'm so glad to hear that
- I'm concerned that (including I'm concerned that's going to cause you (problem))
- This is good news (/this isn't great news, however)

We also do a lot of dancing around anger and frustration; a lot of us are women and get accused of untoward emotion when we're just being serious or firm. It's bullshit but it's a thing, it may be something you have to factor for as well.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:22 AM on December 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

Since a number of answers have encouraged me to accept this aspect of myself and not see it as a problem, I just wanted to elaborate on some of the ways that this quality causes problems for me to explain why I'd like to change it.

(That said, I do think accepting this quality is part of the solution, and I appreciate any answers that can point out positive aspects of this quality -- I'm pretty damn good at deadpan humor for example, and I don't escalate conflicts by being overly emotional.)

Here are some of the problems it causes for me:

- My friends are usually unaware of how I'm feeling, which makes it hard to connect with them. (This could be solved by just stating my emotions directly, but it's hard to remember to do that!)

- When meeting new people, they might be turned off by my lack of emotion (even if they would ultimately accept that part of me if we got to know each other better, it might keep us from getting to that point).

- Ultimately I feel like on the inside I'm a pretty warm, outgoing, emotional person, so it's frustrating that my outer persona doesn't match up to that and I'd like to bring the two closer in line.
posted by mekily at 11:32 AM on December 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

You don't need to be stressing words and flinging your arms around all the time. That would exhaust anyone. Actors are usually wiped out after intense performances, even when they are living the character and intense people are often wiped out by their own dramatics. So what you might want to do is just bump up the emotes periodically and only a slight notch.

"I do like it when we get together!" If you say that with a wide smile and some eye contact, just during the leave taking moment of time with a friend, you will have given them a bit of the emotes that make it easier for them to read the depth of your feelings. It's very much like saying, "Thank you for coming." or "Thank you for inviting me." You only have to do it once and during that predictable moment.

If you figure out a few things you want to express but seem to be being missed. "I worked hard at this for you." "I really miss our conversations." "You do that so well. I've always admired that," you just have to pick a moment and say them with the emphasis that you feel you are lacking. Only emphasis one word per paragraph. More than that is suggestive of an embarrassing outburst about to happen.

I'd suggest finding a friend and discussing this with them, and if they are at all open to the conversation, practicing saying a few of these more emotive statements with them in a playful way. They can help you with calibrating the intensity.

People -allistic, and otherwise - go through life wishing they had said things. Facebook is full of memes about what we should have said to our mother before she died and taking risks. So think about those things you are going to wish you had said or wish you are saying, and write them down to make it clear to yourself and test out saying them in front of a mirror.

If saying them in front of a mirror makes you feel like saying them in front of the people is way too cringe worthy to actually do, then figure out how to say them in writing, and then hie yourself down to the dollar store and pick up a few blank cards, and write the simple sentiment that requires too much contortions to say in person, and mail them or pass them over in person. Keep it short, because they are the equivalent to a bread-and-butter note, not equivalent to a love letter, and if there is more than a sentence or two it will get weird.

You don't need to be Sarah Bernhardt enacting an entire dramatic performance all the time. You just need to pull the eye contact and emote out periodically, once or twice each during the first three or four times when you meet someone new is more than enough. Aim it about them, rather than about your feelings - "You were brilliant!" as opposed to "I am desperate to be your friend." For friends you have known for awhile, once a year is sufficient for the card or the really intense, "I love having you as a friend." They will already suspect you like being their friend because you haven't been snubbing them so more than once a year is unnecessary. If it is easier, choose a time when cards are expected, such as Christmas, and write your sentiment in that card. "To a wise, and kind friend, Merry Christmas!" handwritten alongside the printed greeting, makes the card say what you want it to, and not just seem like the obligatory duty, because you said something personal.

You definitely don't need to get more intense than one statement per conversation unless you are extremely extremely flat, and avoiding eye contact.

Another thing you can do is practice just one or two non-verbal gestures and use those. Nodding while listening to someone is one of those. You want to smile a trifle while nodding and nod slowly. Get feedback, if there is anyone who can give it to you. If you use your gesture once or twice a day in social situations that is plenty to start with until it becomes second nature.

Another gesture that is good is to practice the lighting up when you first see someone. You simply straighten up your posture, look at them directly, open you eyes a little bit wider and smile. If your friends see you do that when you see them, they will know how you feel and you don't need to say anything mushy or fling your arms around.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:33 AM on December 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

Just to elaborate on what the singing is teaching me: I have long experienced how other people express emotion as if there's some language that people use to communicate that I only speak some of as a stunted dialect second language.

And this is the hard part: I can see the language that actors use in theater or movies, and to me it reads as something largely disconnected from how people actually exhibit emotions, like there's some set of tropes and idioms that I kinda get, but not really, because they don't map in any really close way to how I experience what I think of as similar emotions.

And to Jane the Brown's point, some of this is why "Whiter Shade of Pale" is so much harder to sing effectively than, say, something I can easily nail like Lauren Daigle's "You Say". The latter is broad and almost a parody of feeling, so, yeah, it's easy to kind of ape what other people do when they're trying to express that kind of emotion. What Gary Brooker manages to put across in the former is way more subtle, and I suspect that, like me, that's more where mekily is having the trouble sussing out how humans communicate about such things.
posted by straw at 2:39 PM on December 14, 2019

If you pick a word in each sentence to emphasize, (ideally the word that most deserves it), it helps make things less monotonal and more listenable. It can also help you slow down a bit, and gets your point across better. It won't sound unnatural at all.
posted by w0mbat at 10:06 AM on December 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

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