Overreacting or do I seriously have a problem?
January 3, 2007 11:52 PM   Subscribe

How do I overcome being an emotional failure?

I have recently come to the conclusion that I must be an emotional failure. i came to this today after I was told that my Uncle died unexpectedly. The horrible news did not affect me at all. It wasn't like we were super close, but I think I should feel at least a little upset.

I told my mother about this and she said that I have never been one to feel emotion. After contemplating what she said for a while, I have to agree with her. I seriously hold my emotions back to the best of my ability. Is it just because I am a guy? I have no idea how to explain it. Maybe some trauma when I was a kid or something. I haven't even had a serious relationship since I was a freshman in high school (I am 23 now) and now I am starting to believe that I have a attachment problem due to my emotional problems.

Now for my questions to you MetFilter users: Are there any books out or programs that might be able to help me with these problems? Is it even possible to learn how to become better in an emotional sense through books? Am I overreacting?

Thanks in advance for any answers. This subject is really bothering me right now.
posted by misled to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The death of a distant relative shouldn't necessarily cause you tremendous grief. I have some distant aunts that my mom has to brief me on before I meet them every 10 years or so. If one of them died, I'd be sad that someone died who was probably important to somebody. I probably wouldn't lose any sleep over it.

If you're not close to somebody I don't think you should try to force out emotions that aren't there.

This sounds lame, but have you ever had one of your pets die on you? Many people are a lot closer to their pets than their distant relatives. Were you bummed then?

Chances are that this uncle was probably more important to your mom then to you. You don't have the memories of this person that your mom does, and she can't expect you to feel the same way about his passing.
posted by Telf at 12:02 AM on January 4, 2007

First of all, how can someone be a failure at something they cannot control? It's not a contest, it's life.

Next, have you spoken to a therapist about your feelings or lack there of? That might be the best place to start.

The fact that this "bothers" you shows that there must be some spark of emotion, however you may just have a problem with feeling emotion for others.

posted by Pollomacho at 12:04 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's certainly a possibility that you are overreacting. Some people just aren't wired to respond emotionally to things. I am one of them. When other people are weeping or jumping up and down with joy, I remain dispassionate. It hasn't caused me any problems (although it did take a while for my wife to get used to), and it makes me a handy person to have around in emergencies. You might be the same way.

I don't have the sense, that you seem to, that I am "holding my emotions back." I just don't have strong emotions. If you really are repressing something, then that is a different matter. One way or another, the best solution is going to involve a competent therapist.

You mention not having had a serious relationship since high school. I didn't date throughout all of my college years, and was getting frustrated with my extreme introversion (a different but related issued to my impassiveness). Reading Philip Zimbardo's Shyness was a huge help to me. Absolutely changed my life. I'll always be a natural introvert, but some of the tips in that book got me past my inability to connect to people and form relationships. If that's part of what is happening with you, it's worth a read. I divide my life into pre- and post-Zimbardo phases.

My advice: focusing on specific behaviors or situations you would like to change (i.e. forming a romantic relationship) is productive. Over-analyzing your emotional responses or lack thereof isn't. There is a huge diversity of perfectly healthy responses. I'm not a counselor, but I am a minister and have some experience with grief and loss. It's okay not to feel noticeably upset at the loss of an uncle. Your response is your own, and is a neutral thing in and of itself. My best guess is that you are probably an INTJ like me and just need to learn how to best use the strengths and best compensate for the weakness of that personality type. In a culture where extroversion is prized, we can be made to feel abnormal or out of place, but there's nothing wrong with being wired differently than others.

So, again, if you really want to figure this out, find a good counselor and start with a specific agenda: I want to figure out how to connect to people, or, maybe, I'd like to determine whether I am repressing emotions or just not naturally emotive. Taking the MBTI or a similar exam and learning more about your personality might help, too.

My 2.5 cents. Sorry for the verbosity. Occupational hazard.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:23 AM on January 4, 2007

Honestly, some people are just not terribly emotional. I don't get upset at sad movies, I don't get irritated when my favorite football team loses a game, and I don't cry at funerals. It doesn't mean you're broken or some sort of emotional cripple—it just means you react differently than others to certain stimuli.

Telf has it right; there is no correct, automatic emotional response to the death of a family member, particularly not one with whom you weren't extremely close. Death is not a grief-display contest.

You seem honestly concerned, though—speaking with a therapist might be useful. I worked through similar issues (my mom died when I was a teenager; I never cried about it), and the therapist helped me with the realization that I didn't need to react in any predetermined way.

(On preview, Pater Aletheias, I'm an INTJ too, heh. Maybe it comes with the territory.)
posted by timetoevolve at 12:27 AM on January 4, 2007

I'd say that people generally respond to the death of a loved one with emotional shock, firstly. The benefit of this is a sort of feeling of numbness in which one does not address the issues at hand, and sort of "shelves" them for later perusal.
I have been described as "cold" by several of my past lovers and friends, and this bothered me very much for a long time. Recently, I discovered that this is an unfair judgement of my own emotional character. I am not "cold", I am, in fact, extremely passionate, but I respond to traumatic experiences with cold reason. Later on, I get upset about them, usually at comically innappropriate times. But that's just for traumatic experiences.
I think that, if any questions of this nature arise in your life, you should go to a psychological professional. (Full disclosure: I am in no way a psychological professional) Find a good counselor or psychiatrist or whatever, whom you trust and like, and talk to them. Grief is natural, and you shouldn't feel "weird" for grieving in your own way.
posted by eparchos at 12:33 AM on January 4, 2007

Oh, one other thought. You just found out about your uncle's death today. Your first response many not be your final response. Either way, it's probably fine.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:36 AM on January 4, 2007

My mother died last year, and the hardest thing for me was that I could not accept that I was, in a way, and for lack of a better word, relieved that she had passed away, as I had been grieving since many years the mother I loved so much as a kid. I had difficulty expressing how I really felt because I feared people would judge my feelings. So I felt really lonely and emotionally deranged and inadequate during my "official" grieving process. The funerals were a surreal experience for me, I felt like some of it was a show put on for the benefit of an audience, and I could tell a lot of people who were telling how sad and shocked they were where faking it, and I hated them for it.

Additionally, I've had some crushes on girls, but I've never had any serious relationship with anyone, safe perhaps for a two months relationship at 21 with a girl I never cared much for. People in my distant family were always surprised and teasing me about the fact I did not have a girlfriend. I am now 28, I recently met a special girl, and I now feel like I am in love for the first time in my life, and for the first time in my life I want to take a journey with someone else.

So all I have to say, Misled, is trust your feelings, be genuine, and have faith that life will bring you many experiences that will change who you are and how you feel.
posted by jchgf at 1:00 AM on January 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

To correct my where typo above and express myself more accurately: I could tell some people who were saying how sad and shocked they were were actually faking it and just going through the motions, and I hated them for it.
posted by jchgf at 1:07 AM on January 4, 2007

I had distant relatives and beloved pets pass away as a child and, even then, I was disturbed that I was, for lack of a better term, "emotionless" about it. When my grandfather died, almost everyone I knew expressed condolences to me. I understood that I wasn't feeling the emotions that were expected of me. From that point on, I worried what would happen if immediate family were to die.

Last year, my younger brother passed away rather tragically. My parents and everyone close to him were staggered by the event. Except for me. Granted, we weren't the closest of siblings, but I had a total absence of feeling about the whole thing. My fears were realized when my mother wondered aloud how I could be so stoic about such a tragedy. I felt like a complete heartless bastard for not echoing the feelings of everyone else.

The odder thing is, I'll become a sobbing mess given the faintest excuse. A sad or even touching movie, a joshing or criticizing comment by a friend. It's quite embarrassing. But I can honestly say that if a parent or significant other were to pass away, I'm almost certain I would feel the same way as when my brother died.
posted by SilverTail at 1:39 AM on January 4, 2007

I guess what I was trying to say is, don't stress over it. If you feel the same, then you're not the only one. I hung my head and kept my mouth shut and people just assumed I was "dealing with it on my own terms".
posted by SilverTail at 1:42 AM on January 4, 2007

I can empathize. My uncle dropped the bomb one day over coffee that my grandmother had died a few months before of a stroke. I was kinda surprised, a little hurt that it took the rest of the family this long to tell me but otherwise, I felt nothing. But, the guilt I felt over not reacting the way I've seen others act on TV (this was the first time I'd been close to anyone who'd died so it was my only reference point at the time) vs my reaction to her death didn't add up and I was convinced something was wrong with me. Oh man, the guilt I felt! Why wasn't I balling my eyes out? Where was the sickly knot in my stomach I'm supposed to feel? I must have a heart of stone etc etc ... I was finally able to reconcile how I felt some months later. Suffice it to say, she didn't make easy to like her which is why I reacted the way I did. I'm certain that if things between us was different my reaction would have been too.

The odder thing is, I'll become a sobbing mess given the faintest excuse.

posted by squeak at 2:05 AM on January 4, 2007

Don't judge yourself.

If your problem is that you don't feel happy ever, then you have a problem. If your problem is that you don't feel sad, then let it go.
posted by ewkpates at 3:05 AM on January 4, 2007

Call it stoicism. Think about it later. Don't beat yourself up about it.
posted by pompomtom at 3:39 AM on January 4, 2007

Don't judge yourself by other people's standards of emotional behavior. First of all, you don't see the people who react with little emotion because they're... not being emotional. You see the people who bawl at funerals because they're making a bit of a scene. And secondly, emotions aren't really controllable. They can be directed, but not worn like a shirt or driven like a car.

Also, you can feel emotions without acting out. People can feel the whole range of emotions without outwardly laughing, crying, punching, etc. It's perfectly satisfying for the person feeling them, but not for those around them. For example I might find a joke tremendously funny, but not laugh. The person telling the joke would rather have you laugh (and your mother would rather you cry) but it doesn't change the fact that you did feel the emotion, possibly quite strongly. But forget what others think.

Many people react differently to death, especially based on their philosophy and their relationship. I know several people who believe that grieving for the dead is entirely selfish (they're going to the wonderful afterlife, I'm stuck here without them.) and play death pretty subtlety. Others I know will shed a tear if they read about an accident in the paper.
posted by Ookseer at 3:42 AM on January 4, 2007

All of the above answers are wonderful. I just wanted to add that it's not because you're a guy. Men experience emotions just as women do, even though they aren't expected to be as expressive about it socially.
posted by twirlypen at 3:46 AM on January 4, 2007

You're wired that way. It's not a failure. The world could use some more people like you, honestly.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 5:27 AM on January 4, 2007

It sounds from your question that your concerns reach beyond your reaction to your uncle's death. If you say that you "hold my emotions back to the best of my ability" then you obviously feel them and you're just not able to act on them or let yourself acknowledge them. That's not so bad. If you're in college the campus health center could arrange a therapist for you.

I went through something similar in college where I was afraid that I just couldn't feel things. In retrospect, I think I was so stressed that my emotions just shut themselves down temporarily. It all came flooding back eventually. I hope the same happens for you.
posted by christinetheslp at 5:55 AM on January 4, 2007

It sounds to me like you're going through some issues of self-doubt, with maybe even some self-loathing thrown in there. Regardless of whether you are actually an "emotional failure," and you've presented no good evidence that you are, you're beating yourself up pretty savagely, and I think you might benefit from thinking about why you're so critical of yourself.

In this vein, Compassion and Self-Hate by Theodore Rubin really changed the way I think about myself and the world. I'd recommend highly anything he's written, but this book is specifically about how to accept your personality, warts and all, and stop self-destructive behavior and thinking patterns. It also touches on the ways in which self-doubt can prevent us from expressing our true feelings and interacting honestly with others.
posted by decathecting at 6:59 AM on January 4, 2007

Self-awareness can override your emotions easily. You get bad news, you anticipate a reaction, and then you begin imagining what an appropriate reaction would be-- but all of this examination has served to remove you from the actual news itself and subvert a genuine reaction. And since you would feel uncomfortable committing to a reaction that was not genuine, you simply eschew one altogether.

I think that almost everyone is capable of feeling sympathy and empathy, but some people have a harder time with it than others. Some people react compassionately to anyone's death or suffering, for example, even if they don't know them at all, while others have a hard time mustering compassion for those close to them. This is the case in your situation: you heard that your uncle had died, and when you didn't feel any hot flashes or griefquakes, your focus shifted safely to a subject that you clearly felt more comfortable pondering: "Wow, how fucked up am I?" I think this is simply a defense mechanism. After all, you could have instead begun to think about the impact of your uncle's death on his surviving family, or began tracing back through your memories of him, or asking questions about his life-- the things that usually conjure up emotions and which some people do automatically as a way of coping with loss or showing support or respect. Instead your distance-- your painfully self-aware distance-- gives you something else to focus on during this time, and makes it all the easier for you to return to your life as-previously-scheduled.

If you truly want to embrace this less empathic version of yourself, there are numerous careers and situations that call for just such a person. If you are bothered by it or feel like you're missing out on something, then there is a lot you can do; first and foremost, you simply have to force yourself to crawl out from under your own perspective. Whether you do this with counseling, volunteer work, through religious pursuits, or by traveling to places far outside of your everyday realm of experience, eventually you will find something that touches you in an unexpected way, and I assure you that when it does, the tears will fall.

Better to make this an elective process than just wait for life to deal you a hand that will break you down against your will.
posted by hermitosis at 8:00 AM on January 4, 2007

I too am a generally unemotional person. And I'm a woman. But there are just people who don't get very emotional about things, and if they do, they don't display it. I think it's fairly normal. You have to distinguish between not feeling strongly about an event or situation (normal) and feeling strongly, but repressing your feelings (not normal and kind of unhealthy). Also, I find that sometimes certain situations spark strong reactions in me, but others don't. For example, I cried while watching the events of 9/11 and the Southeast Asian Tsunami on tv, but I've never had a particularly strong reaction to a relative dying even if I knew them (of course, I've never had a close relative die, just great aunts or uncles). My mother calls me a "cold fish" (in a loving, non-judgmental way), but the way I see it, the world needs people like us who stay unmoved even when the world is going insane.
posted by katyggls at 8:28 AM on January 4, 2007

Response by poster: I can't even being to describe how helpful all of your answers have been for me.

Thank you all very much for taking the time to respond to my situation. Your information and perspectives on the matter have opened my eyes, so-to-speak.

Thanks again - seriously.
posted by misled at 11:59 AM on January 4, 2007

Heck, this thread makes me feel less alone. I don't have much (if any) reaction when people die either, and I've had four family members go in the last few years. If/when my dad finally dies, I know I'll be sitting there dry-eyed while my mother sobs her heart out for years.

Course, I do think it is a factor when all of my relatives die from long, long drawn-out illnesses, and you end up doing the mourning beforehand.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:57 PM on January 7, 2007

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