How to turn from a non-feeling robot, to an all loving, all fearing earthchild?
April 1, 2007 11:27 AM   Subscribe

What can I do to develop my emotional muscles?

Since an early age, I have been a rather "unfeeling" person. By that, I mean that I rarely feel emotions. I *have* the emotion, but I don't *feel* it.

For example, recently I was at the dentists. I was petrified. They put the little thing on the end of my finger to keep an eye on my pulse, and the nurse had to call the anaesthetist (I have to be knocked out to have the treatment, or I can't handle it) in to check. I don't recall what my pulse was, but it was way higher than it should have been. I also had sweaty palms and a dry mouth, etc, but I felt perfectly calm. Neither the nurse or the anaesthetist had ever seen someone with all the physical symptoms I was showing, be so calm. I was sat in the chair as cool as a cucumber. Inside, I knew I was 3 seconds from getting up and running from the room, but I only knew that intellectually.

I'm intellectually aware that I am scared (for example), but I don't feel it, in the emotional sense. Which is great for walking through a rough part of town late at night, but it's not so good when I'm lying in bed with my (ex) partner, unable to honestly say "I love you". I know I love, because I do things that people do when they love someone, but I wouldn't feel that "glow". I wouldn't "love" them. I don't actually have a partner, and it doesn't really bother me. I did have a LTR, but we used to see each other once a month, for a day or two. This ended, not that it ever really got going, just before Christmas. We were "together" for 7 years.

Background - I'm male, 25 yrs, and I grew up in a rather cold household. I was always fed, clothed, taught, etc, but was never much loved, especially by my father. I was never really part of a peer group, much preferring to go off by myself to muck about in ponds, rather than engage in team sports. At school I was a loner, never had any real or deep friendships and was often bullied, not that it bothered me overmuch. I've drifted into the job I'm in, because I can't seem to care enough to get a real career.

In several ways, I'm very similar to my father. He too has difficulty with personal relationships, has a naff job, is extremely emotionally uninvolved (which my mother seems to love, because they've been married for over 40 years), and is very intellectually developed. He is scary smart at things like mathematics and sciences, but doesn't seem to understand that my mother should be upset when he says she is fat.

Yet while I don't feel emotions myself, I am very interested in other people's. (Perhaps so I can get a vicarious kick out of it.) I am very aware if one of my friends needs help, or is hurting. I spent 3 hours (2am - 5am) with a friend one night when her 11 year marriage ended, doing everything I could to comfort her. It really bothered me, again intellectually, that she was in pain. I couldn't empathise, though. I couldn't feel sympathy for her, or anger at the way her husband treated her. I was basing everything I said/did on unemotional principles ("you must keep going for Michael (her son)", "tell the bank and they'll give you a bit of leeway on the mortgage", etc).

Other info that may be useful/pertinent - I am rather paranoid about my identity, to the point of creating several wholly false ones to use online. I don't like people knowing where I live, or who I am, to the point of getting into hot water at work for refusing to wear a name badge. The fact that my name is on every single till receipt really bothers me. I'm really interested in how/why things work the way they do - programming languages, computers, my car, evolution, medicine (in a big way) and people, for example.

I've done some research online, and the closest thing I've come up with is http://www.coping.org/lowesteem/nonfeel.htm. I'm also wondering if I'm autistic? I'm certainly not qualified to make that decision myself, though. I could well be depressed, and not even know it. And odds are I'm going to get several people saying "see a therapist". Which is fine, and probably something I should do anyway, but I have difficulty knowing what to say other than "I feel like a statue". I am interested in finding out if there is anything I can do to have a more eventful emotional life, especially if I can do it "at home", and have some control over it. For example, not medication, but yoga.

My email address is gamgeeorama@googlemail.com.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
This sounds like how I felt as a young man. I feel for you, brother. You've got some incredibly powerful dissociation, like I've heard about with PTSD cases. In my case, my parents never expressed healthy love toward each other (they finally divorced when I was 20), and it took me years to figure it out for myself.

Random thoughts: join a group in which you are forced to commit yourself to a public opinion and say what you truly believe. E.g. Toastmasters, a Dale Carnegie course, or some political action or religious group. Or improv theater.

The context isn't important, the idea is to jog yourself out of your observer mode and make a public commitment to something.

You're living exclusively in your head and not connecting to your body. Your brain, more accurately, your left brain, is not the only part of you that feels awareness. You know this intellectually but can't let go of that control.

You may find that if you participate in a group activity that involves a lot of physical exertion (choreographed dancing, acting prep, etc.), especially when it is with a group, that you can sneak into your emotions through the back door. The reason I emphasize the group activity is that we are by nature social animals, and group activities, even if they have nothing to do with the purpose of the group, can promote a social bond. And social bonding is connected with your emotional life, because it is through our shared ability to experience emotions that we connect with each other.
posted by Araucaria at 12:53 PM on April 1, 2007


Even a spin class at a gym can do what araucaria is talking about.

I second the notion that there is some severe disassociation going on.

Print out what you wrote and take it to a therapist-I think you have done a pretty good job describing things.
posted by konolia at 1:08 PM on April 1, 2007


I do think you have a lot of great insight/description for a therapist to help you with. And that's basically a therapist's job, to help you sort through the things in your life that you don't like and help you figure out how to make them work in ways you do like.

You also mentioned yoga, which I think could be another great way for you to break through some of what you're concerned about. Many styles talk about trying to "tap in" to what you're feeling, without getting so caught up in it that it overwhelms you. If they're available in your area, I'd suggest styles like Anusara and Jivamukti, both of which focus a lot on emotion. Anusara, especially, focuses on "opening to grace," which is a metaphor for cracking through those emotional walls and being willing to be open to what's going on both inside and outside yourself.

Insight meditation (also called vipassana meditation) might be another way to "tap into" what you're feeling. It seems to be the basis for a lot of the ways yoga asks you to do the same thing.

It sounds like you have a lot going on in your past, and a pretty good idea of what you'd like for your future. I wish you luck making it happen.

(And if you're in SF and want suggestions for yoga teachers, please feel free to email.)
posted by occhiblu at 2:44 PM on April 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


At least you are able to perceive the emotions of others; I'm not sure someone with autism has that ability.
posted by HotPatatta at 2:55 PM on April 1, 2007


Possibility 1: Autism or Asperger's or something on the spectrum.

Possibility 2: Extreme emotional dissociation as a learned behavior, so well-built into your ways of thinking that you may be impossible to rebuild.

Possibility 3: According to family systems therapy (and I may get this wrong), families often have powerful taboos, most often heard as "We don't have a problem with [anger, jealousy, affection, lust, whatever the family has a problem with expressing]" You learn, subconsciously, that this taboo emotion is so scary that having it might destroy you. (Perhaps you had a scapegoat in your family, a sort of demonstration model whose job was to show how very scary that emotion is.) As a result you spend enormous energy suppressing this emotion. Over time, you wind up suppressing even the related emotions, which is every one of them, since all emotions tie in together. Hence you wind up feeling nothing.

Or all three possibilities together, to varying degrees.

At any rate, I would suggest a podcast, a free one. Search iTunes for "Psych 156 - Fall 2006: Human Emotion" It's a fascinating class.
posted by argybarg at 3:13 PM on April 1, 2007 [3 favorites]


Always remember that while there are bad aspects to this dissociation, it's also a good thing! It gives you objectivity, the ability to think logically in times of crisis, and to always have your head screwed on rather than be flushed away with emotion.

It's people with strong emotions who cause most of the trouble in this world by getting all blindly excited over issues like religion, patriotism, politics, etc. Detachment is a good thing, but, naturally, finding some way to experience some of the good sides of emotions is certainly not a bad idea.. just don't try to give it all up!
posted by wackybrit at 3:23 PM on April 1, 2007


When I feel my emotions, I feel them. Which is to say, I feel sadness in my upper chest, anger in my lower back, etc. So if you're having physiological responses to your emotions, it's possible to feel your emotions this way, by listening to your body. Don't expect your emotions or feelings to show up in your head.

It's people with strong emotions who cause most of the trouble in this world by getting all blindly excited over issues like religion, patriotism, politics, etc. Detachment is a good thing, but, naturally, finding some way to experience some of the good sides of emotions is certainly not a bad idea.. just don't try to give it all up!

Now is definitely not the place to get on a soapbox for either position, but I don't think this advice is helpful. Human beings are not meant to be automatons making logical decisions and punching buttons; we're supposed to be connected to others in empathic and emotional ways. It sounds like the OP is trying to get advice on how to be emotional at all; I'm seriously doubtful that he will ever be the kind of person who is overwhelmed by emotion to a negative degree.
posted by Deathalicious at 3:50 PM on April 1, 2007 [1 favorite]


Now is definitely not the place to get on a soapbox for either position, but I don't think this advice is helpful. Human beings are not meant to be automatons making logical decisions and punching buttons; we're supposed to be connected to others in empathic and emotional ways.
I have both, and I find my logical-decision persona suits the world better, when it comes to choices of work, study, the opposite sex. I have reasonable grounds to be sure I’d be less happy right now if I had followed more seriously what my gut and the constriction of my chest suggested in several major life decisions.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 4:22 PM on April 1, 2007


Eh, as to the question; fake it til you make it? I find emotion can arise after a respectable amount of time going through the motions.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 4:24 PM on April 1, 2007


I was going to guess that you were from the UK even before I got to the word "naff"--and before Wackybrit's comment--but the first three responses resonate. There are cultural aspects, certainly, but we need contact with others to break the state you describe.

A good therapist would get it-don't let the difficulty of expressing the issue be a hurdle.

Araucaria, Occhiblu,and Konolia's comments were right on target and I hope they'll elaborate.
posted by Phred182 at 4:25 PM on April 1, 2007


Have you thought about getting a pet or getting involved with horses or volunteering at an organic farm or something? Sometimes I think that it's easier to open up to an animal and learn how to "love" or deal with other emotions that way first because you can be over the top and silly and mercurial and they don't really care (as long as you feed them of course).
posted by fshgrl at 5:18 PM on April 1, 2007


I've had some of the problems you're talking about here, and some of the background behind them too. Without going into too much detail, yes — I come from a very cerebral family, we tend to discuss our emotions rather than act them out, and when I was younger I had a very hard time experiencing mine for myself.

One of the interesting effects this had for me was making some kinds of therapy near-useless on their own. I, like you, was very fond of talking about human psychology and feelings, but all the talk had become part of my defense against feeling them. It meant I could hold my own emotions at a distance, picking them apart and looking at them and feeling some sort of power over them without actually having any sort of immediate relationship with them at all. So for years, I went to a very "talk"-y therapist, and enjoyed it very much — after all, it was a venue to discuss one of my favorite topics once a week — but ultimately I was just giving myself more practice at one of my defense mechanisms, you know? I learned a lot, I had a lot of fascinating conversations, but I don't think any of it really helped much with the root problem.

Looking back now, I think that other kinds of therapy — kinds that I might have enjoyed less, FWIW — could still have been helpful if I'd been willing to stick it out with one of them. I do get the impression that some therapists are less about talk and more about the gut feelings themselves. Someone like that, in hindsight, would probably have been more helpful — but, of course, less fun.

Similarly, there are probably kinds of meditation that would have helped. What I gravitated towards, though, was a Zen sangha where a detatchment was highly valued and mellowness was next to Godliness. As someone who needed to get less mellow and detatched, it wasn't a helpful atmosphere. (Mind you, I'm not criticizing the teachings themselves, which I may have been misinterpreting. Since then I've read wonderful passages by Buddhist authors on owning your emotions and facing them fearlessly. It's like the problem I had with therapists: a different group, with different emphasis and priorities, might have helped more, but I probably would have been less comfortable there in the gutsier, less cerebral atmosphere.)

Some things that did help, unexpectedly:
  • Hanging out with a new group of friends — people who, at first glance, I thought were seriously emotionally over-the-top. (Argybarg's "We don't have a problem with X" fit me to a tee at the time.) The more time I spent in an environment where strong emotional reactions were normal, though, the less threatening I found them.
  • Getting involved in a religious group with a less detatched take on emotion. I'm a "non-believer," but when a friend started taking me to rituals with a pagan group she belonged to, I found them deeply moving all the same. A lot of their rituals involved creating a "safe space" and then evoking some sort of emotion — gratitude, anger, sorrow, love, whatever — for the celebrants to grapple with. I'm still an atheist, but even approaching the rituals as a sort of group therapy or experimental participatory theater was very helpful for me, and I've come to the conclusion that ritual can be just as good for that sort of work as therapy.
  • Trying to grab life by the throat a little more. I'm not suggesting you become some sort of risk- or thrill-seeker — you don't need to add any kind of trauma to the problem — but intense non-traumatic experiences are good for breaking through this sort of shell.
  • Thinking about it less. I'd grown up with the attitude that any problem could be solved through careful analysis, so this seemed like a big oxymoron. But this sort of emotional problem, I found, can be a little like impotence — you can't will or talk or think your feelings to the surface, you just have to step back and let them (err...) come.
As for autism and depression, both could be relevant — me, I think I'm a little on the Asperger-y side, and I've definitely had full-on bouts of depression that felt a lot like numbness at the time and only made sense as depression in hindsight. FWIW, antidepressants were not terribly helpful for me — my average mood would be brighter, sure, but when situations came up that made me mad or sad or whatever I'd still keep the emotion at arms length. But your mileage may vary.

One last thing (and I'm sorry this is getting so long-winded): I've talked a lot about what didn't work for me. That's because I found the experience of things not working to be flat-out terrifying. I felt like I was broken in an unfixable way. When things that were supposed to help — therapy, meditation, introspection and careful thought — just made it worse, I would blame myself or just decide that I must be too much of a freak to expect any improvement. So I want to warn you of some specific pitfalls that I succumbed to, yes, but also just to remind you that in general some shit's not going to work and that's just part of the deal. If the thing that worked for your too-emotional buddy doesn't work for you — well, that's not so surprising, is it? — and a lot of therapeutic options are geared towards people who are too emotional or act out their feelings too instinctively.

Damn but I've gone on long enough. Email's in my profile if you want to talk. Hope some bits of this do help, sorry about the ones that don't apply, and good luck. Addressing this shit is a huge gift to yourself and the people around you, and you deserve to succeed.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:29 PM on April 1, 2007 [4 favorites]


Hm. Nice irony there — typing a good three screens of text about how I quit over-analysing things. I guess some things do stay with you.... :)
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:34 PM on April 1, 2007


Things to learn more about:
1) Get enough Omega 3
2) Go for long walks outside, over and over and over
3) Realize discovering yourself is a life long process
4) Meditate (if this is difficult at first, listen to relaxation and meditation tapes daily)
5) Read "Unlimited Power" by Robbins and ignore the parts you don't like, absorbing the ones you do

Go for more walks, and then lift something heavy
posted by Furious Fitness at 10:21 AM on April 2, 2007


Phred182 writes "I was going to guess that you were from the UK even before I got to the word 'naff'--and before Wackybrit's comment--but the first three responses resonate. There are cultural aspects, certainly, but we need contact with others to break the state you describe.

"A good therapist would get it-don't let the difficulty of expressing the issue be a hurdle.

"Araucaria, Occhiblu,and Konolia's comments were right on target and I hope they'll elaborate."


Thanks Phred182, I have commented privately to the poster. I'm not quite sure what you wish me to elaborate on, but maybe one thing I could add is that in my experience, the feeling of being disconnected from your emotions is a signal from your unconscious that something is wrong and you need to address it. To me, it means you are not living your life with integrity. For some reason, you have chosen to ignore or suppress your natural impulse, and that cluster of emotions gets trapped inside you like a separate self. It can happen quite slowly, like the old cliche (wrong, actually) that a frog put in cold water and then heated won't jump out before it's scaled. Or it could happen quite quickly, in response to a sudden perception of life-threatening trauma. Or you assume within yourself some set of social constraints that are really not there, e.g. I've got to keep this job for the security, or I've got to stay in this marriage for A, B, C reasons.

You're going to have to face it in the long run, or end up like Eleanor Rigby, putting on a face that you keep in a jar by the door, until you die. Might as well start now.

-
posted by Araucaria at 1:08 PM on April 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


I had a milder version of your issue and I found that joining a co-ed intimacy group helped a lot. It's "intimacy practice" and ther's a lot of encouragement towards figuring out what you feelings actually are (if you aren't aware of them).
posted by Four Flavors at 2:22 PM on April 2, 2007


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