inappropriate or constricted affect

What on earth does that even mean?

A quick Google search describes constricted affect as a restriction in the range or intensity of display of feelings. While inappropriate affect is the display of feelings inappropriate for the situation.

I’ve already talked some about the restriction in the range or intensity of display of feelings in Symptom: Emotionally Inexpressive.

Inappropriate affect however, I haven’t talked about at all. It’s fairly easy for me to find examples of this in my own life.

Two memories in particular stand out to me:

The first, I was younger than 15 at least. Maybe 13-14 or a couple years younger? I was in an indoor swimming pool with my dad, his girlfriend and my youngest half brother. I knew the girlfriend could swim. She would jump into the deep end and dog-paddle around. Then, suddenly she began calling for help while splashing around in the deep end of the pool. Maybe she had suffered a panic attack and forgotten how to swim. She wasn’t a very good swimmer to begin with. I didn’t understand any of this. All I saw was that this woman, who I knew could swim, was splashing around as if she didn’t and people were starting to look concerned. It was so funny to me, I couldn’t help but laugh. Being the one closest to her, I simply swam over and pushed her to the shallow end of the pool where she could reach the bottom and get out of the pool herself. Chuckling all the way. It was an indoor pool. Where was the danger? The harm? Of course, I was reprimanded by the attending life guard for laughing. She could have drowned! But she knew how to swim! I know now, that being able to swim is not the same as being unable to drown.

Looking back now, I can see how inappropriate my laughter was. But I still remember how absurd the whole situation was to me. The way she splashed around looked really funny. I just didn’t understand the gravity of the situation.

The second memory is somewhat similar. This one was in high school. The high school I attended had a proud history with not a single suicide among its students. This is significant, given the high suicide rate in Greenland. That record was broken when the school was hit with a suicide epidemic in my second or third year. 3 students killed themselves that year. Including one of my classmates.

After every suicide, the school would gather all the students and hold a memorial. 1 minute’s silence for the poor sod, every single time. By the third time, it went from horribly tragic to downright absurd. Students started asking each other: “Who’s next?” As if there was some invisible serial killer going around offing random people.

At the last memorial, I stood at the back, chuckling to myself. Laughing in the face of tragedy. This time I was well aware of how inappropriate that was. It was no laughing matter. But it still struck me as funny. 3 people, who’d suffered were dead by their own hands and all the rest of us could offer was a speech and a minute’s silence. It was so goddamn sad it was funny.

But yeah, laughing at a memorial is hardly appropriate behavior.

We tend to do odd things when we don’t know what to do. Some lash out and become violent. Others are paralyzed and overcome with their own inadequacies. Some, like me develop a warped sense of humor and laugh at tragedy.

Behavior that is inexplicable or inappropriate when looking from the outside, usually makes sense when seen from the inside. Our behavior, no matter how insane are bound by their own internal logic. Even if we can’t quite explain it, it makes sense to us. It feels natural. I couldn’t not laugh.

Reacting to horrible things by smiling or laughing isn’t actually as out there as it might sound. Laughter and smiles are mechanisms deeply ingrained in humans. They have a relaxing, calming effect. Even disarming. After all, people will like someone who’s smiling better than someone who’s frowning. It’s an excellent coping and defense mechanism. For example, we automatically laugh when we get tickled. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly enjoy being tickled, even though it does feel good to laugh.

So, do I laugh at horrible things because I’m a horrible person who lacks empathy? I don’t think that’s the case at all. But it’s very easy to make that assumption. If tragedy makes you laugh, you’re assumed to be horrible, if comedy makes you cry, you’re assumed to be overly sensitive and if you get angry at nothing at all, you’re an excellent target for bullying.

So, I think inappropriate affect is an expression of a divide between what goes on on the inside and what goes on on the outside. Either due to the outside stuff being interpreted incorrectly inside your head, like putting 2 and 2 together and getting chicken pot pie, or because you’re reacting to something going on inside your mind that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the outside world. I find that spending too much time with your own thoughts tends to dull awareness of what’s actually going on around you. My point is, the inappropriate behavior has meaning and logic behind it. Just not meaning or logic that’s obvious when seen from the outside.

2 thoughts on “inappropriate or constricted affect

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