Symptom: Emotionally inexpressive

This one I found incredibly hard to write about because it covers feelings and emotions, which I find incredibly difficult to talk about even on the best of days. I’ve written and rewritten the entire post about half a dozen times. I do hope the end result isn’t nearly as messy as my thoughts on the subject.

This is not a symptom I myself am fully aware of. I can’t tell how much or how little emotion I actually express unless others comment on it, which few actually do. And even then, they might comment on it in a sort of roundabout way, like someone might say I look more relaxed/happy after we’ve known each other for a while. I never actually realized I could be considered emotionally inexpressive until my doctor made note of it at the time of my diagnosis.

I don’t know how long I’ve had this particular symptom. For all I know, it’s something I’ve always had. Maybe it can even explain a lot of why I have such a hard time in social situations. It could be the reason I’ve sometimes felt as if there’s a glass wall between me and everyone else. It makes sense. People tend to avoid someone who’s aloof, who doesn’t mirror their own emotions. Someone who does not display weakness becomes unrelatable and unapproachable.

I can think of three main reasons why I might not express myself openly:

  1. I don’t actually know how I feel.
  2. I fear the consequences of my own feelings.
  3. I simply take a long time to warm up to new people.

First reason is difficult to deal with. I have to take the time to process physical and emotional cues to pinpoint my feelings. Sometimes, they can be very indistinct or difficult to identify.

Let’s take fear as an example. I tend to avoid social situations, but I hesitate to say that I’m afraid of social situations or have social anxiety. The behavior is the same: Avoidance. But I don’t easily recognize the telltale signs of fear: accelerated heart-rate, sweating, the feeling of unease, the worrying about what other people think of me, difficulty breathing. Some of these things do register on some level, the heart-rate and difficulty breathing in particular. But they don’t necessarily become conscious. I might realize I’m suddenly taking long, slow breaths to compensate before I register the actual signs of fear. The worry about what other people might think of me becomes internalized so I worry about what I think of me instead and I’m convinced I don’t actually care what others think of me, even though maybe I actually do on some level. Or maybe I don’t actually care what others think of me?

The emotions themselves become lost in coping mechanisms and strategies until I can’t fully tell what’s what or where the cause to my reactions lie. Maybe it’s a result of suppressing my feelings for too long? Or maybe I’m just not very sensitive to my own feelings for some reason? Maybe the connection between my brain and face muscles is just naturally weak? Maybe I just overthink everything and make it more complex than it really is?

As a result I sometimes find myself in truly upsetting situations without having the first clue why it is I find it so upsetting. It often takes me a while of careful introspection and ruminating over the whole situation before it finally dawns on me. Maybe someone said something I didn’t like and upset me, but I’m loathe to make mention of it before I know exactly what it was that upset me. Otherwise, what’s really the point? You can’t ask someone to apologize over or not repeat something you don’t even know what is. There’s very little as upsetting as being upset over nothing or not knowing what it is you’re so upset over.

On top of that, it becomes especially difficult if someone comments how I seem to feel one thing when in fact I feel something else entirely. Maybe someone would make a comment that I look more relaxed and comfortable, when in fact I’m bored out of my mind and about ready to run off screaming. It annoys me and I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t want to tell people not to voice their impression of me, quite the opposite. But what do I do when that impression is wrong? Do I correct them and say: “No, sorry this isn’t my happy and comfortable face, it’s my dying of boredom face”? Wouldn’t that make the whole thing more awkward? What if they’re right and I’m the one interpreting my own feelings wrong?

The second reason is maybe kind of complicated. In my experience, expressing negative feelings tend to produce negative outcomes. I express anger, the response is often offended and defensive, I express sadness, the response is sadness. I don’t want to make others sad! Or hurt or offended. Especially not those I care about. So, I prefer not to express those feelings. That way, I’m the only one suffering. In the short term anyways.

Because the truth is, hiding feelings doesn’t make them go away. Eventually, they’ll boil over. I know this. It’s just that it’s easier to cover them up, to wait until I’m beyond caring. The short term relief means more in the now, the long term consequences is a problem for another day.

In much the same way, I’m very conscious of not “showing weakness”, especially when I’m not quite sure about the company I’m in. I’ll avoid complaining and automatically bury any embarrassment. Embarrassment especially is something I’ve become very good at avoiding.  If I don’t acknowledge it, it’s almost as if it isn’t there at all. If anything bothers me, I’m not likely to point it out. I go to great lengths to avoid crying in front of others as much as possible. However, when I’m with friends and family, I love complaining about every little, silly thing. I’m far more talkative as well. Almost as if to compensate, letting out a little of the steam I’ve been bottling up. But only with those few I know very well and very, very rarely anything serious.

It’s not hard to imagine that this kind of thing would affect my relationships a great deal. I have easy, comfortable relationships with all of my immediate family and my closest friends. But the minute they start digging into the serious things, the relationship crumbles and I can’t get away fast enough. But family and friends are supposed to be the ones that can handle the serious stuff. Those who’ll stick around for the bad as well as the good.

But then, there’s very little as painful as the realization that you can’t actually trust someone you thought you could rely on, that you’re supposed to be able to rely on.

I’m lucky in that my family and friends are all loving and supportive. I know I can rely on them. But there’s always that little doubt. Because we’re all only human. We have faults and I’d rather live in faith than truly test it and risk rejection. I’m afraid that if I told someone that I truly needed them and they couldn’t be there, I’d break. It’s easier to tell myself that I don’t need to say it, that of course they’ll be there if I need them, but I don’t need them that much right now.

Lastly, it’s very likely that this symptom has not only affected my existing relationships, but the forming of new relationships (or lack thereof). I warm up extremely slowly to new people. If I don’t know them, I don’t know if they’re worth spending time with, but I can only know them by spending time with them. And if I lack emotional expression, it’s likely it would put a great many people off. After all, why would you spend time with someone if you can’t even tell if they’re the least bit happy to spend time with you?

Mulling over this symptom and the possible problems and after talking to a social worker about how she connects with the people she works with, some interesting questions came to mind: Why do we find some people more genuine, approachable and relateable? Not because they’re perfect. We tend to resent people who seem to do so much better than us, seemingly without effort, do we not? However, when we see someone with flaws, someone who has to work hard for every, little victory, we can sympathize. They become more human to us. They become like us.

Everyone struggles with something and the struggle is something we can usually bond over. Things like embarrassment, frustration, fear, sadness, feeling inadequate. Most, if not all of us have been there one way or another. It invokes sympathy. I think we like being able to sympathize with those we’re with. But we tend to hate being sympathized, it quickly becomes pitied and patronized. I certainly do.

But then, by refusing to show weakness, by pretending nothing at all bothers me, I may inadvertently tell people, that I’m superior to them, that I wouldn’t be able to understand their flaws, that we have nothing to talk about or bond over. Essentially that I surely wouldn’t give them poor, faulty mortals the time of the day.

I’m often described as very intelligent and seem very mature and competent, but in truth I often feel so very far from all those things that the compliments sometimes end up seeming like outright lies to me. Me, intelligent? Hurr-durr, thanks I guess? I can’t seem to work out even the simplest of problems though. Competent? Yet routinely defeated by a pile of dishes. Mature? LOL.

I like being praised and admired, even if I can’t quite believe the admired traits truly are ones I possess. It’s certainly better than pity or resentment. I want those around me to see the good, not the bad. So I tend to cover up the bad. Perhaps with time and practice, I’ll be able to open up more and then I’ll learn that I truly don’t have to be lonely.

Sense of Self

Talking to a few others with schizotypal disorder during a group session, I found a curious trait most of us seemed to share. And that was a lacking, or poor sense of self. It was somewhat described as feeling “hollow” or not having a core of identity by one and it’s a feeling I find I can recognize: The sense of being a different person depending on who I’m talking to. I’ve on occasion thought of myself as a mirror, merely reflecting others’ own image back at them. Sometimes I’ve felt like a poor facsimile of a human being, other times just as if I’m missing something crucial that’s supposed to make me a person. Sometimes, when alone, I’d feel like a puppet, with her strings cut, or a toy others might pull out and play with for a while, but then put back in the toy box and forget about until the next play-time.

Identity is a complex thing I’m sure we all struggle with at one point or another. Teenage years and mid-life crises come to mind. Questions like: Who am I? What do I want? Like? What do I think about this or that or how does one thing or other make me feel? But I imagine most people have a sense of being, something inside they can point to and say: That’s me. They might not know who they are or what they’re really like, but there’s something. A constant that’s always there. A certainty that there’s something that’s you and you do exist.

This doesn’t seem necessarily the case if you suffer from Schizotypal disorder. I don’t know if it’s a trait in every case or how severe or mild it can be for each person. For me, I do usually have a sense of self. I’m the source of my thoughts. Trouble is, I can’t always tell if it’s really a me, or stray fragments of thoughts and opinions picked up from other people and tangled up together to fill an empty void.

The worst part of it is, I think, that whenever I try to talk about what I think/feel or how I see myself, I can’t always tell if I’m even telling the truth or not. I often struggle to find the right words to describe them and I am endlessly worrying about whether or not the words I use actually mean what I think they mean. I worry constantly that I’m being misunderstood and that I in turn don’t understand others at all. Makes for interesting social interaction. Not to mention sitting down and writing a blog like this one. Sometimes it just all feels like a massive waste of time, but anxiety and depression are a topics for another day.

So, what do I do to try and lessen the feeling of emptiness, the lack of identity? I treat it like an empty canvas and paint something on it. I sit down and think about what kind of person I want to be: Honest, compassionate, loyal, kind, intelligent, confident… and then I strive to live by the values I make for myself. Of course it’s not easy and I don’t always live up to my ideals, but then no one actually does. I think of it like this: Who I am doesn’t matter nearly as much as what I do. Then all I have to think about is what do to do to create the image I want for myself. But I realize it might ring a little hollow to some. It just ends up feeling like another role to play. A lie.

Another thing I do is, I spend a lot of time pondering my interests, my talents, consider what I like to do, take the time to really think about my likes and dislikes, try to examine my feelings and emotions and how I react to one thing or another. I imagine Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) also might provide a good way to challenge the feeling of emptiness/hollowness and negative thoughts such as “I’m nobody”, “I don’t have a personality” and the like. Often times, when you sit down and really think about it, there’s usually always some kind of evidence that there really is a person inside.

I try not to compare myself to other people too much. Down that road lies all kinds of misery.

I mentioned playing a role earlier and incidentally, one of my big interests is roleplaying. I recommend it for anyone who struggles with identity problems. Or hell, I’d recommend it to anyone just ’cause it’s super fun! The gist of it is, you construct a fictional character complete with a backstory and personality and then act them out in a series of scenarios together with other players. Basically making a game out of playing pretend. There are many ways you can roleplay: Live action roleplay, a great variety of desktop games like Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and Shadowrun, as well as text-based roleplaying fora all around internet. There are also roleplaying communities in the various Massively Multiplayer Roleplaying Games like World of Warcraft and the like. Roleplaying gives a great opportunity to explore roles, personalities and even sexuality without actually putting yourself out there. I had a guy in my roleplaying group once, who played a gay character before he officially came out as gay. I don’t know if the roleplaying ever actually had any effect on his decision when he did decide to come out of the closet. I never asked. But I like to think it helped just a little.

 

A poor sense of self can be an incredibly painful, confusing thing to live with. But perhaps there can be upsides to it too and it certainly doesn’t have to be all pain always.