DRMacIver's Notebook

Holding yourself tightly

Holding yourself tightly

One thing you might be surprised to learn about me if you only know me through my writing is that I’m actually very bad at expressing my emotions.

This doesn’t come across that much on the internet, because the internet primarily uses the one exception to this. To be more precise, I’m very bad at expressing my emotions except in words. I can label feelings just fine, but actually showing them is much harder. The result is a slightly comical situation where I say things like “I’m very sad” or “I’m quite annoyed about this” in a perfectly calm voice and with very little visible expression about it.

I’m slightly better at expressing positive emotions, although not much. I can laugh just fine (although I’m somewhat on board with the idea that amusement is not an emotion. At the very least, amusement is a particularly safe emotion). I think I can show enthusiasm, but not particularly easily.

This particularly comes up with really physical expressions of emotion. I can’t really cry around other people (I don’t find it that easy to on my own either, but it’s doable). I struggle to raise my voice. Plus a few other examples that I won’t go into here. Instead my physical presentation, more or less regardless of what I’m feeling, is fairly reserved. Not emotionless exactly, but very heavily skewed in the direction of seeming… not exactly calm, in that I’m told I definitely often look uncomfortable, but controlled certainly.

I think this often gets confused with alexithymia, but it’s not. It’s not that I don’t feel things, or know what I’m feeling, when around other people, it’s that it doesn’t feel safe to express those things.

Often this feeling is accurate, honestly. A lot of people aren’t safe to have emotions around - unless you have the officially approved of emotions in a situation, you’re very rapidly judged as being a bad person for having the wrong emotions. This is especially true of being upset or angry about anything they feel you’re not allowed to be upset or angry about.

This isn’t hypothetical, I’ve lost multiple friendships this way. As I said (about the same incidents) in Wanting (to) help:

They would no doubt tell you this is a grossly unfair summary of the situation. I would, in turn, tell you that yes they would say that and can get fucked as far as I’m concerned. This is as close as I am prepared to come in providing a fair and balanced summary of events.

It’s also very much a party of the internet discourse. A lot of people on the internet tell you that men should be more open about their feelings. Unfortunately they rarely remember to include the small print:

  1. No, not those feelings.
  2. Not to me.

All of this compounds with a lot of childhood problems for me. I don’t know how much bullying you’ve experienced, but let me tell you, the basic tool of the bully (at any age) is to provoke you until you can’t help but exhibit strong emotions. Gee I wonder why it’s hard for me to express emotions after a childhood constantly at war with people against whom me crying or getting angry (and thus in trouble with the teachers) was their victory condition.

Given all this, the confusing thing is actually not that I can’t express emotions, but that I can express them verbally. There’s definitely some inner conflict here, but I think of it boils down to two things: The first is just that some large part of me wants to be emotionally open, and will find any means available to it to do that. The other reason is that talking about your emotions calmly isn’t actually particularly vulnerable - it’s a way to signal that this doesn’t really matter and you can’t hurt me with this information. Saying “I’m very sad” is stoically calm, crying is weak.

I think of this as “holding myself tightly” around other people. It feels very much like that, right down to the muscle tension (my muscles are also pretty tense on my own, honestly, but the experience of emotional control is definitely partly muscular).

I don’t endorse this as a way of being, of course. Given a choice about how to be, I would laugh, shout, cry, dance with joy, and generally show far more of what I’m feeling on my face and body. The problem is that I literally don’t know how.

Part of the problem is that it doesn’t feel like something I can selectively turn off. Mostly I do not spend time with people who will punish me for expressing emotions and, hard as it is to find out when a friend has let you down, to the degree that I do I would like to not spend time with those people further. But it doesn’t feel like something I can selectively turn off only around safe people - if I stop doing this, whatever part of me it is that maintains it feels like the habit will be gone for good, and is apparently terrified at the prospect of this.

I have some ideas for how to work on this, but honestly none of them are very good, so if anyone else has suggestions I’m all ears.