Aspergers and Emotions

 

This post was supposed to be a written follow up to my previous (wordless) post about Perception.

But a revelation a few days ago changed that.

Revelation of the obvious?

I have recently been going through a particularly difficult period.

  • I won’t bore you with the details as to why :-)

But this difficult period has had a negative impact on my feelings.

 

I had a particularly challenging day this past week, on pretty much every level, which had me working until the early hours of the next day.

  • Although it was an exhausting day, I felt surprisingly energized throughout the day
  • With a real sense of accomplishment when I finally got to bed

The next day I awoke feeling very tired and that’s when it hit me!

I was acutely aware that despite feeling very tired, I was also feeling quite optimistic and happy.

  • In stark contrast to my recent experience of feeling very tired and also quite sad

Apparently tired is not the same as sad!

  • Why didn’t I realize this before?
  • But perhaps more importantly, how could I possibly have confused tiredness with sadness?


Flashback

Back in 1995 I was referred to a local counselling service.

  • To explore my ‘disappointment and dissatisfaction’

My initial meeting at the Counselling Service was with the Team supervisor.

  • His job was to assess me and select the most suitable Counselor

He opened with a few pleasantries and then asked me about my background with a very open question.

He finally interrupted my diatribe with;

‘That’s amazing, you’ve just spoken for 15 minutes without mentioning a single feeling.’

followed by:

‘You live entirely in your head’

This shocked me for several reasons because and in no particular order;

  • Although I couldn’t confirm his assertion intellectually, I knew intuitively that he was correct
  • I then realized, again intuitively, that this had been a lifelong pattern
  • His interruption seemed quite rude, made almost mocking in tone
  • Certainly aloof, if nothing else
  • He offered no elaboration

Counselling

I spent a year or so meeting with my Counselor, once a week.

I always felt comfortable with her.

  • even during the uncomfortable moments of my storytelling

One day she asked me a very direct question about my feelings.

After answering her, she responded with the statement:

‘That’s not a feeling, that’s a thought’

Her answer confused me but also aroused my curiosity.

  • She was clearly challenging my thinking
  • But I didn’t feel threatened
  • So I asked her to explain the difference

She gave an explanation, but it didn’t really register.

  • A decade later I discovered and experienced the difference first hand
  • During an advanced communications training course

We never really explored my difficulty in distinguishing feelings from thoughts.

  • This still puzzles me as this clearly affects the way in which I perceive the World

Autism was never mentioned in any of our meetings, Asperger’s being still in it’s diagnostic infancy.

  • But I am sure she was acutely aware of my Autistic traits
  • Even if she didn’t have a box to put them in

She cried at the end of our final counselling session!

  • Apologizing for breaching protocol
  • Before giving me a copy of ‘The Little Prince’

Autism and feelings

So how could I have confused sadness with tiredness?

Strictly speaking I wasn’t really confusing these feelings.

  • Despite my Autism, I do understand the difference between sadness and tiredness
  • Both emotionally and of course intellectually

What I was doing and generally seem to do, is to group and generalize my feelings.

So if I am experiencing a negative feeling, I tend to be more receptive to other negative feelings.

  • and not very receptive to positive feelings
  • perhaps even projecting into other negative feelings!

Equally, if I am experiencing a positive feeling, I tend to be more receptive to other positive feelings.

  • and less receptive to negative feelings

This probably explains why I don’t often experience ‘mixed feelings’, although it does happen.

  • Confusion and curiosity, as mentioned above
  • Although these feelings have greater analytic components than happy and sad

For some reason, this week I was able to experience happiness and optimism, despite being very tired.

  • I recognized this as being somewhat of an exception and
  • Conducted a mental dialogue, concluding that mixed feelings need not be a rarity for me

Linguistics

Despite my naturally impaired way of experiencing feelings, I am acutely aware of and amused by the way in which the words feel/feelings/felt etc are widely misused and abused.

The term ‘mixed feelings’ typically has nothing to do with feelings.

  • It usually means that the person has mixed thoughts
  • Unable to decide, uncertain

The other flagrant misuse is in statements such as ‘I feel that’ (fill in the blank)

  • ‘I feel that’ is really just another way of saying ‘I strongly believe’
  • It has nothing to do with feelings
  • But adding the word ‘feel’ can have the effect of ‘raising the stakes’
  • It’s a bit like making a statement and underlining it, or writing it in capitals

Epilogue

I seem to have discovered the source of the impaired way in which I experience emotions.

I am optimistic that this will lead me to richer and deeper emotional experiences and perception of the World.

Ironically, people with a clear innate understanding of the difference between feelings and thoughts continue to mislabel thoughts as feelings.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. micheleschwien
    Sep 09, 2012 @ 15:57:08

    I am NT so I hope you can forgive me for saying I love reading your posts.” I total get why your counselor cried! While I am not unpredictable with my emotions I still feel deeply. My 12-year-old son who as Asperger’s is my motivation in learning how to put logic to meaning of emotions. I suppose what I should say about your posts is: I think your post help me be a better person. I learn from what you write. I, too, have difficult days (for opposite reason) but your words give me a sense of hope.

    Reply

  2. spectrumscribe
    Sep 09, 2012 @ 21:38:11

    Thanks Michele. It was quite a struggle collecting and then organizing my thoughts for this post. I was very close to deleting the entire draft and waiting until I was in a brighter mood before making another attempt. I really am astonished at how helpful this post was to you, given how unsettled and distracted I have felt of recent and while writing this post.

    Reply

  3. Michele Schwien (@MLSchwienD)
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 08:40:24

    I’m glad you didn’t delete it. What was helpful for me was your statement that “people with a clear innate understanding of the difference between feelings and thoughts continue to mislabel thoughts as feelings.” For me, feelings are what inspires me to take action. Thoughts are what obligates me to take action. Actions, regardless of why we decide to take them, are what gets things done. I don’t see it so much as “mislabeling” as believing the differences are inconsequential. I interpreted your use of the word “mislabel” to mean doing so is “wrong.” I related it back to your previous post statement about “mixed feelings.” As a parent I often have mixed feelings about how I should be raising my two kids. My son is on spectrum, my daughter is not. What is good parenting for my son is not for my daughter and vice versa. Reading your post helps me by providing a possible insight into my son’s perspective. How can I modify my behavior to show respect for his (and other people’s) needs? If he thinks what I am saying/how I am saying it is “wrong” he will shut done. There have also been times when I’ve been trying to talk with him and he laughs at me – which has made me mad. You statement about how you are “amused” by the misuse of feelings gives me a whole new possible interpretation of his laughing at me. If we each make minor motifications it can make major differences in the quality of relationships. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Reply

  4. Patricia
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 09:59:29

    Thanks for your posts and thoughts. Even when I am NT, your reflections help me to achieve a broader understanding of my self and to improve my relationships with people that do not manifest the feelings the way I do, or the way that I would like them to do. Again Thank you!

    Reply

  5. spectrumscribe
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 12:16:01

    Those are some very interesting and helpful perspectives Michele and I will be spending some quality time thinking through them.

    I was introduced to the idea that feelings are routinely mislabeled as thoughts (and specifically the ‘feel that’ test) by career psychologists, psychotherapists and linguists during an advanced communications course.

    Prior to the course, it had never occurred to me to analyse language in that way.

    That said, it is entirely possible that some or all of those who wrote and presented the course were on the Spectrum! They all had PhDs and were nothing if not eccentric, to say the least; and an absolute pleasure to be with :-)

    The essence of the course was that clear communication requires 4 components.

    1. Referent: facts, sense data, objectively perceived events, situation
    2. Inference: thinking, interpretation, speculation
    3. Value: feelings, emotion, importance
    4. Objective: effect, intention, purpose, goal

    and ideally, communicated in that order:

    i.e.

    (1) Last night when you didn’t call me, (2) I thought that maybe I had offended you, (3) so now I am a little concerned and (4) I’d like to know if I have upset you in some way?

    The suggestion of the course presenters was that the absence of any 1 of these components, results in, in their words, a ‘guessing game’. Equally, by including all 4 components, in full detail, there is no room for guessing.

    Seen through my Autistic lens, I would agree.

    BUT I realize that Neurotypical people may not actually need all 4 components and may not in fact be in the slightest bit confused if any components are missing, because the missing information can be inferred through non-verbal messages.

    Some quotes from ‘A Field Guide to Earthlings’ (see my Autistic Books page) written by a man with Asperger’s

    - ‘The nonverbal message is the more important part and words are stretched out and repeated in order to give time for the nonverbal message to get across…….the words may have only a vague meaning’

    - ‘The main purpose (of communication) for NTs is rarely to convey information….but rather to influence others or influence their own status in their group’

    and finally, supporting the idea that NTs don’t necessarily need all 4 components in order to properly understand the intended message:

    - ‘NTs are adaptable and always running on partial information’

    Speaking only for myself, from my (Autistic and personality) perspective, I would agree with all three of these statements (and indeed the entire book)

    However, having read through your reply several times and contemplated it while writing this response, I think it is important for me to recognize the possibility that my perspectives, interpretations and understanding of social communication may be flawed?

    In fact, if I am to continue my Autism advocacy in the spirit of Civility, as discussed and declared in a previous post, I have a duty to maintain an open mind.

    As you say, minor (perception) modifications could make major differences in the quality of relationships, for NTs and Aspies :-)

    Reply

  6. Richard Long
    Sep 11, 2012 @ 15:09:10

    I am a big fan of the Field Guide and have found everything I have read there to be stunningly accurate, and for me at least, remarkably insightful. I think it should be required reading for NTs like myself, if for no other reason than to understand the way we communicate with each other more clearly. As you point out in the quotes above, so much of what is spoken in NT-ese is less reflective of the actual words than an unspoken intent, the purpose of which is frequently to influence another person or alter the situation to one’s advantage.

    One thing you said above that leapt out at me: “feelings are routinely mislabeled as thoughts.” I would add that thoughts are routinely mislabeled as feelings. Some of the Buddhist teachers I’ve studied with have a fundamental meditation practice of labeling one’s thoughts, such as, “Having a thought that I want to get a raise. Having a thought my boss will never give it to me.” “Having a thought that I’m going to have to kill him.” and so on. The purpose of this meditation (as I understand it), is to become more detached from your thoughts and notice them from the perspective of The Observer, rather than from attachment of one’s ego perspective. The ego “voice” is very much tied to the story the words are telling, and this voice convinces you not only that the story is real and significant, but it demands that “you” (the listening ego? I love that ego duality!) obey its directives, even if those demands are only that you worry more about your thoughts.

    In fact, these teachers often called “thoughts” “thought emotions” because the emotion arises directly from the thought which has been voiced by your internal dialog and acknowledged by your “listening self”. After practicing this technique consistently, The Observer can see that if the thought was not voiced, heard and “agreed with”, no emotion would arise because the emotion is inextricably attached to the thought. I have found this to be uniformly true. In fact, I used to practice stopping my internal dialog for as long as I could and feel that emptiness. The result was that when I did think, or when I heard others speak, the voices sounded like actors in a play. If the voice hadn’t spoke and the “audience” hadn’t listened, no drama would unfold. It got very Beckettesque to me, coloring most thoughts and conversation with an absurdist perspective. I actually stopped practicing this for the most part because I found myself becoming incredibly detached from other people. Without participating more fully in the drama, I felt separate from others and eventually from my sense of self — my own identity.

    On the other hand, it is a very peaceful condition and for the most part it made “me” feel happy and amused. It’s easy to see why. Look at all the trouble your “thought emotions” can lead to! Which reminds me of my favorite Zen saying:

    “No self, no problem.”

    Reply

  7. Michele Schwien (@MLSchwienD)
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 01:04:44

    I agree with the four communication components – but I would add two more 5) to entertain and 6) to make social connections. I would prefer the four to be in reverse order.

    I did not respond last night because I had another project I was working on. You did not offend and there is no need for concern. I am not upset in any way.

    I do not want to go through life without making some guesses. Guessing is what leads to variey and provides ways to grow/improve.

    I don’t need all four components and I am flexible. I would prefer the reverse order but I am fine with letting you go in the order you want. Sometimes. I will want you to take turns with me. And sometimes I may jumble the order just for fun because I get bored.

    For the Fieldguide points:
    I agree with point one – and have nothing more to add.

    I disagree with point two based on the black/white of saying “main purpose.” I equate main purpose with the four communication components above. I find saying “rarely” is a biased – giving more weight/value to information (which is an asset for Aspies) and diminishing the value NTs place on emotions.

    I will agree that NTs can be cruel and manipulative.

    I also diagree with the use of the word “properly understand.” “Properly” is not black/white. It has a big range of gray. Proper is more a construct of a majority opinion. Proper is defined by the group one participates in. NTs outnumber Aspies. “Proper” is not the same thing as “right.”

    And in response to Richard on “peace” – when I am at peace it is more an acknowledgement/confidence that I will be able to handle what life throws at me.

    Reply

  8. spectrumscribe
    Sep 12, 2012 @ 03:34:08

    Thanks Michele, this is really helpful.

    I think your opening paragraph captures the essence of the difference in my objectives with communication, EVEN in a social setting, compared with yours. :-)

    As I mentioned in my ‘Aspergers and the social minefield’ post (unfortunately I can’t put hyperlinks in replies) my objective at social gatherings is primarily to collect and exchange information. I am not making a value judgement and none should be implied, it is simply how I happen to be hardwired.

    I actually do have a keen sense of humor (according to other people) and do enjoy joking around and playing with words. I also enjoy connecting with ‘like minded’ folk, but in small doses. But I’m not very good at dissembling :-)

    Another problem is that I find it very difficult balancing my instinct to collect and exchange information, with fun.

    If I am mid-diatribe on the ‘inner workings of a jet engine’ I tend to miss attempts by others to interject humor because I am so focused on the information exchange, not because I don’t get the joke. In fact, I often won’t even hear the interjection. It’s like a ‘social filter’.

    When I do realize that a joke has been made (and that it is therefore probably time to lighten the conversation) I can switch to social/fun mode, but it feels a lot like, in fact exactly like, changing gear on a stick shift, as a learner driver!
    - OK, ease off the gas, engage the clutch, place hand on stick shift, change gear, gently ease out the clutch, push back down on the gas pedal.

    Ironically, I go through the same process if someone then changes the subject to the ‘inner workings of a gas turbine’

    I was going to ask how you manage to maintain your curiosity with the World around you as well as figuring out the all the social guessing games.

    I think the simple answer is probably that much of what I consider a social communication guessing game, you do not because I have impaired social intuition and you do not. You also implied that you enjoy the social guessing games.

    So here’s a real Aspie question for you:

    If you had to allocate your guessing time between social communication vs raw facts about people and the physical World in general, how would you split it?

    I’m smiling as I write this, thinking that last question tells you a lot about me :-)

    I agree entirely about the wonders of curiosity and discovery. I would say curiosity has been the main positive emotion/part of my character/personality for my entire life. I love discovering things. I believe we are meant to uncover and explore our wonderful World. Just look at the field of Science.

    However, when it comes to communication, it seems, to me, an utter waste of time to be playing guessing games which are mostly or perhaps entirely avoidable (because the facts are available) with just a tiny bit of thought and effort (and a change to school curriculums!)

    I would prefer to spend my time discovering the World and indeed getting to really know the people that I meet, without the distraction, frustration and confusion of speed bumps that are part of social communication.

    Your comment about preferring the reverse order 4 -> 1 is entirely consistent with the idea that Aspies are mostly trees first (details) learners, whereas NTs are mostly forest first (big picture) learners. I will bear this in mind in future when speaking with NTs, this had never occurred to me before! Thank you.

    I think I would probably agree with your comments regarding my point 2. It could have been presented in a more balanced way. The phenomenon clearly does exist but perhaps/probably not to the extent that is implied in that statement.

    Thank you for sharing your NT perspectives. It’s giving me a wider understanding of NTs and myself.

    :-)

    Reply

  9. Michele Schwien (@MLSchwienD)
    Sep 15, 2012 @ 07:35:24

    I remain curious because I will never know everything. And if ever I start thinking I’m getting close life has a way of letting me know otherwise. Life is too fluid. “You can never step into the same river twice.”

    Too much goes on in the world – I can’t, nor do I want to – figure out all the social guessing games. I choose which games I want to play.

    Perhaps as an alternative of the 4 components you mentioned here are my three questions I ask myself to determine whether I decide to play and/or how I play:

    1. What does the person want from me?
    2. Am I capable of providing it?
    3. Do I want to provide it?

    I’m not sure how to answer that allocation of time question. It is different for each person. How long have I known the person? What do we have in common? Do I know what “triggers” the person?

    Instead of the tree analogy how about a math one? Aspies are lowest common denominators and and NTs are greatest common factors.

    Reply

  10. spectrumscribe
    Sep 17, 2012 @ 10:36:21

    Heraclitus really captures the essence of our constantly changing world and lives.

    It hadn’t occurred to me that Neurotypical people might also experience socializing as a guessing game! Perhaps we are not so neurologically far apart after all?

    I can readily relate to your 3 questions although mine would be in a slightly different order :-) 3,1,2

    Nice Math analogy Michele.

    Reply

  11. parentsofautistickids
    Sep 22, 2012 @ 14:37:57

    I have found your site to be beautifully written, honest, moving and most of all very helpful in my quest for knowledge and my attempts to help my family and I, help my son. Thank you.

    Reply

  12. Mark
    Oct 17, 2012 @ 18:43:27

    im glad you didnt delete. Honestly shared from your heart. You have a great writing styile

    Reply

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