My college sophomore constantly discovers differences between herself as a Aspie* and her bell-curver* classmates. This time she found she is a lot worse at understanding other people’s facial expressions than she first thought. A teacher showed her class a bunch of faces and ask them to identify the emotions expressed. Every one else was immediately naming the emotions they were supposed to be. But she didn’t even get a third of them right. She was coming up with a couple answers that each could be and doubting herself because there wasn’t any context. All of her answers were usually wrong from the intended one. She was able to connect her confusion to experiences of working on projects with partners who would not tell her how they felt about something even though she asked politely more than once. It was a frustrating situation.
Bellcurvers = Normal
Bell-curve-normal friends suggested that “most people* do not say what they are feeling verbally because they are in fact saying it with body language and facial expressions. Most people are born programmed to be able read these signs with no effort. The people in the class could distinguish the emotions from the pictures because the furrowed eyebrows and tightly puckered lips will mean anger in any context, so no context is needed.”
Me (3yo) and my sister. I’m on the right, obviously.
Me at 5yo. The only one NOT smiling.
Reflecting on my own childhood and youth, I realized that I have studied these silent signals since I was quite young, with the intent of blending in and passing for normal. If you look at my earliest childhood photos I am the one with the blank, often serious look on my face. The same look is used for early diagnosis of autistic children. Later on I affect an expression more in keeping with the others. But as late as high school I clearly remember friends and strangers alike passing me in the hall and shouting at me to “Smile!” and “Don’t be so serious!” It was a command that I thought very sexist. “I’m not your hood ornament,” I would think, “If you don’t like my looks, look at someone else.”
Me in High School practicing “Normal” (On the left, obviously)
But I did try. From elementary school on I recall watching and copying people’s gestures and expressions for hours at a time. In high school I made a study of people’s walks. My Aspie sophomore has the walk typical of most ASD folks: hunched shoulders, hands dangling limply at the sides, slightly concave chest, feet sloping forward in an awkward shuffling pace. If you are ASD and want to find others in your tribe, look for that walk.
The ASD walk
All that studying of mine has led me to be a very good counselor. And since I have been working as a counselor for many years now, allow me to share some of my observations as well as skills and techniques for navigating the world of emotions.
Skills for Understanding Emotions
As a therapist, helping people sort and deal with their feelings is pretty much my job. Once I have an idea what kind of feelings are blocking a person, the hypnosis can be VERY effective at changing the negative patterns for good…in just one session. So the real challenge is simply getting people to talk about their feelings. Despite what our normal friend said, I can tell you MOST people are out of touch with their own feelings, let alone other people’s. Often, they manipulate themselves into feeling things they were taught was appropriate. Example: women will often deny feeling angry and instead say they feel sad. Thus, anger over something they could stand up for and make it STOP…becomes depression because they don’t vent it, they push it inward where it begins to eat away at their happiness. Similarly, men often deny ALL feelings BUT anger. And, like the women with their depression, when men channel all their feelings into anger they create more problems than they solve. Problems like rage, belligerence, isolation, alcoholism, and violent crime. (It’s not because they’re men or women. It’s because of how they were socialized as children. If you have children in your life, PLEASE read: How to Raise Children and Pets ) Don’t take my word on this, go ahead and look it up.
What you’ll find is statistics that show depression is much more common in women than men, and men are more likely to show anger, suffer alcoholism and commit violent crime. This has MUCH more to do with socializing and parenting kids to fit into discrete little boxes called “male” and “female” than it does with the actual differences in male and female brains.
Another problem I see with the BC-normal assumption that recognizing emotions by expression is somehow instinctive? Normals* often place responsibility for other people’s feelings on themselves & NOT on the one feeling stuff. This can lead to a lot of problems. As a baseline that kind of thinking leads to people who, like my clients, do not even know WHAT they are feeling, let alone how to process it. It can also lead to irresponsible behavior (making others responsible for our feelings) and in some cases it leads to manipulation. There’s an old stereotype that says women use tears to manipulate their men. In my experience, though, MEN use emotions to manipulate just as much as women. But when we take responsibility for our OWN feelings and let others do the same, there’s no room for manipulation.
The way to do it is say what you’re feeling as soon as I can identify it. Also say what you want, early and often. When you cry, it’s NOT because I’m sad or hurt, its to release a big wave of emotions – any variety of emotions. Always let people (especially the men) know, “I’m NOT hurt or sad, I’m just overwhelmed with ______ (happiness, relief, stress, worry, etc).”
If you are a BC-Normal and you’re still reading, first: Thank You! Secondly, please consider that recognizing other people’s feelings is probably NOT instinct. It’s probably conditioning and rote memorization. You’re probably guessing those feels wrongly about 50% of the time AND that is probably leading to misunderstanding, confusion, and frustration. And it’s probably may allow other people to manipulate and use you against your will. At the very least, it is occupying a significant portion of your brain and energy that could otherwise be used for creative problem solving. So, the following tools could really free you up.
Guessing rather than expressing feelings makes for great comedy.
Skills and Tools – for Getting People to Talk about Feelings
One of my techniques for helping men open up and share so I can help them is to start an argument. This also works well with military women. If you get someone to debate with you about any topic you will begin to hear bits and pieces of their emotional life. I’ve learned to listen to what they are NOT saying and you can too. If a person says, “My GF is totally vegan, she won’t even buy meat.” He hasn’t told me that he’s NOT vegan. He hasn’t told me that he’s annoyed that his girlfriend won’t go to a steakhouse or bring home some fried chicken for dinner. Those are the things he’s NOT saying. Those are the things I write down as emotional road blocks. You can also use empathy to sense their feelings. But everyone has a bit of empathy if they dare to use it.
Empathy for a friend
You can also get people to share feelings by asking for advice. Mention an imaginary “friend” who’s struggling with…whatever. But its a Rule that people often like to give advice about other people’s feelings, rather than talk directly about themselves. Most of the time we are projecting our own feelings when we consider how others might feel. They may also volunteer what this other person “should” do, which gives you the chance to ask “Why?” At that point they will likely share anecdotes from their own childhood that are key to their emotional state.
By far my favorite technique is the Pregnant Pause. I simply ask directly, “How are you feeling?” or “How do you feel about that diagnosis (project, upcoming test, etc)?” And. Then. Wait…………………..and wait……………..and wait……… Most BC-Normals are VERY uncomfortable with silence, so they will begin to hunt around and guess at what they might actually be feeling. Then my job is simply to repeat what they’ve said so they can hear it for themselves. They say, “I’m fine with it.” Me, “You’re fine…?” Them, “Well, you know, I’m a little nervous, I mean, shouldn’t I be?” Me, “So you feel nervous?” Them, “Hell’s bells! I’m in a complete panic!! What should I do?!” Me, “Oh, sure, I’ll bet anyone would feel a bit panicked.”
You see, BC-Normals have been conditioned to look outside themselves for approval. Aspie’s and other ASD’s* are simply resistant to that kind of conditioning. If you ask an Aspey friend how they’re feeling about the up coming presentation, expect her to pause for a few moments and then report, “I think I’m well prepared, but every so often my thoughts spiral into a crescendo approaching panic. I’m just not that comfortable with so many people looking at me.” or they will simply say, “I’m not sure HOW I feel, its such a jumble of things.” In any event, and ASD will tell you the truth as best they can, no guile, no subterfuge, no “shoulds”. ASD’s are not necessarily better at feelings, they just resist the conditioning that convolutes them unnecessarily.
Skills and Tools – for Spotting Feelings
If you can’t tell by looking at someone what they feel, you may try to get a response by asking directly, “What are you feeling?” But there are many situations in which BC-Normals won’t answer that, or won’t answer honestly. Remember, the reason is likely because they’ve been conditioned to think people should guess their feelings. If you ask directly, they may get offended, or begin to blame you – especially if what they’re actually feeling is something they’ve been taught is “rude” or “wrong”. Don’t feel bad and don’t accept blame. It’s really NOT about you and there really are NO rude feelings and NO wrong feelings. It’s just unfortunate conditioning. And by “conditioning” I mean they were smacked every time they did it wrong, usually without explanation.
Don’t give up, either! Say something like “You look cross”
That usually gets the person to say, “No, I’m ______( tired, jealous, angry, hungry).” Notice, ALL of those feelings can look alike. Also notice, when you guess at someone’s feelings, soften the word a bit.
- Instead of Angry, say cross.
- Instead of painful, say tender.
- Instead of depressed, say sad.
- Instead of panicked, say uneasy.
- Instead of exhausted, say tired.
There’s a reason for this softening. It is important, because the poor Bellcurvers have usually been punished for emoting too strongly. YES, actually hit for crying! They may have internalized the notion that some emotions can be TOO emotional. This is hogwash and poppycock.
Emotions are never too anything. They are exactly right for the individual feeling them, unless they are being stuffed, stored, or inverted instead of being ventilated by identifying them and talking or acting on them. But, if you guess using an intense descriptor, many bellcurvers will deny the feeling, even if you got it exactly right, because they’re afraid of being too emotional.
Lastly, if you’ve tried asking, and you’ve tried guessing, and they still won’t share, you don’t need to bother yourself with their feelings. All you need to do is communicate. What you say is: “Well, I don’t know how you feel, so I can’t take your feelings into account.” Then do your best to shake off their stares and glares and funny expressions and move on. Do your best to work around their feelings, whatever they are. Eventually, this technique will either get the BellCurver to put their feelings into words for you OR it will get them to share their feelings with a third person or two (in the form of gossip), who will most likely tell you about your friends feelings. Regardless of whether you hear the feelings from your friend or a third person, count it as good. You’ve finally got the info you needed. Your friend got to express themselves. And MOST importantly what other people think of you is None. Of. Your. Business.
In fact, I’ve had people tell me they thought I was “really cool” because I don’t care what “They” think. Huh, imagine that! Cool because I don’t even try to be cool. And all this posh glamour can be yours at the low, low cost of Minding Your Own Business!
Pay attention to my anger!
Skills and Tools – For Dealing with Your Own Feels
Avoid emotional tangles and passive-aggressive mean-fests by applying these neat-o skills:
- Identify your own feelings ASAP. Say, “I feel _____.” both early and often. That will keep the simple feelings from building up into unmanageable globs of mish-mashed feelings.
- If you’re not sure HOW you feel, but you know you are feeling something big, Say, “I need a day (moment, few hours, week) to think.” Say, “I don’t know how I feel yet.” “I’m not sure how to feel about that.” “I’m not ready to talk about it.” Then, please take the initiative to bring up the issue again when you can name some of your feelings. Remember: You’ve got a right to ALL your feelings.
- Telling others that is something that works well too. Whenever other people tell you THEIR feelings spontaneously: “You’ve got the right to your feelings.” I’ve used that as a parent: Kid, “I don’t want to go to school!! I HATE school!” Me, “You’ve got the right to feel that way. I’ll give you 15 minutes more sleep, then we have to get moving.” As a teacher: Student, “I HATE you, Ms. Thompson!” Me, “Ok, you’ve got that right. The assignment is due by the end of the class.” And as a partner: BF, “You’re making me mad!!” Me, “You have a right to your anger. Any thing I can do differently?”
- When talking face to face make emoticons with your face and hands. If you’re not sure which ones to use you can watch anime characters, matching the faces with the feelings or words. You can watch your teachers, parents and friends then recreate their expressions and tone, like I did. You can also try out for plays or hire an acting coach. A lot of ASD people do VERY well as actors. You get to try on a bunch of different personas without risk and the director will often tell you what emotions to show for which lines. And its fun! Which is the MAIN point of emotions: to know when you’re having fun and to have fun with other people as much as possible!
*Aspie, ASD = Asperger or on the Autism Spectrum
*Normal, Most people, Bellcurver, BC-Normal = Not on the Autism Spectrum
KEY: 3, 11, 3, 2/5 – 2/5, 8, 2/5, 4 – 2/5, 13, 6, 7 – 11, 8, 15, 16 …..oh, whatever!!