I was taught that my emotions didn’t matter when I was a little girl. My father was the only one allowed to show anger, and one of our ongoing feuds back then–decades long–was him telling me that he felt cold so I should put on a sweater. Got that? He was cold so I should put on a sweater. I would protest because I didn’t feel cold*, and he would get mad because I didn’t listen to him. In addition, my mother went through a severe depression, and I was her emotional caretaker. Decades later, she admitted that she thought she had some autistic qualities which included not always recognizing other people’s emotions, which may seem strange considering she’s a therapist, but I have a similar problem, and I was psych major in college. I’ll get into that later.My brother definitely displays autistic traits, and I thought one of my nephews might have had Asperger’s when he was younger and when it actually existed.** My mom also thought her father might have been autistic as well. What I’m trying to say is that I have some history of it in my family, albeit mildly.
Many people would be shocked to know that I have difficulty identifying my emotions because I seem so empathetic. I have strangers telling me their life stories at the drop of a hat, and I know things about people I have no right knowing. In part, it’s because I know the questions to ask to keep people talking–or rather, I know that asking questions will keep people talking, but that can’t be all of it. I’ve had cashiers at the grocery store sharing personal information with little input from me, which leads me to believe I have some kind of aura around me that says, “Talk to her; she’ll listen.” I think it’s similar to people who always draw strays to them, except with me, it’s lonely and/or broken people who just need a friendly ear.
I’m also a great receptor for all the negative emotions that people feel. Negative meaning sadness, pain, rage, loneliness, etc., not that they are necessarily bad emotions. One of the reasons I didn’t go out in the general public much was because any time I went to a highly-populated area, I was overwhelmed with the collective negative emotions of the place. I could tell who was getting beat at home, who was suicidal, who was bristling with rage, etc, and it drained my energy by the time i got home. I never felt the positive emotions–only the negative ones. I learned how to erect a defensive barrier to block out the onslaught, but it was tiring to always have to keep that up as well.
It may sound like it was a nightmare to be numb most of the time except for experiencing the negative emotions of others, and it was. Additionally, I also learned how to block out pain in my body, so I wasn’t feeling anything authentically. In taiji, Julie is teaching us chin na techniques (joint locks) that work by this simple adage: If you see a hole, poke it. If you see a bump, pull it. There’s more to it than that, obviously, but you get the gist. When she started teaching us these techniques, I couldn’t feel anything, even when it was done correctly. Julie was the only one who could work with me because she knew enough to do it without hurting me, and because she wouldn’t get discouraged if I didn’t manifest the outer result she desired. Over time, I started feeling twinges in my body when the techniques were applied correctly. I learned to tap out when I felt that twinge, even if it didn’t hurt. I asked Sifu to do some of the techniques on me, and after he did a few, he made what he said was a strange request. He asked me to go on my tiptoes. I did, and I immediately flinched when he did the next chin na. He explained that when I was tense, I couldn’t control my reaction, which made perfect sense.
Back to numbing my emotions. I was able to fake it because I knew what the proper response was in a given situation–most of the time. For example, my friend tells me that she’s gotten a promotion. My brain: “OK. She got a promotion. That is a good thing. I should be happy for her.” My mouth: “That’s terrific! I’m so happy for you!” Then, hug. Someone tells me that his mother has cancer. My brain: “Cancer is a bad thing. He probably loves his mother. He’ll be sad to lose her. That’s bad.” My mouth: “Oh, man. That really sucks. I’m so sorry to hear that.” Hugs. It got dicey when I couldn’t discern if the news was good or bad and just had to kind of feel my way through the conversation. Unfortunately, it sometimes made me seem like a flip-flopper because I express one emotion and then a diametrically opposite one depending on what I glean from the other person.
I usually feel the emotion after I process what I’m actually supposed to feel, but it’s still disconcerting. I very rarely have a moment of authentic feeling, and when I do, it’s usually rage. Again, I do feel emotions, but they’re mostly not spontaneous. I feel a similar inhibition in my reaction to things in general. Let me explain what I mean. I love winter, snow, and the cold. You’d think living in Minnesota that there would be many people who feel the same way, but it doesn’t seem to be the case these days. A tandem thought–it’s common to talk about the weather in Minnesota, mostly to gripe. So, I have people saying to me, “Isn’t this terrible?”, “I can’t wait until spring!”, and other negative thoughts about winter. I used to say that I liked winter, but that felt awkward in casual situations. So, I’ve taken to simply agreeing with the other person because, really, it doesn’t matter if the cashier at Cub knows I’m a winter aficionado. This is a minor example, obviously, but it’s indicative of how much I censor myself.
Another example is that I saw Star Wars (the original) and The Empire Strikes Back when I was a kid and didn’t like them. I never saw Return of the Jedi, and haven’t seen any of the prequels. The new Star Wars movie is coming out on Christmas day, which means everyone is geeking out over it. I can’t contribute to those conversations because I have no interest in Star Wars, and the same for Star Trek. It’s hard to admit that you don’t care for cultural touchstones, and it can make you feel like even more of an outsider. How the hell am I supposed to say that Star Wars left me bored as I was watching it? That’s just not cricket, and my normal excuse that I was raised by wolves doesn’t really help here.
This ties in with my frustrations about not writing because my opinions are not in accordance with what the left is currently espousing. I don’t want to go back to feeling as if I have to hide the real me because it’s too ugly, messy, unseemly, and toxic for the world at large. I used to feel as if I had to earn the right to live every goddamn day of my life, and I’ll be damned if I go back to that again. It’s still in me, though. I try not to say anything controversial or to hurt anyone’s feelings, which is why the constant exhortation by some people on Twitter to think of their precious feelings is so annoying. I’m constantly thinking about other people’s feelings, but I don’t often get the sense that they are thinking of mine in return. The loudest shouters on Twitter are always telling others what to think or say without looking in the mirror at themselves and seeing that they are guilty of the same transgressions.
I’ve spent my whole fucking life monitoring what I say, think, and do. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve struggled with eating disorders my whole life, and one of the legacies of it is that I can’t tell when I’m truly hungry or not. I’ve been working on feeling things more authentically, both emotionally and in my body, but I feel as if I’m slipping, especially emotionally. Physically, taiji is helping me become more aware of my body. I used to have a block in my right wrist that made it impossible for me to feel much in my right hand. The block is slowly going away, so I’m gaining feeling back in my right hand. In addition, I can feel my legs burning after Pushing Hands class, which is a good thing because–look, I know it’s not a good thing in general, but it’s a good thing because in the past, I never would have felt it. Case in point, my knees sometimes ache when I do taiji. I noticed it a few months ago, and when I finally mentioned it to Julie, she said it might be tendonitis. The next time we did a portion of the Solo Form, she watched me and noticed that I was over-shifting, both backwards and forwards. Later, she realized that my knee wasn’t bending over my toes, but was turning inwards. It’s probably because of my years in ballet, by the way. The thing is, I’ve been doing these things since I started taiji, all of them which put stress on my knees. I didn’t feel the pain until a few months ago, seven years later. It’s partly because it takes time for repetitive motion to actually cause discomfort, but it’s also because I wasn’t aware of my body at the time. The problem is, now it’s a bad habit I have to unlearn, which may take some time. It probably won’t take years–hopefully!–but I’m impatient for it to happen.
I hate feeling fragile. I hate feeling as if my entire being can be crushed with just one onslaught of harsh criticism. I’ve spent the last several years working on my core so that I don’t feel so hollow inside. I can disagree with close friends now–not often, admittedly, but it’s still better than it used to be–I still have difficulty telling perfect strangers I’ll never see again anything other than what they want to hear. Who the hell cares what some randos online think of me? I do, apparently, which is really sad. I mentioned being on the spectrum earlier, and I think I have some traits, even though they are very low level. I can pretend to be a normal person for a short period of time–up to three or four hours–but then I have to get out of the situation or I start panicking. For example, I’m taking a Women’s Pushing Hands class every other week. It’s only an hour, but it’s with people I don’t know very well, surrounded by other people I don’t know at all. I can make the small talk during class, and I don’t feel horribly out of place–even though I’m a noob when it comes to Push Hands–but the minute class is over, I’m out of there.
I’m sure people will be surprised to hear that because I can be very charming when I want to be. I draw people to me, and I know that I have that thing that make people want to bask in my sunshine. It’s all an act, however, and inside, I’m constantly criticizing everything I say. Part of the reason is because I’ve seen my father use the charm he has to his own advantage without any thought about how it affects others around him. The problem is, I have the same coldness at my center, though at least I’m aware of it and work on overcoming it. It’s weird because I care about people in general, and I want everyone to be healthy and happy (well, most people), but at the same time, I have difficulties caring about individual people who are not in my close circle of friends. Does that even make sense? I want every person I interact with to be well, but I don’t necessarily care about his/her personal situation. I’m having a hard time explaining exactly what I mean, but it makes sense in my head.
I need to write. I need to speak my mind. If I don’t, I start to feel disconnected from the world and that my life doesn’t matter. I ghosted through the world for several decades, and I don’t want to feel like that again. That’s why I’m blogging again, even if the posts aren’t as good as I’d like them to be. As long as I write, I am. It’s all I’ve got, and I just have to keep doing it, despite the voices in my head.
*We found out when I was thirteen or fourteen that I had Graves disease–hyperthyroidism–which meant I never felt cold. Well, it’s not all it meant, but that was one of the side effects.
**The DSM-V excluded Asperger’s Syndrome as an actual condition because they found the symptoms to be too vague. They folded it back into the autism spectrum.