Low emotionality

In a recent post, I said I’m a very unenthusiastic person. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m never enthusiastic. But my husband says it took a while for him to internalize that e.g. when I say “yes” to a choice of restaurant, I really mean it, even if I don’t express enthusiasm. And that’s not a matter of communication style; if I appear unenthusiastic, I feel like I’ve communicated my internal state accurately.

Enthusiasm isn’t unique.  I feel like most of my emotions are muted relative to the norm.  Another really noticeable one is anger. My “anger”, such as it is, rarely rises above what I would call irritation. It’s not very visible. And I find it very difficult to maintain a grudge, even when I know intellectually that I should.

In short, I’ve always felt like I must be experiencing emotions differently from most people–not necessarily in a neurodivergent way, but just somewhat outside the norm.  I don’t know of any preexisting term for this, so I’m dubbing it “low emotionality”.  Wikipedia describes “emotionality” as emotional reactivity to a stimulus, so I think the term fits.  I never see anyone talk about low emotionality, so I’m being the change I want to see.

The internet

“But you sure seem to be enthusiastic about some things, and angry about others!” Dear reader, we are on the internet. It’s different. I think my emotional expression looks a lot more normative in text form. (Or maybe it doesn’t, you tell me.)

I think the way we learn how to appropriately express our emotions, is through observation. When we’re offline, I can see people’s physical state when they’re excited or angry about something. I can see that I rarely share that same physical state, thus I rarely find it appropriate to express my emotions in the same way. When we’re online, I can’t see people’s physical state, I can only see the situation that they’re responding too. So when I get into a similar situation, I can use a similar tone of voice, even if maybe I’m not physically experiencing it the same way.

The one time that this is really grating, is when people offer emotionally supportive comments. Like they think I must be really worked up or distraught about something. Really I’m not. I don’t like emotionally supportive comments, and that’s kind of hard to explain to someone who’s just trying to be mindful. If I appear angry on the internet you can treat me as angry, but it’s not the same kind of angry: I’m internet angry.

Constructed emotions

Last year, I read the book How Emotions are Made, and I liked it so much that it inspired several posts. So I want to take a moment to interpret low emotionality through the lens of constructed emotions.

In the framework of constructed emotions, we all experience emotions differently, and each time we experience an emotion it’s a bit different.  We’re all a bit weird, and if I’m any weirder than usual then it’s only by degree.

We sort these many instances of emotions into a small number of emotional categories such as “happy”, “sad”, “enthusiastic” or “angry”. How we classify a particular instance of an emotion influences how we experience and express that emotion.

So in my case, I don’t classify very many of my emotions as “enthusiastic” or “angry”.  That raises a chicken and egg question: Do I classify my emotions differently because I feel them differently (that is, more differently than usual)? Or do I feel them differently because I classify them differently? Does it matter?

Another useful concept is emotional granularity, the ability to make fine-grained distinctions in one’s own emotions. People with low emotional granularity tend to use fewer and more generic emotional categories, like “happy” or “upset”. And there are two kinds of granularity: granularity based on internal cues, and granularity based on external context. What I’m figuring out is that maybe I have low internal-cue-based granularity.

Relation to other narratives

Robots and Vulcans – There’s a common character archetype who is super logical and experiences low emotions. Well I’m pretty good at logic and I’m low emotion, so… But I find these archetypes inaccurate to my experience, so I don’t want to be compared to them. I don’t think being low emotion makes me more logical, it’s weird that people think that.

Autism – A lot of autistic people are said to be emotionally different. Sometimes it’s said they experience the same emotions but have a harder time communicating them. I’m not autistic though, so I don’t know much about it. Whenever I take one of those autism tests I consistently score on the opposite end of the spectrum. I’d be really interested if some autistic people could weigh in.

Alexithymia – One thing I hear is that autism correlates with alexithymia. Alexithymia is a subclinical condition characterized by difficulty distinguishing emotions. That means difficulty distinguish one’s own emotions and difficulty reading other people’s emotions. That’s cool, although I happen to think I’m good at reading other people’s emotions.

Depression – One of the symptoms of major depressive disorder, is inability to feel pleasure–and sometimes inability to feel any other emotion either. I don’t think I’m perpetually depressed, but it’s worth noting.

Emotional intelligence – Whenever I search “low emotion”, google thinks I want to know about emotional intelligence. I feel vaguely hostile to a psychological concept that feels modeled after IQ, and marketed as pop psychology.  I don’t think I have low emotional intelligence; as I said, I’m good at reading other people’s emotions.

Asexuality – I’m asexual spectrum, which sorta means low emotion of another kind (i.e. low attraction).  And honestly? My gut says they’re related, but maybe only for me.  I don’t know any other aces who have expressed an experience of low emotionality.

(ETA: I forgot about Schizoid Personality Disorder, another similar idea.)

Do any readers relate to the experience of low emotionality?


  1. Levi Claussen says

    I speak about ‘amplitude’ of emotion. My spouse appears to experience all emotions with more intensity than I do, she seems to feel…more, not in variety but amplitude. The gap between my highs and lows is dwarfed by the gap between hers. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only one.

  2. John Morales says

    First of all, I doubt your asexuality is correlated; libido is more of an instinct than an emotion.

    Secondly, the degree of expression of emotional states (the effect of the affect?) is pretty variable.

    Lastly, I wouldn’t worry about it. Though, if you did, at least it would be muted worry. 😉

    Or: no biggie. We’re all different.

  3. says

    @John Morales,
    Asexuality isn’t lack of libido though. (Or at least, not always. Some people lack libido and it seems like a good reason to identify as asexual.)

    It’s not really a thing that worries me, it’s just a thing I think about.

  4. John Morales says

    Siggy, the concept of a libidinous asexual is rather unfathomable for me.

    Anyway, point was your linkage between sexuality and emotion seems speculative, and I don’t think they’re categorically equivalent.

    It’s not really a thing that worries me, it’s just a thing I think about.

    Um, I was being a bit jocular.

    (Maybe even emotionally supportive, in a weird way)

  5. says

    @John Morales,
    Lots of asexuals have libido. I do survey work, I can even tell you most asexuals have libido. But I’m not really here to explain that to you, that’s just basic background information. Fathom it.

    I feel like you’re misunderstanding my comment in exactly the way I was very deliberately trying to avoid. I was never trying to say asexuality and low emotionality are “correlated” or “categorically equivalent”. Correlation implies a statistical relationship, which implies a connection for many people. I said that there might be a connection only for me, and added an observation that I do not see the connection for anyone else.

    It is not uncommon for queer people to find some connection–if only subjective–between their sexuality, and some other part of their experience. And that’s hard to talk about because everyone always assumes you’re trying to draw a correlation.

  6. Coyote says

    Re: this part — ” ‘But you sure seem to be enthusiastic about some things, and angry about others!’ Dear reader, we are on the internet. It’s different. I think my emotional expression looks a lot more normative in text form. (Or maybe it doesn’t, you tell me.)”

    — I’d say it’s at the very least a matter of context. I can confirm for one thing, when I recently linked a wordpress post of mine, one of my pfio mutuals remarked “the formality of those comments is scaring me,” and I think that was at least in part a reaction to the “seriousness” and flat affect of the conversation, which your comments were a part of. So, while I don’t have a lot of experience seeing you live for basis of comparison (and can’t say how much different you are in person vs. in text), I’ll just put it out there that if our basis of comparison is just “other people on the internet” … then some people are definitely reading you as pretty far off from their expectations in that respect. But I expect that also has something to do with what environments people are in that help shape those expectations. Maybe your writing style is more average for a Free Thoughts Blogger, for instance. But I’d say it seems miles and miles off from the normative manner of emotional expression I see on Tumblr, which seems very much to favor its extremes (& remember having a conversation on this exact thought several years ago, with a then-friend who would probably self-describe in terms of the same low emotionality as you).

    Re: “Do any readers relate to the experience of low emotionality?”

    …Yes and no. From what I can tell, not exactly the same way you do, with all emotions having shorter ranges all around. But at the same time, I relate to some of what you’ve described here, in that I’ve regularly come up against expectations that my emotions/expressiveness should be Bigger than they actually are (& as a consequence of that I think is why I’m sometimes drawn to subdued, “stoic,” and less expressive fictional characters, especially if other characters hassle them to “have fun” and “lighten up” and “let loose” or whatever). Online and person, I tend to get the sense that I’m unwanted and out of place in situations where the expectation is that everyone’s very excited and yelling and cheering and all that. My prototypical image of that is sports, but it’s not just sports. Like I alluded to, I associate a lot of this with tumblr and fandom, too.

  7. says

    Someone on Tumblr mentioned Schizoid Personality Disorder. I did know about that one, but forgot to add it to the list related narratives. It probably describes me better than most of the other ones.

    The point of listing all these adjacent narratives, is so that if anyone does find this experience relatable, they can consider all the related concepts, and pick and choose which ones are most helpful to them.

  8. says

    The “formality” of my writing style… it’s hard to say. I think I have a serious and pointed writing style mainly because I have things to say and I’ve learned that this is the best way to say them. But there are lots of people on the internet with things to say, and seem to have learned different ways to say them.

    Sporting events where the audience gets all excited have always posed a major issue to me. Of course, I don’t like sports anyway, so not the most relevant thing to my life. More relevant, is that I have trouble with protests and parades. I used to march in the Pride Parade every year but I stopped because I just can’t.

  9. killerbee13 says

    As an autistic person, who is definitely alexithymic, some of this resonated with me. I would say that I also have low emotionality, but not as low as yours, based on this and other things you’ve written.

    I disagree a bit about the description of autistic emotion you gave, but it seems like you didn’t think it was too universal/authoritative given the qualifications. I think that most autistic people wouldn’t say that they experience emotions the same way as other people, but just have trouble expressing them. Certainly some do; language can be hard even when you know what you want to say. But I think that autistic people often have qualitatively different experiences of emotions, and may have less emotional processing ability. If an emotion is too strong or has too many layers, it might overwhelm their ability to process it into components, and they can only describe its macro properties, using words like “upset”.

    I don’t know how authortitative your source was on the definition of alexithymia, but it doesn’t quite match with my understanding of the term and the understanding that other autistic people seem to have. I would describe it not as having difficulty distinguishing other people’s emotions, but maybe as having difficulty mapping other people’s emotional states onto ones which you have felt. Understanding neurotypical emotional communication is not necessarily helpful in understanding internal neurodivergent emotional cues. I’ve seen lots of people be sad or angry or happy or etc, from a young age, and media for young children makes those emotions very obvious. But in each case it took me a rather long time to identify in my self which of those categories was most similar to which emotional states I experienced. Some emotions I only learned to identify as a teenager.

  10. says

    Thanks for sharing your perspective on autism and alexithymia. For autism I was pretty sure I wasn’t getting a good picture. For alexithymia (and the others) I was basing it on what I read off of Wikipedia, which is not always so informative.

    Within the framework of emotional construction, you sort of have this three step process where you experience feelings, then you construct emotions out of those feelings, and then you express those emotions. Following your description, it sounds like the step you had difficulty with was the second one, whereas the step I have difficulty with is the first one.

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