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.
“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.
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?