You Can’t Expect Simple Answers to Complex Questions about Autistic Emotions

When I was a kid, people who worked with me would show me a picture of a smiling kid and say, “He is happy.”

And I would wonder how they knew so surely.

The correlation between smiling and happiness does not exist for me. Getting such deep emotion from one stock photo is truly bananas.

The emotional soup in my autistic body asks it to always find a fitting form of movement guaranteed to be the exact opposite of what best fits any focus and good social grace. Writing can help me attempt a better look at my scattered thoughts and allow me to painfully assess what pushes to the surface. I can better sort out all the emotions when I see my words on a page. 

Walking in an autistic body is for me like floating in a stew of feelings. Fury pushes past and anger bubbles loudly. Chunks of glee and love drift by and brush up against me. Awash in this jumbled goulash of sensation, I have no tether to ground me to my true self.

Feelings that lots of people find easy to identify – like hopeful or frustrated – are for me inextricably wound together into one pile of steaming hot commotion.

Having looked hard at understanding my internal feelings, I can say I take issue with people who claim to feel discrete emotions. How can happiness exist without sadness? How can calm exist without stress?

I think that false binaries abound in the world’s feelings about feelings.

Write down what you seem to feel as you read this blog. Are you able to tell me it is just one thing?

My guess is that you can’t.

Seeing true feelings sometimes means sewing emotions together to form a patchwork quilt. This art, the art of separating emotions, requires skill in which I struggle. We attempt to distill our emotions so we can easily answer when someone asks the really trite, “How are you?”

What is the answer when someone asks you? Fine? Good? What do those words say about our emotions? Do stressed out people say what they really feel? Sometimes I think all the world has lost touch with emotions. We move too fast and only brush up against our true feelings.

What we need to do is slow down and find someone who can help us do the work of sifting through all the messy sensations in our minds.

Emotions are messy. We need therapists to do this work.

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30 Responses

  1. Re: ““How are you?” What is the answer when someone asks you?” At this time I’m quite annoyed about a couple recent events where the NTs who asked me that focused on the spoken words I used and ignored my state; or, got all gushy over how vividly my written words conveyed my emotions and ignored that I am a person who is having those emotions, and then even asked if I could write papers for them. So, I have come to have a rather anti-NT attitude which maybe will only last this week, or maybe will last a lifetime, or maybe will fade away, or maybe will intensify and grow more antagonistic as time continues. Who knows. I guess when we get to the future we’ll find out which way the future goes.

  2. I got therapy first at 22. What we ended up doing is working so that I could identify and label my swirling, messy emotions. It was the beginning of peace for me, at last. I’m 55 now.

  3. Personally, I am beginning to doubt the wisdom which says we need to ‘name’ our emotions, is that really true? I find such an exercise impossible. I certainly never ever experience one emotion at a time or even two! I live either in a maelstrom of emotion or with seemingly no emotion, no in between. Perhaps NT people experience one emotion at a time or predominantly one? Does anyone?

    1. That brings to mind a time I said something like, “You know that thing about intersectionality? Emotions have intersectionality with other emotions at the same time they are having intersectionality with all the goings on in your life.” The expression of the activist neurotypical then showed all the understanding and comprehension you would see in the lens of a camera which has a dead battery.

  4. I’m the same. I try to identify and name my emotions so I can hear the messages they’re trying to convey to me. Never is there just one, or even just two. And whenever the emotions become strong, they seem to stir up more! Anything that lets me regulate and process helps. Right now, that’s playing cello and The Elder Scrolls Online and washing dishes!

  5. When I was in my 30s, I was able to develop a more nuanced language around emotion and feeling, through Vipassana meditation, holistic bodywork modalities such as reiki, holotropic breathwork, dynamic catharsis processes, yoga, and experiential psychologies such as shamanism, Zen Buddhism and Tantra. In one way or another, they all direct your attention to just feeling ’emotion’ as energy in the nervous system, which includes simultaneous and/or seemingly conflicting states, and this can help with allowing the energy to just move through you without having a story built around it.

    1. I think this is the sort of approach I am moving towards. Acknowledging and allowing the emotion maelstrom without feeling under pressure to name it. It is amazing how quickly even really intense emotion can dissipate if you can manage to just allow it to be. If you can find the courage to do that and to allow it to be felt it will often just gradually go. I am coming to think that the idea that we should label our feelings can be a very oppressive one. I think we can usually tell whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant and then look to see what may have triggered that feeling. Perhaps much of the time that’s enough?

      1. For myself, I still think there’s a lot of value in having a comprehensive emotional vocabulary alongside the ability to just allow the energetic movement through your nervous system. I love words, and being able to communicate my experience with clarity. I’m not a fan of emoji culture as I think it adds to the general dumbing-down of language we see these days. You can also use textural words to describe or name emotional energy…prickly, gluggy, jagged etc. This helped my son when he was a teenager, as he hadn’t developed the vocabulary yet, but needed to communicate his feeling states sometimes when it wasn’t obvious in his face.

      2. PS I also agree very much with all of what you’ve said, by the way. It is amazing how quickly even an intense feeling can dissipate, and it takes courage at times, and a different kind of awareness.

        1. That is very interesting as despite being of quite an advanced age (!) I find myself often confused by words for emotions. For me emotions cannot be pinned down in that way. It always feels reductionist and as if something important is being ignored/not included. However feelings can for me be more readily encompassed by ‘made up’ words, or by something such as weight or colour or physical sensation – it’s hard to put into words! I too love words but I find them very inadequate at times…they are more like signposts than the real thing

          1. I agree words are inadequate, likewise any description of ‘reality’, because of everything that exists outside the description. Another interesting perspective that helped me gain more agency with my depression, was learning about brain function; that physiologically, ’emotion’ is sensation (energy) created by cascades of chemicals released by the brain (not at all dry science, mind!). When I understood how the amygdala ‘overheats’ and the frontal lobe shuts down chemically, I also learned how Vipassana (or playing a musical instrument) helps regulate those aspects of brain chemistry, so I wasn’t as overwhelmed by an amorphous feeling state. All these experiences informed the teaching work I used to do, using cartooning to help students explore ’emotional literacy’. Here’s a link if you’re creatively curious:

  6. Great post! I am currently reading a book titled ‘Power of Now’ by Echart Tolle. I really like it as it gives a spiritual explanation of mind, emotions and thoughts.

  7. This. Is. Wonderful. So articulate. I’m going to use your article to try to explain myself to my gf, who struggles to understand why I can’t distill my emotions into one word at a time (and I consider myself to be pretty eloquent, most of the time). Thank you, Trevor!

  8. Good article overall. I just found your blog and wanted to let you know that I really appreciate reading your postings. I’m hoping you’ll post soon again. I appreciate the excellent information very much.

  9. For my part, I’m starting to question if the conventional wisdom that asserts we should be able to “name” our feelings is, in fact, accurate. A task of this kind seems unattainable to me. I hardly never feel just one feeling at a time, and I almost never feel even two! I either live in a whirlwind of emotions or with what seems to be no emotions at all; there is no in between for me. It’s possible that persons with NT only feel one emotion at a time or the majority of the time. Does anyone?

  10. I am confused as to why someone (capybara clicker) has reposted my comment as theirs?

  11. I agree that there can be no relation between expressed emotion and inner feelings. For example, an ABA practitioner might insist, “show happy,” and the neurodivergent kid may smile automatically even though they just want to be as far away from that table as possible.

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