I track my psychological development pretty closely. I’m not sure when it started but it has been an ongoing process ever since. I decided I wanted to move along on that vector and started tracking it hard.
The way it works is pretty predictable by now: I notice something – either I’m very puzzled about something, something doesn’t add up; or I sense more is possible. It feels like there is something I’m missing, that I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s like the sensation of the fish that is for the first time unclearly, slowly, realizing he has always been living surrounded by water, but he can’t tell yet that that is what is going on. He simply senses something is fishy.
It’s like you wake up and light is coming and it’s blinding and you’re starting to see the shapes of things around you, but they haven’t yet congealed in anything you can clearly identify.
It’s like, you just know, somehow, in the core of your being, that there is a color everyone else sees that you can’t see, you aren’t properly compressing information, you don’t know how you know, but you know it, you just know something is missing. You’re not getting everything, there is something amiss. You feel a hole, the absence of something; you can’t say what is missing, yet, but you know something is missing. Like perceiving a negative space.
And the way it usually works is that it is either within range or not. And if I am I will keep vortexing into it, circling it, getting closer and closer, trying to get a better view, until I finally, finally, get it, or it learn it, or it becomes obvious. And if I’m not I will naturally check back in, weeks, months, years(!) out, as the world naturally, automatically, reminds me of it.
K, so that is how my psychological process works.
Let’s talk about emotions now.
I first noticed something was fishy when someone posted on the LW forum about someone that had great insight into their emotions. I didn’t know why at the time but I was very intrigued – I’ve since found that my subconscious (or whatever you wanna call it) throws me bones like this and I better take them. (I have a complicated theory that you are prohibited from directly knowing some facts about yourself which causes blind spots but relevant sub-minds are still acting in your best interest and thus try to give you the necessary information but because they can’t directly does so it comes out in these weird ways – visions, dreams, fantasies, hypnagogia, weird curiosities, intriguing words or media, etc. But that is for another time.)
So I investigated a bit at the time and came to believe I definitely had discernible emotional reactions but not discernible emotional phenomenology: call me stupid and I’ll get big and red, but I won’t notice anything changing on the inside.
And I think this initial diagnosis was correct. I could not distinguish what was happening. I even thought nothing was happening. Maybe, on a good day, I could muster enough self-awareness to be able to articulate ‘I feel bad’ or ‘I feel good’ but to a large extent I was a victim of my emotions and could not say anything more clear than generally hand-waving at valence and intensity.
So I did a bunch of work then and there, wrote a bunch, read a bunch of books – this was 5 years ago – but without too much luck. Luckily this led me to find Focusing. Now focusing was a really important find because I could now articulate very complex, large felt senses that had been sitting with me for years. It also gave me a very visceral sense of how one can absolutely be missing a very important dimension in their experience. Imagine you can’t judge whether or not people are attractive. Now try to understand the world and reach your goals. Yeah.
Anyways, so recently I came to think about emotions again. Not sure why. I found out the thing I had had a name: Alexithymia.
This might seem like nothing but it is a huge win. It means you can go into a vortex of scientific studies and try to use their theory or experiments to experiment with yourself.
Unfortunately I didn’t find anything too relevant in the literature. But I did figure something out: I could triangulate how specific emotions felt. I read the emotional thesaurus for physical descriptions of emotions and would try to infer from my body posture. I noticed I could look at my face in a mirror and see which emoji my face looked like most and then see the name of that emoji. I could look at an emotion wheel and see how I felt and say what emotions it definitely wasn’t.
I kept doing this for days and days on end, months.
At the same time, unrelatedly, I was keeping a diary. My entries were telegraphic, describing which things I did in what order. At some point I gained the ability to add smiley faces next to the entries. Then I shifted my intention into diaring extensively about how things felt.
I kept tracking how many unique emotion words I used and how many of those I hadn’t ever used before. This way I could see progress. My concepts were also getting clear: before my only association with terror/horror was that it was a kind of movie; now I could precisely tell how terror felt very distinct from horror.
I still suck. I frequently stay at level 1 of the hierarchy of requests and collapse from emotional exhaustion without knowing why. But now I know I don’t know. Before, I’d just feel worse and worse and then I’d go to sleep. Now I know I’m collapsing from emotional exhaustion which means that there was something I felt or needed I didn’t figure out which means there is a target for my investigation. I went from not knowing I don’t know to knowing I don’t know.
Why am I writing this? Well, part selfish, part selfless. Selfish: I’ve been through such protocols many times now and always adapt to the new set-point. I’m creating this artifact as a way to remember this particular win.
Self-less: In addition sometimes you find a piece that speeds up your research by years, saving you years of trouble. I just found a piece that tells me a huge part of what I found out: how unpacking emotions causes you to perceive distinctions in negative emotions which allow you to self-regulate and devise better strategic paths.
And maybe, just maybe, I can save someone like me a bunch of years.