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Ask a Therapist: Lacking Emotions in Social Situations

Wasatch Family Therapy TeensQ: I am a 17 year old High School student and I have felt this conflict my entire life, but only now can I ignore it no longer. Amidst all of the discussion about college and ‘finding the right fit,’ I have realized that the major internal problem I have is that I lack an identity, lack interests, lack emotions, and therefore have trouble with social interaction. I am hopelessly apathetic at heart, and I don’t know how to reconcile the true ‘me’ with the image others expect–that of a ‘normal’ person who has passions and desires. I care about nothing–not politics or current events, not my friends or family or other people, not sports or music or art. Outwardly, I am a high-achieving, well-rounded student. I do well in every subject and participate in a variety of extracurricular activities, some of which I hold leadership positions in. However, none of them truly interests me, and I only continue them to get into college. Nothing ‘outside’ school much concerns me either. The various problems of society don’t matter to me, even when I’m affected. Occasionally a particularly poignant tragedy or example will make feel like helping out, but on the whole, I am completely apathetic. The same goes for the social aspects of my life. My childhood, family, and friendships were and are normal, but I do not have emotional connections to anyone; if somebody ‘close’ to me died, I would only be concerned with how it would affect my own convenience. I don’t have any academic, athletic, or arts-related interests either, and I do not believe the problem is lack of exposure. The only things I like to do are things that make me forget my existence and consciousness–playing games or reading a book or watching television, but the appreciation I have for those things is completely aesthetic and surface-level.

Left alone, I would be fine with this situation and content with engaging myself in passive activities for the rest of my life. However, society demands interaction. I sometimes have difficulty projecting the ‘right’ appearance in conversations and social interactions because I never feel anything (happiness at a friend’s success, sadness at someone’s death, gladness when someone praises me). Most days I do not have trouble interacting with people, but the times when I ‘mess up’ cause me great consternation because I am somewhat of a perfectionist and do not want people to think of me badly. I do not believe I have a social disorder because I understand what people mean and what kind of reaction to give–I just cannot act out that reaction because I do not truly feel it and I do not have enough acting prowess to express that emotion believably. People occasionally comment that my expression is too serious (that’s my default expression–blankness that is misinterpreted as seriousness, sadness, etc.), that I do not smile–in fact, I barely move, because I have trouble acting out body language as well even though I know what the proper response is. The emotions I do feel in social interactions are solely derived from self-consciousness–did I smile enough just then? Do I look relaxed? Most of all, do I look NORMAL? This kind of nervousness impedes my acting and therefore my daily interactions. Because I want to look what ‘normal’ is in any situation, I project different personalities to different people, causing conflicts when I deal with them together. I cannot just ‘let things go’ and be who I am–silent, still–in public; I want to look normal, but I can’t seem to force my body to comply.

What should I do? I want to make my social interactions normal so that I can live more conveniently–’conveniently’ in this case means in a state where my physical needs are attended to and I am left alone and not thought about much by others, where I fit in, so that when alone I can drown myself in fiction and escapist activities. If I have a disorder or psychological problem with this lack of emotions–perhaps a refusal to recognize them?–I want to be able to deal with it. However, I don’t think I could deal with speaking to a counselor in real life because my guard would always be up, always trying to act and never expressing what I truly mean. I won’t be trite and say that I am spiraling down into darkness, but this problem truly does bother me.

A: It sounds extremely exhausting to be constantly on guard worrying about the appropriateness of your social interactions, especially when your internal state doesn’t match your behavior. I’m so glad that you are reaching out for help to find your way through this confusing situation.  Yes, it does sound like there is a problem going on, either psychologically or medically. I recommend that you seek help from a counselor to get an evaluation, and to get a thorough physical exam from a physician. There are many medical and mental illnesses that can cause the blank feelings that you’re describing and the feeling of disconnection and despair. While I can’t diagnose you based on an email, the emptiness that you are describing sounds like severe depression. To learn more about the symptoms and treatment for different types of depression click here.

You mentioned that you’re not sure you can put your guard down with a counselor, but keep in mine that psychotherapists are trained to help you lower your guard over time, to help you get to the root of the problem, and to help you develop skills to live a more fulfilling life.  Additionally, a therapist can help you resolve any life events or relationship problems that may have contributed to shutting down your emotions and help you to reconnect with who you are, how you feel, and what you want.

I have seen many clients in my clinical practice develop the disconnection that you are describing after experiencing trauma or loss as a way of protecting themselves against further pain. If you need help finding a good therapist in your area click the Find Help link on PsychCentral. Don’t wait. Life and relationships can be much more rewarding than what you are currently experiencing and there are many, many resources available to help you. Please let your parent, guardian, or school counselor know that you need help so they can support you and help you.

I urge you to get professional help so you can reconnect to your emotions and find joy and fulfillment in your life.

Take good care of yourself!

Julie Hanks, LCSW

Originally appeared in my column

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