It’s been 3 months since I wrote this and this article documenting my newfound discovery of what was clearly a personality disorder manifesting in myself since early childhood. I have continued my research into this and now have a more concrete idea of what is going on inside my mind. This is my attempt at self psychoanalysis since of course I’m not going to see a professional. At least I won’t until I’ve exhausted my own resources.
My most recent breakthrough came from reading a dissertation for the treatment of schizoid personality disorder by a Dr. Wheeler. The entire paper is interesting with plenty of clinical examples and varying explanations for schizoid PD. I have suspected for at least a decade that I am a schizoid, but I do not like labels and will probably never see a specialist who could make a diagnosis. There seems to be significant overlap of schizoid PD with avoidant PD and I agree with Dr. Wheeler that this is due to it being a spectrum. During mild anxiety I am more avoidant, but with overwhelming anxiety I dive deeper into schizoid. The central driving force is the same.
The most critical part of the dissertation for me was about Hypersensitivity.
Previously I believed I had poor empathy, that it was difficult for myself to understand the feelings and drives of others. My reclusive behavior was a response to my failure to understand this unknown. In reality, I believe it is the complete opposite. I suspect I have an extreme level of self-awareness that incorporates the perspective and emotions of everyone around me.
This different interpretation crystallizes my anxiety and emotional responses in a new way. Now I can understand the very core of my anxiety. Everything originates from my increased ability (perceived or accurate) to read emotions in others. This means, at an intuitive level, that people can be hostile to me by merely being near and observing me. People rarely verbally insult me, but they can’t easily hide from their expressions that they find someone boring, irritating, or unattractive. My own behavior is heavily warped by these subconscious perceptions I am always making.
The Complete View
First, I want to integrate this into a model of my behavior before I delve more into the implications, supporting evidence, and ways to treat it. I made a terrible MS paint to visualize my internal response structure.
The impetus to this process is my own hyper sensitive emotional perception of other people. This perception is an assault on the ego because people will unknowingly express their own sub conscious views of me. When these views are negative or have the potential to be negative it generates anxiety.
The anxiety drives a number of external responses that would be visible to other people. The first is the False Self. This is a process where I would hide my true self from people, therefor their perceived views of me would be inaccurate and not harmful to my ego. If someone shows a distaste for me, but they do not actually know the real me then their distaste does not hurt the ego. It’s a sort of trick where I can feel “aha! You thought you don’t like me but in fact you do not know who I am, so we don’t know if you like me or not.” The false self typically manifests as being very withdrawn and silent with little emotional expression. But it can also shift into one of the other responses depending on situations.
Mimicry is another defense to anxiety and is an extension of the false self. Basically it’s where I would read a room and then adopt their behavior. This can be their sense of humor, mannerisms, ways of speaking, even interests and hobbies. This only works if there are few people, or I am knowledgeable enough about their interests. Often around other men this means I feign interest in sports.
The last external response, which is often an extension of mimicry but can be something else entirely, is placating the people I am interacting with. Basically I want to give them what they want so that they view me positively. This makes it incredibly difficult to say no to people. But it can also change fundamentally how I express myself. If someone appreciates a certain sense of humor I have then I will maintain that humor. Or if someone is looking for an intellectual discussion then I will be an intellectual. I can put on a great deal of different masks depending on what I perceive they like the best.
The last refuge of my anxiety is in fantasy. I lose myself in internal imagination where I have absolute control over how I am perceived, often involving myself being a cyborg. In fantasy I gradually lose my true self as perceived by other people. In a way the fantasy me is another false self, but it is designed to trick the ego and not other people.
In some ways, I’m making a subtle distinction. I am changing my view from the vague: people in general give me anxiety, to the more specific: My subconscious emotional reading of people gives me anxiety. But this realization is huge in terms of how I can counter it and eventually grow out of it, assuming it is correct. Here are some of the ways I believe that I am on the right path.
First, if my emotional hypersensitivity is to be believed I would have to see that my emotion reading is better than normal. Evidence against this is that I am average at those match the emotion to the picture games. I think I have some problem with them as they are clearly actors pretending to show emotions, and also not interactive. Another possibility is they are not expressing emotions AT ME so I am less attune to it. Or maybe my emotional engine is rough and I need to exercise it more, but have not because it gives me anxiety.
To support my hypersensitivity I can clearly see examples of the opposite in people. For example there are many, typically extroverted, people who are oblivious to how people feel about them. They have no self awareness at all. I’m sure many of us have worked with people that everyone hates yet those individuals are oblivious to this. If self awareness were a spectrum I would definitely put myself on the opposite end of these oblivious people.
If I am aware of my sub conscious ability, I can utilize it more actively. This doesn’t work well on actors because they are faking it. It does work well on home movies, where I do actually feel like I can identify how people are relating to each other. Specifically, since I am attuned to positive and negative perceptions I can see which people like each other, and which marriages are headed towards divorce.
When I was very young I had a strange behavior of poking out the eyes of people in pictures. I had no idea why I did it then but it makes sense from the perspective that I did not like being seen by people.
Anxiety coming from perceived emotions also makes sense when I consider situations where I do and do not feel anxiety around people. I feel anxiety when approaching new people, whereas that anxiety lessens only after I can establish that they view my positively. I once dated a girl in high school who I always felt intense anxiety around for as long as I’ve known her. It turns out she never had any romantic feelings for me at all and was using me to pay for movie tickets and meals. My perception was correct, she did not like me. There were also other women I have dated who as soon as it is clear they were interested in me my anxiety completely dissipated. Likewise, when a woman was soon going to break up with me, I have always felt an increase in anxiety before they break the news. These examples show how my perception that people either could or actively are viewing me negatively gives me anxiety.
In fact, the people I never feel any anxiety around are the ones who are openly obsessed with me. This rarely happens, but I do like these people the most and I don’t have much problem opening up to them.
People who are inebriated also do not give me anxiety, this is likely because I do not perceive them as being able to see me accurately. It is like they are wearing blindfolds.
I get extreme anxiety when I feel like I am infringing on other people or I cannot give them something they want. This is likely because behaving in such a way is a pathway to be viewed negatively. I must have learned this somehow from an early age for it to be so ingrained.
I can go on and on with more examples of when I felt anxiety, and when it went away. All evidence correlating with how I perceived other people’s views of myself. The interesting part is how even unknown people who haven’t expressed any view on me yet still induce anxiety. I think this is in some effect because I do not know a sure-fire way to get on their good side.
Large social events make me exhausted because I am constantly doing the dance of perceiving other people’s emotions and adjusting myself to fit in and protect my ego from their perceptions. I can only truly relax when I am alone and this process stops.
The good news as this definitely feels like something I can overcome now that I can point to the specific origin of my anxiety.
Past attempts to overcome anxiety have not been successful because they were incomplete. Forcing myself into social interactions does not lessen the trauma my hypersensitivity was inflicting on the ego, it only caused me to become more defensive with my anxiety after the fact. Likewise, attempting to lessen my defensive tactics only pushed me into other parallel defensive behaviors. Forcing myself to confront my fears never worked because I never knew exactly what the fear was.
I can lessen anxiety by focusing entirely on the source of it, which I believe to be my own emotion engine’s perception of other people’s emotions. This is a subconscious process, although I believe I can bring it up to a conscious level now that I am aware of it and where it is located in my mind. I can consciously see and describe the emotions of other people. Internally this feels like a meditative state. I am becoming aware and focusing on a subconscious process: such as my breathing, my heartbeat, my thoughts, or in this case: my perception of other people’s emotions.
When I put this emotional perception from my subconscious into the spotlight of my consciousness, the anxious affect is noticeably lessened. As of now I have only tried this within my imagination, but it appears to work.
To test my theory I think of a time in my past that I felt intense anxiety, such as the time when I was asked by my boss to come in over the weekend. I rejected the offer, and it made me feel absolutely terribly anxious. When I replay this in my mind I still feel that anxiety, but when I go through this scene again but focus on my perception on how my boss feels, the anxiety dissipates. In a way it forces my emotional perception to go through a logical filter. At the time of this event I was already financially independent and was getting ready to quit. It did not matter to me if I was fired from my job, nor should it matter if my boss thought I was not a good worker. It was correct of me to assert my own personal desire that I did not want to work on weekends. I can go through nearly every example of intense social anxiety I have felt (I remember all of them unfortunately) and try this new strategy. It appears to work. Now I can formulate a method for gradually recovering from anxiety.
The Recovery Process
I’m proposing a modification of typical CBT (Cognitive Behavior Therapy) and combining it with meditative practice.
I use self-awareness to identify when I am approaching or in an anxiety inducing situation. Then I enter a meditative state focused on perceiving the other person’s emotions. I try to make it conscious what emotion I am seeing in other people. Bringing the subconscious to the conscious will inherently break my typical anxiety pathway and redirect it into a more logical one. Then I can use common CBT techniques. Ask myself diffusing questions: What if someone is looking bored or irritated by you? Should this matter? Is it important? Is it worth getting upset if someone is not actively interested in you? Through logic I can see that anxiety accomplishes nothing and is unwarranted.
My hope is that by practicing and reinforcing this emotional redirection I will eventually lose my social anxiety, or reduce it to a level where it is no longer influencing my behavior negatively.
There is also a parallel strategy I can follow when not in anxious situations. I think of it as a long term reinforcement of the ego. I accomplish this through self improvement. As I remove my false self (both the outwardly visible one and the internal fantasy one), I must replace it with my real self, my best self. To do this I make myself more attractive. I work out, lose weight, work on improving my beard and hair, wash my face to improve complexion, practice a good posture, good eye contact, and anything else that I can think of that would make myself for inviting to other people.
If the core of my fear is that people will perceive me poorly, then I must work hard to put out my best self. Even if sometimes people do react negatively to me, I can still feel like an attractive confident man from all the efforts I put into myself. If people see me as a weak, passive, ugly person because I am one, it makes the rationalization in the previous strategy less effective.
Now I am excited to put this practice into use, and finally get to living my life.