m, the pathology of difference, and a frog


{image is a photo of a frog, beneath which is the following text: Scientists tested a frog. They cut off its legs and shouted, “Jump!” The frog didn’t jump. The scientists concluded that when frogs lose their legs, they become deaf.}


My friend, M wrote this wonderful post the other day about, ya know, being M. I love his writing. I always have. It’s just, well, it’s M. But this post pissed me off. Yup, I said it. Not at him, mind you. Even after some six years of friendship, I don’t think I’ve ever been even mildly miffed at him. He’s just too awesome. But part of the post made me feel, as I said to him in the comments, growly. Which you might say isn’t really an emotional state, per se. I would beg to differ. And yeah, that matters.

This is what M wrote:

One time a psychologist told me that when you can’t identify your own feelings, it’s called alexithymia. So I told him that I have lots of feelings. I told him about my pinball self and my lint filter self. But he said those are metaphors I use to describe past events, not emotions. He then gave me a piece of paper that had a list of emotions on it; he asked me choose one that I’d felt over the past week. I scanned the list…I didn’t see the words “pinball” or “lint filter” anywhere. I just put the list away and dissembled and waited out the session.

Still, I think about these questions a lot. I get curious.

What does it mean to know your own feelings and needs?

What do you lose by not knowing?

And this, right here, is pretty much the crux of my problem with the way that we, as a society, pathologize difference. If some aspect of one’s personality or neurology or experience of and reaction to stimuli looks different from the typical, universally expected version thereof, it must not exist. Ya know, just like that non-jumping frog is clearly deaf. Not.

According to good old Wikipedia, Alexithymia is defined as “a personality construct characterized by the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.” It couldn’t be clearer in M’s post, and certainly in knowing him, that he does indeed identify and describe his own emotions. In fact, he does it far better, and with far richer and more illustrative language than most people I know. And that richness, the depth with which he describes feelings, is because he relies on metaphors, turning to concrete things to describe abstract ones. It’s a brilliant strategy really. And let me tell you, I find that I can relate to feeling like Pinball — bouncing off of immovable objects, moved by energy and will that is not my own and frustrated by an inability to control my own destiny. I get it. Happy? Sad? Well, I suppose I get those too but they’re a hell of a lot less illustrative than Pinball.

But nonetheless, the guy in the proverbial lab coat handed a grown man a sheet of smiley faces and when he said, “These aren’t the types of emotions that I identify with,” he apparently decided that Alexithymia was an appropriate diagnosis. And in so doing, he convinced a man who had a pretty damn incredible way of describing his feelings that his way of doing so was not only wholly invalid, but that it was indicative of his inability to do so at all. Please read that sentence again, won’t you? .. he convinced a man who had a pretty damn incredible way of describing his feelings that his way of doing so was not only wholly invalid, but that it was indicative of his inability to do so at all. 

That’s the rub.

Now, I won’t argue that the fact that M is not naturally fluent in the normative language of emotional identification and expression is problematic for him. Clearly, it is and it continues to be a challenge. And so perhaps it’s appropriate to pathologize the difference. It might even be helpful. But we have to stop calling difference in experience or expression absence of existence. If you’ll forgive a double negative (and even if you won’t) he’s not NOT identifying and expressing emotion. He’s identifying and expressing emotion differently.

The frog isn’t deaf, doctor. He can’t jump because you cut off his legs.

Thank you. M. For everything.



15 thoughts on “m, the pathology of difference, and a frog

  1. Oh my God.
    Yes. This.
    My son will say “I have butterflies in my brain” when asked to complete a task at school that is challenging, confusing or tasking for him. Now because he’s 8 he can use those words and they are “cute” and accepted because he has great teachers who understand what he means. But what happens when he’s older and uses these phrases? They are perfect descriptions of what is happening in his brain at that time, but because he can’t or doesn’t answer what’s on the sheet, what will he been labeled as? Or seen as? Lacking empathy? Missing frustration? Anger?
    Thank you M for writing this and Jess for sharing it.

  2. For me: I think of my emotions in terms of the physical sensations they cause me. I experience emotion in an intensely sensory way. But when I was a kid, if I told someone “My throat and eyes hurt and my neck is all tense and sounds seem louder and my stomach is sick and I feel like I need to run and there is discomfort in my behind and legs from sitting still – like they are electric wires humming with resistance” people would stare at me like I’d just sprouted two extra heads. They’d call me hystrionic or a hypochondriac. They’d make fun.

    I later learned to call that feeling “anxiety”. But I don’t think of it as anxiety. I think of it as that combination of sensations. Any wonder I have a hard time thinking of the “right” words for my emotions?

    • Same here. I went to see my doctor because I’ been getting heart palpitations and shortness of breath, without any direct cause (like exercising). And she said, “It sounds like you’re having panic attacks.” Oh. So that’s what those feel like.

  3. My oldest is ADHD and has some language difficulties. He uses “different” ways to describe his feelings and emotions…and they are creative and accurate. I hope no one tells him he’s wrong…he is sharing his truth. Thank you, M, And Jess, for sharing this.

  4. One of my favorite quotes comes to mind:

    Albert Einstein — ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.’

  5. Smiley faces seem pretty arbitrary for something that should be scientific. Smiles and grimaces look a lot alike, and I laugh when I nervous. Laughing doesn’t necessarily mean I’m happy at all. It sometimes means I’m scared. People of all sorts display and identify emotions differently.

  6. So many feels and thoughts about this. I hate the smiley face pain scale. It is awful because what they think the face with the straight line means is totally different from what I think it means. It’s all a matter of perspective.

    Now if they asked me if this was the worst pain I’ve ever had, or to describe the worst pain I’ve ever had and then asked me how what I was experiencing compared, I could probably come up with something. Maybe.

    I wrote a post on my blog one time about how if you’re leaking fluids, I won’t know what to do with you. That still holds true. I never know if I should be angry when others are yelling, sad when others are crying, or happy when others are laughing (even though they may be laughing for a very cruel reason). Emotions are hard to wrangle for me and I think that being able to tie what you feel to a physical description that most other people can comprehend should be completely valid.

    How many people don’t recognize the feelings/sensations that ischemgeek is describing? I know at some point I’ve felt all those sensations, and sometimes exactly as described because I have “anxiety” too, and I can sympathize with that description much easier than if someone said, “I’m anxious.”. I’d be like “Ok. What does anxious feel like to you?” because that term is too broad for me.

    I think painting emotions with a broad brush is incorrect, too. Sad is different for everyone. As are happy, anxious, mad, glad, relieved, distracted, etc. All subjective. We need better, more detailed descriptions if we want to truly know how others feel. How much more detailed can you get? Sad doesn’t give me enough info and it shouldn’t give a doctor enough info either.

    • I can’t do smiley face pain scale accurately. I might call a stubbed toe, a sprained ankle, a sprained knee, and a broken wrist all 6-7, even though they definitely are not all equally painful (I say as a person who’s experienced all of the above). What I can do relative-to-other-pains-I’ve-felt. So, I’ll say to a doctor, “It’s less painful than a knee sprain, worse than a hairline wrist fracture.”

  7. So perfectly and beautifully said. As the mother of an ASD child who sees and describes the world and him in it in such an out-of-the-box way, thank you. Just because his words are different doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the ability.

  8. I completely ‘get’ your anger. One doesn’t have to be autistic or Aspie to feel invalidated by someone else telling you how you should be,’ or how you should express yourself. Grrrrrr…..!

  9. Pingback: If You Could Read My Mind | Try Defying Gravity

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s