I see angry people...

I've read a number of studies that show people with eating disorders have difficulty reading emotions in other people.  A new one came out this week. The general theme for people with anorexia is that they tend to be hypersensitive to anger--that is, they see people as angry, even when they're not.  No one really seems to know why this is, but it seems to be one of those general traits of people with EDs.

It's something I know a lot about.

I don't like social situations for any number of reasons (anxiety, etc), but I also tend to dislike them because I always feel that everyone hates me.  Saying that they hate me is probably an overstatement, but I am usually very uncertain about how people feel about me.  My brain tends to hone in on even the slightest hint of anger or ambivalence.  I can never quite seem to tell what people think of me.  On the one hand, my brain sees lots of anger.  On the other hand, I often don't see much angry behavior directed towards me.  Or at least not a huge amount of it.

So yeah, social situations are very confusing and difficult for me. 

It's not just random social situations, either.  I've often thought my mom was angry at me or yelling at me when she wasn't.  She might be stressed, even if it's unrelated to me or the ED, but I interpret it as anger.  And when someone is mad at me, I feel that they must hate me. 

What this really means is that I feel I live in a hostile world.  It's scary, and it doesn't help with my stress level.  It helps to explain some of the reason I have lots of anxiety, and why I tend to isolate myself.  Meeting new people means wading through even more uncertainty and feelings that someone is angry with me.  Anorexia played into this by almost buffering me from these feelings.

I find reading these studies helpful because it helps me reframe social situations.  Instead of leaping to conclusions that, in fact, people really do hate me, I can remind myself to wait for something more concrete than random worries.  I can try to assess the situation before letting my emotions take over.  I still don't like social situations, but I'm getting better at dealing with them.


Dawn said...

funny you should post this right now. My best friend just informed me that she is very angry with me over the way anorexia is hurting my family and myself. My hubby came home from work and I immediately assumed he was mad at me too. It couldn't have been that he had worked a long day on little sleep and was exhausted. It does indeed help to know that some of my insecurity is my brain playing evil tricks on me.

Anonymous said...

I have a very hard time dealing with other people's anger, even if it is not directed at me. When it is directed at me, I perceive that the person is at a 10 on the anger scale. It's either no anger or maxed-out anger--no in between. I'm not anorexic, but I have a long history of disordered eating that includes restricting, bingeing, and purging. I have many of the other personality traits associated with anorexia, too. When someone is angry with me, my first instinct is to restrict. I guess it is a way for me to gain control of the situation because i can't control the dangerous anger. Thank you for writing this post. It gives me something to think about when I'm trying to cope with someone else's anger.

Jenny said...

I was in group therapy for several months, & one of our "themes" was our (the eating disordered) inability to be comfortable expressing or dealing with anger - which was directly coupled with our aversion to "taking up space".

"... I am usually very uncertain about how people feel about me."



Cathy (UK) said...

I tried to leave a comment but it's not posting.. Maybe it was too long?

Katie said...

^ Cathy - that happened to me the other day, mine was a bit of an essay too :P

Carrie - this is so interesting, I hadn't heard about this particular association between perceived anger and anorexia. I have trouble working out when people are angry with me, but the largest problem I have is thinking that everyone finds me boring, whether it's my boyfriend, close friends, blog readers, whoever. It's funny because I'm training to be a counsellor, and I am fairly good at working out what people are thinking and feeling about themselves, but trying to read peoples emotions in regards to me is near impossible.

hapa said...

This completely hits close to home for me. For the most part I feel like I can read people's emotions well, but I always overestimate their negative feelings, often assuming they are amplified or directed towards me even when they are not. Maybe it does have to do with my lifetime of disordered eating. I do wonder if it is one of those traits just common to those with eds or whether living in our own heads, where there is so much negativity pointed at ourselves, creates for us a world where everyone's anger and negativity is pointed at us too.

Libby said...

WOW. Thanks so much for posting this. I think I had a lightbulb moment. :)

Ally said...

Is it something to do perhaps with having lower resilience? My dr said that perhaps I could work on my resilience with my therapist, but it had never occurred top me that I had a problem with resilience until she mentioned it.
Is this a general trend among Ed sufferers? Any thoughts?

B said...

i see anger in people all the time. half the time i'm walking around thinking my mom's cross with me about something. also... lately it's been making anxiety a lot worse. ie: my dad has a very explosive temper and even his tiny blowups make me so anxious and exhausted. i probably don't have a diagnosable eating disorder, more like disordered eating and exercise habits. my sister is very depressed, but where my mom sees her depression, i see anger. feel so guilty about it, but i just keep thinking she's really annoyed at everyone/me.

Cammy said...

I have problems with this somewhat, but it's DEFINITELY worse with e-mail. It's so much harder to judge tone. I frequently have anxiety when I get e-mails that the person is unhappy with me, aloof, or disinterested, when that pretty much always turns out not to be the case in the end.

hm said...

Yep- Can't look at eyes b/c they're all angry and scary. Had a big breakthrough in therapy after accusing my therapist of "screaming at" me- and then after multiple discussions, came to acknowledge that she did not. In my head, I could still remember it and hear it- but she calmly insisted that it hadn't happened, and we verbally restructured the whole situation repeatedly and eventually I trusted her over what I remembered. It was a big moment for me to be able to admit that what I perceive isn't necessarily what happens. I still hate eyes and don't trust that they won't be drilling holes in me w/rage.

hm said...

I'd be curious to know if any studies have been done on anorexics and difficulty with or aversion to eye contact. I wonder if that is a common phenomenon.

Cathy (UK) said...

Have tried to leave 3 comments but not posted... Grrrr!

@hm - yes, there are studies on eye contact in AN. Also interrelations between AN, ASD and BPD. People with ASD find eye contact scary or distracting; people with BPD tend to misread faces as being angry or critical. Women with ASD often misdiagnosed as BPD.

Can't elaborate since my comments too long.

hm said...

Cathy (UK)- Do you have links to those studies that you could share?

Brinkley said...

There have been studies showing a higher incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders in AN patients and vice-versa. This inability to read emotions could easily be related to these findings.

Can't find any of the specific studies right now, but a quick search through any database of psychology research that you have access to should turn up a few articles.

Personally, I wonder if high functioning ASD diagnoses are ever warranted. Without being labeled as somehow dysfunctional, I'd think that learning to live with and around one's eccentricities would be a lot easier.

Cathy (UK) said...

@hm - the info about eye contact and ASD is well established. Lots of papers about AN and links to ASD. See also: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/why-autism-is-different-for-girls-1907315.html

As for BPD; there was an article about eye contact, emotion reading/regulation in Scientific American Mind a few months ago. The link between BPD and ASD in women was mentioned at a conference I went to recently.

@Brinkley - I am inclined to agree about diagnosing high functioning ASD. Most people with Asperger's syndrome aren't diagnosed unless they have a secondary mental health condition. Recognition of ASD can help therapy since modifications may need to be made.

T said...

This is realy cool because if there's one thing I have seen in every girl I've been in treatment with, it's that they are WAY overly sensitive to anger, conflict, etc.

For me, seeing some science about something I've experienced in my ED is WAY cool and super validating.

scottrecovered said...

I feel the exact same way! It is weird isn't it. This study helps to put things into perspective though!

Have a wonderful weekend.


hm said...

Cathy (UK)- Great post- Thanks- found this article that says it is the poor eye contact in autistic people that leads to poor facial expression recognition, not the other way around (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/03/050309151153.htm)- would still like to see research on a direct link btw. AN/eye contact aversion. My therapist insists that we work on eye contact regularly- it is excruciating- but I have noticed my security factor increasing slightly (not thinking everyone's pissed at me all the time)- till just now I didn't realize that there was very likely a connection between the two.

Anonymous said...

My experience is that once a sufferer from anorexia has regained to 100% or more of expected weight, has maintained that weight for a substantial length of time, and is eating normally again, her or his perception of others' emotions tends to gradually return to where it was before the eating disorder began. So the way to go about the issue of perception of others' emotions is successfully to treat the illness, not to try to address the issue when the sufferer is still ill.

hm said...

Anon- I think you have a valid point in that the anorexia exacerbates the emotional perception issues; however, to say those issues should not be treated until after full weight restoration is to assume that the person's emotional perception issues are ONLY a direct result of their disorder. In many cases, those perception issues were born with the person and helped to trigger the onset of the disorder as a coping mechanism. The person must learn to handle their perception issues then before they can get a handle on their disorder and all the things that continue to trigger it- treatment should be multi-faceted and include full nutrition and weight restoration AND coping mechanisms and social misperception work- it should not be one or the other alone.

Cathy (UK) said...

I agree with hm above. It is well established that starvation and OCD make a person with AN appear to be autistic, or more autistic than they really are (and remember that we are talking about a spectrum; not 'either/or'). Some people lose most of their starvation-induced autistic traits with weight restoration, but some do not. And those who do not possessed these traits before they developed AN. Diagnosis of ASD is based upon childhood characteristics as well as those in adulthood, together with the need for diagnosis to access services etc.

But I agree with anonymous that the purpose of this research is to successfully to treat the illness, not to try to address the issue when the sufferer is still ill. Actually, some people with ASD have more problem identifying their own emotions and with self expression than they do identifying others' emotions.

hm said...

Cathy (UK)- So true! I am everyone else's "therapist"- always the go to friend- but cannot define my own feelings for anything! Weird! But maybe not weird considering the body dysmorphia is the same- you don't mis-see others but cannot help but mis-see yourself-

Cathy (UK) said...

I kept trying to leave longer comments to this post yesterday, to no avail, so I summarised some of the scientific data rather than focusing on personal experiences.

I have tried to determine whether the tendency to see angry faces by people with AN is state or trait, and whether it is caused by bad experiences, or is constitutional.

As a small child I saw all faces as threatening, even smiling faces. I didn't see anger, but I thought the person might do something nasty to me. Yet, no-one had ever done anything nasty to me. My parents were very kind and loving.

As a teen with AN I thought everyone was angry with me when, in fact, they were worried.

As an adult I find faces distracting and eye contact threatening. That makes socialising difficult and it causes me a lot of anxiety. In fact, I am generally quite scared of people.

hm said...

Huzzah for electronic socialization from the safety of your own home, no eyes or faces. Except for these: ;)

They're not so threatening.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad I stumbled upon this. I have a really hard time with other people's emotions- especially anger. It drives people insane, like my boyfriend. I'm always accusing him of being angry at me, and thinking everybody else is mad at me as well. I thought I was alone! D:

beingthatchange said...

Thank you so much for posting this (and for everything that you're doing! It's helping me make sense of so much x

Anonymous said...

I have social anxiety - so I often misjudge people's emotions about ME (not their emotions about other things). I wonder if there is some kind of link with the way we think about ourselves (or the way we think others must perceive us) common in both ED issues and social anxiety. As far as ASD, I am not sure...I feel like that is a separate issue.

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I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

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