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Alexithymia & manipulation

Autistic people are a particularly vulnerable group, as we are at a higher risk of social manipulation.[1]Can you spot a liar? Deception, mindreading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder (Williams et al., 2018) Part of this is due to having less risk awareness (a decreased ability to detect risk) and lower social protection (meaning fewer friends and often lacking a supportive peer network).[2]Differences in social vulnerability among individuals with autism spectrum disorder, Williams syndrome, and Down syndrome (Fisher, Moskowitz & Hodapp, 2013)

Another reason is that we are less able to spot lies.[3]Can you spot a liar? Deception, mindreading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder (Williams et al., 2018) In my experience, it’s not necessarily that I miss signals—in fact, I can be very observant, and often note microexpressions others miss. Rather, it’s that I project my own nature onto others, and so my basic assumption is that others wouldn’t lie, despite evidence to the contrary. And because I assume people are basically good, when their actions or words are ambiguous or incongruent, I tend to come up with a myriad of plausible explanations, and can thus easily explain red flags away. In the article below, I discuss some of the red flags you may encounter in relationships.

Unhealthy relationships

There are probably many reasons why we are vulnerable to manipulation, and we may cover some of them in future posts. But in this article, I want to discuss how our alexithymia (a condition 40–70%[4]The validity of using self-reports to assess emotion regulation abilities in adults with autism spectrum disorder (Berthoz & Hill, 2005)[5]Brief report: cognitive processing of own emotions in individuals with autistic spectrum disorder and in their relatives (Hill et al., 2004)[6]Measuring the effects of alexithymia on perception of emotional vocalizations in autistic spectrum disorder and typical development (Heaton, 2012) of autistic people share) is one of the reasons that we are particularly vulnerable.


An illustration of a butterfly as a symbol for alexithymia, and eerie eyes on its wings as a symbol for manipulation.

Manipulate what?

For the longest time, I thought I was hard to manipulate, and in some ways I probably was and still am. Here are the reasons I could be harder to manipulate than others:

  • Isolation — I don’t interact with people a lot. The less you interact with people, the less likely you are to get manipulated, simply because you give people less opportunity to do so.
  • Investment — The interactions I have with people in person are superficial, while the interactions I have online tend to be about facts and ideas, so I don’t tend to get emotionally involved. The less you get emotionally involved, the less people can get close enough to manipulate you in significant ways.
  • Flat affect — I have reduced affect display, meaning my face isn’t as expressive as others, which can make it difficult to read me.

But perhaps the most significant reason why I thought I was hard to manipulate is that I didn’t think there were many feelings TO manipulate. On account of my alexithymia and depression, I was largely unfeeling. But was I really?

It took me years to figure out my empathy, because often I didn’t experience affective empathy where others did, and yet there were situations where I would feel a lot of empathy. What I ultimately learned is that due to alexithymia, you can seem unfeeling and experience a lack of emotionality, and yet underneath the surface, I was a highly sensitive person. I just wasn’t very in tune with that person. In fact, I suppressed that person, because exposing it has historically lead to hurt. This is the reason why my alexithymia developed in the first place, to protect myself. You can read more about that in the Defense mechanism section in this post:

Alexithymia & autism

An illustration of a butterfly as a symbol for alexithymia, with gaps in its wings signifying vulnerability.

Alexithymia as a vulnerability marker

So the biggest danger of alexithymia when it comes to manipulation and exploitation is that it shuts you off from your own emotions, which is very different from not having emotions. So while you may think your lack of emotions makes you a challenging target, it potentially makes you extra vulnerable, because you are likely to show emotions you are not aware of yourself.

And thinking you are hard to manipulate is likely exactly why you can be manipulated. Why? Because it leaves you defenseless. Most people have blind spots. Thinking you don’t have any will put you at ease, but it does nothing to address the blind spots. Even worse, such naivety can inadvertently point people to the very blind spots you would protect if you knew about them. And let’s not forget that alexithymia could be regarded as a form of emotional naivety and lack of awareness.

So potentially, if you have alexithymia, you could get manipulated without even realizing it happened! Or you might realize it hours or even days later. I remember one time a friend made a sarcastic joke which went over my head, and then another two that also went over my head. It wasn’t until half an hour later that things suddenly clicked, and I realized he fooled me thrice. Autistic people often experience processing delays,[7]Delayed processing in autism | Integrated Treatment Services so especially in combination with alexithymia, it could be that by the time you realize you have been manipulated, the culprit is long gone.


Reasons for emotions

To get a deeper understanding of why alexithymia makes us vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation we have to look at what functions emotions have. Research shows that emotions serve us in four ways:[8]Attachment Theory in PracticeEmotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families (Susan M. Johnson, 2019)

  1. Emotion orients and engages — By its nature, emotions grab our attention and guides our perception. It focuses us on what is relevant to our needs, telling us what is salient, and engaging our attention in an absorbing way.
  2. Emotion shapes meaning-making — People that can’t access their emotions due to brain injuries can’t make rational choices.[9]Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (Antonio R. Damasio, 1994) They become caught up in pondering all possible alternatives, and have nothing to orient them to what they want and/or need to give them a felt sense of what matters. So emotion makes you able to find meaning in things, and articulate problems.[10]Security in Infancy, Childhood, and Adulthood: A Move to the Level of Representation (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985)
  3. Emotion motivates us — Emotions energize us and urges us to take action. The word ‘emotion’ comes from the Latin ēmōvēre, which means ‘to move out’. So emotions serve as programs for action. For example, anger usually moves us to deal with something we perceive as frustrating our goal or threatening our or someone else’s wellbeing. And shame moves us to hide and withdraw.
  4. Emotion communicates — We use emotions to communicate with others, and this also sets up their response. This happens intuitively (to varying degrees), and allows us to anticipate others’ responses (which allows us to coordinate tasks and solve problems collaboratively). But emotions also allow for emotional bonding and caregiving.

An illustration of a person showing different emotions.

There is quite a lot to unpack here, so let me explain for each point how alexithymia can make us vulnerable to manipulation.

  1. Emotion orients and engages — Being tuned out of emotions is like navigating without a compass.[11]Attachment Theory in PracticeEmotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families (Susan M. Johnson, 2019) When you have alexithymia, you are less able to focus on your needs,[12]Alexithymia and interpersonal problems (Vanheule et al., 2007) and situations aren’t necessarily understood.[13]The relationship between emotional intelligence and alexithymia (Parker, Taylor, & Bagby, 2001) And when you are less aware of your own needs, you are less able to maintain boundaries and being assertive, which means people are more likely to cross your boundaries and exploit you.
    • I had a best friend for many years, who as it turns out was quite narcissistic. I had such suspicions a few times, but I was okay with that. As long as he is a good friend, his diagnosis or neurology doesn’t matter, does it? Eventually, the relationship ended; I inadvertently hurt him, and he exploited me a final time before he moved on. The details of what happened aren’t relevant to describe here, but the point I want to make is that it wasn’t until the relationship ended that I could see many red flags I either didn’t really notice (except subconsciously I must have, or I wouldn’t recall them) or brushed away. The ways in which he manipulated me weren’t even malicious most of the time. Often he would fool me as a joke, and we would both laugh, and he would feel empowered. Honestly, an alexithymic autistic person and a narcissist can have quite a symbiotic relationship, as we did for many years. Because as long as my alexithymia was strong, I paid no attention to the manipulation; he could use me to regulate his self-esteem, while I don’t experience any suffering from it, and just enjoy the positive aspects of the relationship. But eventually, I reached a point where I did notice, and his behavior did start affecting me, at which point the relationship was no longer sustainable.
  2. Emotion shapes meaning-making — Alexithymia can undermine the ability to deduce meaning accurately. For example, people high in alexithymia can distinguish facial expressions, but have challenges attributing the correct meaning to different facial expressions.[14]Alexithymia, Not Autism, Predicts Poor Recognition of Emotional Facial Expressions (Cook et al., 2013) So challenges with reading facial expressions (including microexpressions) and body language mean we are likely to overlook or misattribute certain social signals, or explain them away. When alexithymia is high, you can also become indecisive and ponder all possibilities, which again makes you vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.
    • Why? Well, in my case, I can easily come up with different explanations for people’s behaviors, but I have trouble deciding which is the accurate explanation. I have a low understanding of what actually goes on in people’s minds, so I feel uncomfortable making a firm conclusion in the absence of unmistakable evidence. As a consequence, I risk explaining genuine red flags away. And the more red flags are explained away, the greater the opportunity for people with bad/selfish intentions to get close, and exploit you longer. And in my experience, the guilt I feel when I consider that I may be misjudging a person and their behavior is what keeps me locked in a potentially vulnerable position. More on guilt later.
  3. Emotion motivates us — Since emotions are programs for action, being disconnected from your emotions can lead to inaction. So if our alexithymia is high, we are less inclined to take action against potential manipulation or exploitation. We endure things longer, and bottle up our emotions. And considering alexithymia causes challenges with #1 and #2, you wouldn’t necessarily be aware that you do this, either.
    • I have a great tendency to bottle up my emotions and just ignore and endure everything that caused me friction; until eventually, I reach a breaking point. Historically, I would burst out in tears once or twice per year. I actually enjoyed it when that happened, because it would offer me such a sense of relief afterward. Later, I started taking MDMA a few times per year in a therapeutic context, which prevented me from reaching that breaking point. Nowadays, my alexithymia is much lower, and I express my emotions more frequently. I am more aware, more in tune with my feelings, and are much better able to deal with things. I actually spring into action now, whereas I used to be quite schizoid and apathetic in some ways.
  4. Emotion communicates — Alexithymia reduces our ability to articulate, and so one obvious risk is that we would be less able to ask for help, or to explain our situation to people who can help, which leaves us vulnerable to people who have a toxic influence. Another consequence of alexithymia undermining communication is that it becomes more difficult to build up a peer support network in the first place.[15]Differences in social vulnerability among individuals with autism spectrum disorder, Williams syndrome, and Down syndrome (Fisher, Moskowitz & Hodapp, 2013)

FOG

So due to our alexithymia we don’t necessarily know what we feel. But do you know what emotions make you vulnerable to manipulation in the first place? There are three feelings that are transactional in emotional blackmail, meaning these are the primary ways in which you can get manipulated. They form the acronym FOG:

  • Fear — With fear you can ensure that others feel too afraid to cross you, or do what you want. Manipulation based on fear usually comes in the form of threats. Fear can also form the basis for many other emotions to take place. For example, one of my ex-partners would sometimes during conflict threaten to call my dad to complain about me. The reason this instilled fear in me is because I felt a great sense of shame about my partner calling my dad. I would tell her to go ahead and call though, because I felt it was better to endure the shame than to bend to her will out of fear. She never did call, but this is just an example of how even the fear of looking stupid can be used against you. People fear different things to different degrees, so your deepest fears can potentially make you particularly vulnerable.
  • Obligation — Manipulation based on obligation is often more difficult to spot, in part because they speak to our own values. For example, if I was raised to value the importance of family, then I may be particularly susceptible to arguments based on family obligations. But manipulation based on obligation can take sinister forms. For example, you might hear arguments such as, “Yes, your dad abused you for many years, but you should visit him. He is still your father.” But just like manipulation based on fear only works if you are afraid of something, manipulation based on obligation only works if you actually value said obligation. If the very idea of a father no longer has meaning on account of the abuse you endured, then “He is still your father” is an argument without force. But speaking from experience, even if you are angry with your father for the abuse, your sense of obligation can be very powerful.
  • Guilt — If fear and obligation fails, there is always guilt. And interestingly, guilt often seems to be intertwined with our sense of obligation, but also with a sense of compassion. If you don’t visit your father, you may feel guilty, because he is still your father (obligation), and he’s had a hard life (compassion). Another example of something that connects obligation with guilt is reciprocity, meaning that when others do something for you, you will very likely feel a strong need to return the favor. Suppose for some reason we haven’t yet repaid a particular person, then we will likely become extra susceptible to arguments based on obligation and guilt.

An illustration of three clouds of fog, representing Fear, Obligation, and Guilt.

In my experience, manipulation based on guilt is what autistic people are most susceptible to. I have a lot of guilt, which is often driven by my empathy. And we can take things personally, and end up feeling guilty about things that don’t have anything to do with us. It happens so often that autistic people respond with statements like, “Did I do something wrong? I’m sorry if I did.” I think we have gotten in trouble so frequently as children and even as adults—often for people’s misunderstandings of our autistic proclivities—that we have developed a lot of guilt, and tend to take responsibility for things we aren’t actually responsible for. And to be clear, shame and guilt are the only two emotions that are learned. So the more troubled our past, the more guilt we are likely to feel, and the more vulnerable we are to manipulation.

It’s interesting that these three transactions of emotional blackmail form the acronym FOG, because they obscure (like fog) and confuse a situation or someone’s thought processes. It probably wouldn’t surprise you to hear that gaslighting involves FOG, in particular guilt.


Sinister companions

I explained how alexithymia can undermine your ability to recognize potentially threatening behavior, and allows people with questionable intentions to come close. But if you are high on alexithymia, there is a good chance you actually seek out the kind of people that manipulate and exploit!

First of all, primary alexithymia (which seems to be most common among autistics) is caused by early childhood trauma or negative caretaker interactions, and we know that people who endured trauma are more likely to attract the kind of people that caused their childhood trauma, and become revictimized.[16]Sexual and physical revictimization among victims of severe childhood sexual abuse (Barnes et al., 2008)

But there is another reason why you might associate with people who exploit and manipulate. The alexithymic person is not in tune with their emotions and may think they lack empathy, which can be quite confusing, and so naturally, you start exploring what all that is about. In your search for answers on your empathy and emotions, you are likely to show an interest in psychopathy/ASPD. I did, and anecdotally, it seems many autistic people have at one point even considered whether they may be a psychopath. Not because we lack empathy or are exploitative, but because we often had to mask to fit in, and the challenges accessing emotions in alexithymia is easily confused with a lack of emotions. But even if you are not a psychopath, by exploring the extremes of empathy in people, you hope to gain a better understanding of your own empathy.

But what this interest in psychopathy often results in is surrounding yourself with psychopaths and other people that lack empathy. Or so I did, anyway. Not even entirely deliberately; I just got to talking with quite a few of them, driven by my curiosity, and coupled with my lack of judgment, they couldn’t share anything that would repel me. Some of these people were psychopaths, others narcissists or borderliners, some schizoids, and I suspect plenty of fellow alexithymics. Some of those alexithymics are probably autistic and don’t realize it (I have encountered this frequently). But all the same, what you end up with is an amalgamation of people that lack empathy, people that are toxic, and autistic people—all associating with each other. No wonder then that we are vulnerable to manipulation!

An illustration of a girl with a butterfly covering her face representing alexithymia, and two sinister eyes behind her.

So it’s not just that our cognition has blind spots and therefore vulnerabilities. Because of our alexithymia on the one hand and a desire to understand our internal processes on the other, our curiosity often drives us to walk into the lion’s den! And because our alexithymia makes us less risk-aware,[17]Differences in social vulnerability among individuals with autism spectrum disorder, Williams syndrome, and Down syndrome (Fisher, Moskowitz & Hodapp, 2013) we don’t even necessarily notice how dangerous those lions are. In that sense, the image below is a great analogy for an alexithymic person being manipulated.

A dog sitting in a burning room with a cup of coffee, not realizing he’s in danger, and making the statement, “This is fine.”
Image credit: Gunshow by KC Green – edit by Embrace ASD

So what can you do? One thing to remember is that people’s behaviors are pervasive. Even though you have blind spots that make it more difficult to see when you are being manipulated, it’s often much easier to spot when it happens to others. So one way to keep yourself safe is to pay attention to how a suspected manipulator behaves to others. Are they excessively cordial to some people while you know them not to be like that at all? They are probably manipulating. Watch for inconsistencies in patterns.

We may not see each red flag, and we may not interpret every signal correctly. But keep watching people’s patterns, and if something is off, inconsistencies will emerge eventually. Sadly, when we are high in alexithymia, the realization that someone has malicious intentions or otherwise has a toxic influence could arrive quite late.

References

1, 3Can you spot a liar? Deception, mindreading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder (Williams et al., 2018)
2, 15, 17Differences in social vulnerability among individuals with autism spectrum disorder, Williams syndrome, and Down syndrome (Fisher, Moskowitz & Hodapp, 2013)
4The validity of using self-reports to assess emotion regulation abilities in adults with autism spectrum disorder (Berthoz & Hill, 2005)
5Brief report: cognitive processing of own emotions in individuals with autistic spectrum disorder and in their relatives (Hill et al., 2004)
6Measuring the effects of alexithymia on perception of emotional vocalizations in autistic spectrum disorder and typical development (Heaton, 2012)
7Delayed processing in autism | Integrated Treatment Services
8, 11Attachment Theory in PracticeEmotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) with Individuals, Couples, and Families (Susan M. Johnson, 2019)
9Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (Antonio R. Damasio, 1994)
10Security in Infancy, Childhood, and Adulthood: A Move to the Level of Representation (Main, Kaplan, & Cassidy, 1985)
12Alexithymia and interpersonal problems (Vanheule et al., 2007)
13The relationship between emotional intelligence and alexithymia (Parker, Taylor, & Bagby, 2001)
14Alexithymia, Not Autism, Predicts Poor Recognition of Emotional Facial Expressions (Cook et al., 2013)
16Sexual and physical revictimization among victims of severe childhood sexual abuse (Barnes et al., 2008)

Alexithymia, Emotions, Etymology, Exploitation, Fear, Feelings, Gaslighting, Guilt, Manipulation, Microexpressions, Obligation, Qualia, Reduced affect display, Risk awareness, Social manipulation, Social protection, Victimization


Martin Silvertant

Martin Silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace ASD, autism researcher, writer, ironically silver award-winning graphic designer, and type designer. I am also autistic, and I fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

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