What is Alexithymia?
Derived from the Greek meaning literally “no words for emotions,” Alexithymia is a construct or set of traits describing the inability to identify and verbalise feelings within oneself.
Although 10% of the general population are thought to have it, the incidence within autistic people is somewhere between 50-80%, possibly more. It is not a mental disorder or disease, and you aren’t “diagnosed” with it, but rather it describes the experience of being without access to emotions like the vast majority of the population are.
It has nothing to do with being reluctant to share your feelings or having a “stiff upper lip” and not wanting to talk about emotions, rather, alexithymia renders you frequently unable to identify what it is you’re feeling at all, let alone describe it to another person.
It is often described as “emotional blindness” but I believe this is a simplification, and as someone with alexithymia myself, I would better call it something like “emotional illiteracy”.
Separating emotions from bodily sensations
My biggest issue in identifying emotions is having to purposefully connect the dots between the physical manifestations of emotion in my body and that particular emotion. It has taken years of therapy to even realise when blood rushes to my arms it means I’m angry or when there’s a falling feeling in the pit of my stomach that means I’m anxious (it further complicates matters that I also have synaesthesia).
But those kinds of emotions only come out when there’s a salient trigger; feelings of anger where the person isn’t immediately in front of me tend to get swept away in analysing and rationalising, rather than feeling.
In fact, the whole idea of emotions as feelings makes me feel (ha) like I am missing a part. I don’t feel all the feels, I feel fear, aggression, anxiety, lust, but as soon as you move away from those primal human instincts my mind takes over.
What about love?
Love has possibly been the most complicated emotion for me to figure out, especially since has been the cornerstone of human culture for millennia. No pressure, right? But other people’s descriptions of love just never resonated with me, the mythical “butterflies in your stomach” always seemed like anxiety (or possibly just lust) to me.
In fact, I even based my wedding vows on a serious contemplation about what love is anyway, because so many of the popular readings and ideas for vows just made me feel dead inside.
I came to the conclusion that love isn’t a feeling, it’s a set of actions, what you and your partner do for each other, that truly matters.
How alexithymia affects me in everyday life
Alexithymia is not a major barrier to living well, it’s more like a hindrance to making emotional connections with people that wears you down over time and makes you feel totally misunderstood.
It’s a neurotypical cliche to ask how someone is and expect the answer “fine”, but I often struggle with giving any other answer (other than perhaps, “I’m tired”). Generally the question takes me a little by surprise, I have to look internally and consciously think what has been going on in my brain today, rather than having an ongoing awareness of my own state of mind.
Because I rely so heavily on physical cues to nudge me into noticing my emotions, the sad fact is that it seems like I experience far more negative than positive emotions, simply because the positive emotions often don’t “feel” like anything to me.
The actual “feeling” of happy is more like euphoria in my head. My baseline emotion is neutral, neither happy nor sad. I can rationalise myself into knowing that I am content, but this takes effort and usually an exercise like writing a gratitude journal.
How can we improve our emotional awareness?
One thing that has helped has been looking at things called “emotion wheels”. The designs can vary but the basic idea is that the core emotions are in the centre and as you go outwards from the centre, you start to get more complicated, abstract emotions.
[Plutchik’s emotion wheel – I couldn’t embed it in the post]
These abstract emotions are something I can (and enjoy) thinking about and ruminating on, so if I can identify those, I can work backwards and find my core emotion on the wheel.
The other recommendation I have if this is something that you struggle with is to find a good therapist, preferably who has experience with neurodiverse clients. I saw various therapists (I moved a lot) throughout my twenties and they have slowly but surely helped me to recognise physical sensations that go hand in hand with emotion, my emotions right there in the room, and of course, my emotions about the issues that I’m talking about.
Simply being aware that I have alexithymia is a large part of the battle. It’s not something very well understood or researched. But knowing that I have this kind of “blindness” or “illiteracy” helps me develop strategies to cope, not for the benefit of the neurotypical world, but for my own personal development and fulfillment.