Alexithymia is a personality construct characterized by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating. Furthermore, alexithymics have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding.
Alexithymia is the inability to express emotions or to understand others’ emotions… Alexithymics can feel emotions, although not a wide range, but they do not know how to to verbalize them. Usually, they are unaware that certain sensations are actually emotions.
Sometimes I work with children and adults who can’t put words to their feelings and thoughts. It’s not that they don’t want to – it’s more that they don’t know how.
The clinical term for this experience is alexithymia and is defined as the inability to recognize emotions and their subtleties and textures.
This is not something I have personal experience with, so forgive me if I make any mistakes here, but I will explain as best as I can. I am, for the most part, aware of what I’m feeling. There is one emotion I’ve never been able to pin down accurately – it’s a sort of blank nothingness that occurs when I have no particular emotion happening at that moment, but I’m told that doesn’t happen so it’s probably just boredom… except that I’ve felt bored before and it’s never like that, but never mind. The point is, for the most part, I’m not overly familiar with alexithymia.
As I understand it, alexithymia is more to do with being able to identify and describe feelings than it is with being able to feel anything. Those with alexithymia have emotions (although possibly a more limited range) but are unable to figure out what they are. Those with alexithymia might confuse physical and emotional feelings – failing to associate chest pain with panic, or stomach upset with nerves, for example. Or they might only be able to identify emotions by the physical sensations they produce. They might also struggle to identify emotions in others.
“Struggle to identify emotions in others”. And there we have it, ladies and gentlemen – the crux of why it often appears to overlap with autism. Those who can’t work out what others are feeling – who can’t even work out or describe what they themselves are feeling – are inevitably going to struggle with social interactions. Indeed, this article literally lists “difficulty recognizing facial cues in others” as a possible side effect of alexithymia, whilst this article mentions “lack of social attachment, and poor interpersonal relating” and frequently draws parallels between the patient with alexithymia and her autistic father (although I should point out that I find some of the wording in that second article problematic – the author seems to think alexithymia is automatically a lonely and friendless existence, which I would hope is untrue). There’s also this quote:
Alexithymics are very literal. They usually don’t enjoy novels, or shows or movies that focus on emotions, but if they come into contact with them, they may learn ways of talking or relating from them, just as they mimic others in their social circle.
Well, okay, many autistic people enjoy “novels, or shows or movies that focus on emotions” but the rest of the quote – being literal and learning to mimic others… doesn’t that sound like someone we know? 😛
There are other problems, as well, besides the obvious relationship (friend, family, romantic, academic, work… any relationship) difficulties. As loosely implied by this article (the parts I could see before the paywall kicked in – see also these two pages on Wikipedia), being unable to identify your own emotions might lead to a reduced sense of identity.
A lot of autistic bloggers talk about their alexithymia and the struggles it causes them. It does seem to be fairly prevalent in the community. I just find it interesting how these two conditions give fairly similar symptoms and side effects even when they aren’t co-morbid. Unfortunately I don’t really have the education or background or personal experience to try tease the two conditions apart and find the common link.
What I also find interesting is the theory that there are two types of alexithymia, so-called “trait” or “state” alexithymia. Basically, these boil down to “nature” and “nuture”. “Trait” alexithymia is something people are born with, part of their personality, which is probably where a lot of the overlap with autism comes from. “State” alexithymia is… well, not learnt, per se, but a reaction to a negative environment. In terms of gross oversimplification: those with “trait” alexithymia can learn techniques to better identify their own (and others) emotions, whereas those with “state” alexithymia would benefit better from learning to move past and free themselves of that negative environment and the damage caused by said environment.
So that’s alexithymia! Hopefully we all learned something today 😛 If you have any insights I might have missed, let me know and I’ll happily update this post to include your suggestions/information/experiences.
Sources used in this article: