From time to time, I have a client that struggles with emotions, and not in the maybe usual way. It’s not that their emotions are too overwhelming, or that they feel they’re out of their control necessarily. Sometimes they report feeling like they don’t have any at all. In fact, sometimes they feel as though they never had them to begin with.
Other times, there are people who feel inauthentic when trying to feel and act the way others typically do when put in certain situations. What they’re trying to ‘act out’ isn’t in congruence with what’s going on inside them, they say, so they end up feeling like they’re faking it. And, sometimes, they know they’re experiencing an emotion, but they aren’t really sure what that emotion is or what to do about it.
What is alexithymia?
What these people maybe ‘have’ is a relatively unknown term to many people called alexithymia. It refers to a personality trait (or a mental disorder, or a medical symptom, depending on who you’re talking to – experts tend to disagree on this), and it’s characterized by a difficulty in identifying and expressing one’s emotions. People with alexithymia often struggle to understand their own emotions, let alone communicate them to others. Naturally, this leads to some difficulties with recognizing and describing the experienced emotions of those around them too. As a result, they may come across as emotionally detached or unresponsive in social situations. This can make it difficult for them to form and maintain relationships, and can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
To illustrate it better, we can say that alexithymia can manifest in different ways, depending on the individual and the severity of their condition. Some common behaviors or characteristics associated with alexithymia include:
1. Troubles with recognizing, understanding and describing their emotions
People who experience alexithymia may have difficulties with to identifying what they’re feeling or with putting their emotional experiences into words. They may use vague terms such as “good” or “bad” to describe their feelings, rather than more specific emotions like “excited” and “happy”, or “disappointed“ and “sad.”
2. Limited imagination and creativity
Alexithymia can affect a person’s ability to imagine and visualize things in their mind. They may struggle with creative tasks like writing, drawing, or coming up with new ideas.
3. Lack of empathy for others
Seeing as people with alexithymia have difficulties with their own emotions, it’s no surprise that they may also have difficulty understanding or empathizing with other people’s emotions. They may seem cold or indifferent to others’ feelings, or have trouble responding appropriately to social cues.
4. Poor social skills
The previous point leads us to this one – alexithymia can make it difficult to form and maintain relationships, as individuals may struggle with social interactions and with expressing themselves in a way that others can understand.
Diagnosing alexithymia can be challenging
There is no single test that can definitively determine whether someone has it. Instead, mental health professionals may use a combination of interviews, questionnaires, and other assessments to evaluate a person’s emotional awareness and expression.
It’s important to note that not everyone with alexithymia will exhibit all of these behaviors or symptoms, and some individuals may have milder or more severe forms of the condition. It’s also possible for someone with alexithymia to develop coping mechanisms or strategies over time that allow them to function well in daily life, despite their difficulties with emotions.
Can alexithymia be treated?
Treatment for alexithymia often involves therapy, and research particularly speaks about cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and emotion-focused therapy (EFT). These approaches can help individuals learn to recognize and label their emotions, express them in a healthy way, and develop stronger social skills and relationships.
In conclusion, alexithymia can make it difficult for individuals to identify and express their emotions. It can be a developmental condition or something that’s been acquired later in life (due to physical or psychological stress), and it can lead to a range of physical and mental health symptoms. With the right treatment and support, however, people with alexithymia can learn to better understand and manage their emotions, and form fulfilling relationships with others.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Branka Mlinar is a psychologist and Gestalt therapist offering psychotherapy and counselling to adolescent and adult individuals. She’s mostly worked with problems of anxiety, interpersonal and relationship issues, procrastination, work-related stress, trauma, and grief.
Kooiman, C. G., Spinhoven, P., & Trijsburg, R. W. (2002). The assessment of alexithymia: A critical review of the literature and a psychometric study of the Toronto Alexithymia Scale-20. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 53(6), 1083-1090.
Taylor, G. J., Bagby, R. M., & Parker, J. D. A. (1997). Disorders of Affect Regulation: Alexithymia in Medical and Psychiatric Illness. Cambridge University Press.