Alexithymia

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Alexithymia (also called emotional blindness) is a condition where you have challenges identifying and describing emotions in the self. Essentially, alexithymia is a difference in emotion processing.

The alexithymia & autism guide » NeuroClastic

The term was introduced by Peter Emanuel Sifneos in 1972, from the Greek a for lack, lexis for word, and thymos for emotion, meaning lack of words for emotions or simply no words for emotions.[5]

More comprehensively though, alexithymia is defined by:

  1. Difficulty identifying feelings.
  2. Difficulty distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations(interoception) of emotional arousal.
  3. Difficulty describing feelings to other people.
  4. Difficulty identifying facial expressions.
  5. Difficulty identifying/remembering faces. (an extreme form of the latter is prosopagnosia/face blindness)
  6. Difficulty fantasizing.
  7. thinking style focused on external events (often avoiding inner experiences).

You don’t need to experience all or most of these to qualify for alexithymia, however. I will explain later in this post which of the 7 points above we tend to see in autistic people.

The alexithymia & autism guide » NeuroClastic

It took me a long time to discover why I respond so strongly to secondhand distress. It turns out that the three areas where I have difficulty—modulation, identification, and determination—are core traits of alexithymia.

Alexithymia (literally: having no words for emotions) is an impairment in identifying and describing emotions. Specifically, it’s characterized by:

  • difficulty identifying feelings
  • difficulty distinguishing between feelings and bodily sensations related to emotional arousal
  • difficulty describing feelings to others
Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate : A User Guide to an Asperger Life

There is a high rate of alexithymia in autistic people. Not only are autistic people very likely to exhibit the characteristics of alexithymia, their parents are as well. However, many nonautistic people also have alexithymia, so it isn’t exclusive to ASD.

Alexithymia isn’t a clinical diagnosis like autism. It’s a construct (theory) used to describe the traits of people who have difficulty verbalizing emotions. It’s also a helpful way of thinking about some of the challenges that Aspies have with processing feelings.

Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate : A User Guide to an Asperger Life

Research by psychologist Geoff Bird indicates that about half of all Autistics suffer from alexithymia,34 or the inability to recognize and name emotions.35 For those of us with alexithymia, we may know in a vague way that we’re distressed, but might not be able to name a specific feeling like jealousy or resentment. We also struggle to figure out why we’re feeling emotions. This trait is yet another reason that neurotypicals stereotype us as unfeeling and detached.

Unmasking Autism : Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity

Alexithymia may arise, in part, because Autistics aren’t given the tools to understand how emotions feel in our bodies, and because we are taught to prioritize others’ feelings above our own. Growing up, we’re told how neurotypical emotions look and feel. We’re encouraged to track other people for signs of discomfort or disapproval, so we can change our actions and become more pleasant or compliant. Our own facial expressions, nonverbal signals, and perceptions of our bodies and surroundings are different, and neurotypicals frequently ignore them. So when we’re upset or uncomfortable, we often fail to recognize it until we’re nearly on the verge of a complete meltdown. As we begin to unmask, we stop monitoring the reactions of other people so closely and with so much hypervigilance; this allows us to check in with our bodies more. Our reflexive self-censorship may begin to reduce, allowing us to notice our discomfort and honor it. However, many Autistic people (myself included) still need time alone to reflect on how we’re feeling, because the social information given off by other people is so distracting. Today I’m sometimes able to notice in the heat of the moment that I’m uncomfortable with the topic of conversation, for instance, or the way someone is pushing me to do something I don’t wish to do, and I can tell them to stop; other days I simply feel panicky and frantic, and can’t figure out what’s wrong until hours or days later.

Unmasking Autism : Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity
Autism Life: Alexithymia (Emotional Language – The Verbal Spectrum Part 7)

Alexithymia is actually a difference in how a person understands and interprets emotions, including or especially their own. It can be as simple as finding it difficult to think of the right words to describe feelings right up to being unable to fully understand and experience one’s own emotions in the moment, leading to unexpected emotional states after the event.

Autism Life: Alexithymia (Emotional Language – The Verbal Spectrum Part 7)

You’d be forgiven for thinking alexithymia is a mental illness or a disability but you’d be mistaken. It’s a personality trait. It’s so common that every one of us likely knows several people who are alexithymic, and many of them may not even realise it themselves. They’ll sometimes use unexpected language when talking about emotions and they may also respond to other people’s descriptions or displays of feelings differently too. Whilst it’s a trait shared by around one in ten non-autistic people, for us autists it’s far more commonplace.

Estimates range from half to two thirds of us having some sort of blockage when it comes to explaining or understanding our own and others’ emotional states. Even at the lower estimate, it’s an even bet that any autistic person you meet would be alexithymic, so when we talk to you about emotions we may not use language that you expect. You may even find that our non-verbal signals and the feelings we describe to you seem contradictory. Perhaps the most marked and socially apparent expressions of this is in what many people think of as “being inappropriate”.

If someone’s visible or described emotional feedback is at odds with the conventional, socially anticipated response it can be interpreted as rude, insensitive or even aggressive. The way that others react to that can have a significant influence on how an alexithymic person uses language.

Autism Life: Alexithymia (Emotional Language – The Verbal Spectrum Part 7)

Remember that when you’re talking to an autistic person there’s at least a fifty-fifty chance they will be alexithymic so their emotional communication might not fit into the rules you’ve learned to expect. Even if the person isn’t autistic there’s still a one in ten chance they may be in the same position. Try not to jump to conclusions when people can’t express their feelings or say they don’t know what emotional state they’re in, especially if they’re autistic. Try to have a little faith when they tell you their inappropriate expression doesn’t reflect their true feelings and please, don’t assume someone is hiding something or trying to deceive you when they just don’t make the same connections between feelings and words as you do.

Autism Life: Alexithymia (Emotional Language – The Verbal Spectrum Part 7)

The three areas where I have difficulty–modulation, discrimination and determination–are actually core traits of alexithymia.

Alexithymia (literally: having no words for emotions) is impairment in identifying and describing emotions. Specifically, it’s characterized by:

  • difficulty identifying feelings
  • difficulty distinguishing between feelings and bodily sensations related to emotional arousal
  • difficulty describing feelings to others
  • impoverished imagination and fantasy life
  • a stimulus-dependent, externally oriented cognitive style

When I look at the list of alexithymic characteristics, I also realize that when I’m emotionally uncomfortable, I’m more likely to have physical complaints. I’ll be feeling frustrated or sad, but  complain that I’m uncomfortably cold or intolerably sleepy. This isn’t a connection I would make on my own, but once I see it described as part of alexithymia–like so much about my autistic self–it suddenly makes perfect sense.

Emotional Dysfunction: Alexithymia and ASD | Musings of an Aspie
Ask an Autistic #27 – What is Alexithymia?

But for some people simply identifying what it is that you’re feeling can seem impossible, and expressing your emotions is like trying to jump to the moon.

Ask an Autistic #27 – What is Alexithymia? – YouTube

When a Partner Has Alexithymia

Alexithymia can have serious consequences in relationships, particularly in partner relationships. If you’re alexithymic, sharing some of these suggestions with your partner may help both of you better cope with your alexithymic traits.

  1. Asking an alexithymic person how they feel can be a significant source of stress. When you are alexithymic, figuring out how you feel about something is hard work and not always possible. It’s also very easy to feel “defective” if you can’t answer a seemingly simple question like, “How do you feel?”
  2. If an alexithymic person says they don’t know how they feel, take it at face value. They’re not playing head games or being coy. They either don’t know how they feel or don’t know how to describe what they’re feeling. For an alexithymic person, being asked, “How do you feel?” is the emotional equivalent of being asked, “Quick, what’s 2345 x 8473?”
  3. Sometimes people experience events in ways that don’t revolve around feelings. While one person might be emotionally moved by something, another person may have been focused more on the practical, sociological, anthropological, historical, religious, mathematical, artistic, technical, or mechanical aspect of the experience. No one way of experiencing an event is superior to another.
  4. Shaming someone for not being able to articulate how they feel does more harm than good. Alexithymia is not an inability to show compassion or sympathy. Saying, “Use your words” or berating someone with epithets like “cold,” “heartless,” “selfish,” or “unfeeling” only makes things worse.
  5. Sometimes an alexithymic person needs to suspend an emotionally charged conversation and revisit it later, after having time to think about how they feel. Having a delayed emotional reaction or needing time to identify feelings is common in alexithymic people. It may take hours or days to understand what took place during an especially emotional experience.
  6. An alexithymic person will not always be able to read or respond to your emotions in the way you expect. Alexithymia can be expressive (difficulty with our own emotions), receptive (difficulty with the emotions of others), or both. This might mean that someone is not very good at comforting a loved one, that they have trouble being around a loved one who is expressing strong emotions, or that they don’t recognize what emotion a loved one is experiencing.
  7. Alexithymia does not mean that a person has no emotions. Alexithymia is difficulty with identifying and talking about the emotions that a person does have. Sometimes those emotions are hard to identify because they’re muted or jumbled up. Sometimes they’re hard to identify because they’re overwhelmingly intense.
  8. Alexithymia is a real impairment. It’s not the result of not trying hard enough, not paying attention to people, or being self-absorbed.
Nerdy, Shy, and Socially Inappropriate : A User Guide to an Asperger Life

Further reading,

Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they