There is a clinical term for someone with the inability to correctly identify or describe his or her feelings. It’s called Alexithymia, a term introduced in 1972 by Peter Sifneos. It’s important to recognize that alexithymia isn’t a diagnosis, but rather a construct used to describe someone that demonstrates the inability to understand or articulate his or her feelings. Someone affected by alexithymia literally cannot put words to their feelings, despite the desire to do so. It’s difficult for someone with alexithymia to relate to his or her own experiences or even grasp the experiences of others. This can be frustrating for everyone – for those lacking in their emotional response and for those expecting an emotional response.
Someone with alexithymia usually experiences these symptoms:
- Difficulty distinguishing between feelings and the physical sensations of emotional stimulation
- Difficulty identifying different types of feelings
- Difficulty expressing feelings
- Difficulty recognizing facial cues in others
- Limited or rigid imagination
- Constricted style of thinking
- Hypersensitive to physical sensations
- Detached or tentative connection with others
According to this article in Psych Central, emotional distance and alexithymia often accompany various levels of autism as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, panic and anxiety disorders, and sometimes substance abuse. It is important to note that affectionate communication (hugs, touch, and body language that is open and welcoming) can all have a positive impression on someone working with alexithymia. For some, alexithymia is an acute problem, resolving after the core causal factor has been managed (for example, substance abuse) while for others, it’s something one has to learn to live with and manage throughout their lives.
Parenting someone with alexithymia is not without its challenges. We want our children to be able to communicate with us and with their peers. We want to see them thrive emotionally and have long-lasting, meaningful relationships. Again, it’s important to note that affectionate communication will have positive effects. For example, if you notice your child has a facial expression that is a visual display of anger, it would be helpful to say something like, “You look angry. Is something bothering you?” Or perhaps something major is coming up for them, like their first job interview, or a big test. Saying something like, “You have your interview coming up, are you feeling nervous?” can help him or her begin to label emotions. It’s helpful to understand that your loved one isn’t able to recognize emotional cues the way you do. This understanding will help with your own frustration when conflict or discord arises and it will allow you to facilitate a healthier means of communication.
The person living with alexithymia will also need to work toward strengthening his or her ability to recognize and understand feelings and emotions. This is something that can be learned by watching others and learning about what an emotion or feeling is supposed to feel like. This process is not easy and some of these tools may be of help:
- Keep a journal in which you write every day, noting your observations or lack thereof.
- Sink into literature and read as much as you can. Reading and processing language painted by a skilled author is a wonderful tool for learning and beginning to understand expressive language.
- Take an acting class, or an art class. These types of classes will help someone with alexithymia begin to externalize emotive expression.
- Dialectical Behavioral Treatment: this is a form of psychotherapy built around skill-building and mindfulness techniques in order to recognize personal feeling states.
Having alexithymia is something that affects children and adults alike, and it can present in various levels of severity: mild, moderate, and severe. Once identified in someone, the work can begin toward learning to identity and experience emotive responses. They can then work toward having reciprocal relationships, which will ease the loneliness of being perpetually misunderstood.