Alexithymia

unhappy

Now there’s an odd name; one that has cropped up a few times for me in recent weeks. This website might be of interest to take your researches further.

My own readers may want to know something about the small, safe experiments that might be relevant to identifying and responding to this condition. Despite the imposing name, it is not beyond the reach of a good safe experiment.

What is Alexithymia?

It is a struggle to identify, describe and express our emotions. It manifests as a disconnect from our feeling-world. In conversation, it sounds like ‘emotional abstinence’, even aloofness. This can manifest in social awkwardness as social gatherings may be unappealing.

This does not mean we don’t feel things as we can notice anxiety or puzzlement, for example. We can be aware of physical symptoms such as fatigue.

Some outward Signs of Alexithymia

  • feeling empty and numb.
  • being an observer of our own life.
  • blank facial expressions.
  • lack of smiling.
  • lacking words when trying to express emotions.
  • a tendency to be just ‘fine’ or ‘okay’ when asked how you feel.
  • though they might not say, others may say you appear cold and unfeeling or lacking humour. 
  • being unsettled by silence.

I’ve already mentioned a lot of about neuro-science and how our emotions come and go with the everyday actions of our autonomic nervous system and those ‘two siblings’ I describe. Such comings-and-goings may not be easily ‘just noticed‘.

Possible origins

Alexithymia can occur at two levels:

  • as a primary trait when you are ‘born’ with different ‘wiring’, or it may arise from a neurological injury.
  • as a secondary state arising from early years’ development. This makes it difficult for us to be emotionally available to others or well tuned to our inner world. Such complications make Affect Regulation difficult to manage some of the time.

The tricky thing is that a sense of who we are often relies on our ability to know what we feel and on our ability to convey that experience to other people. Human beings are very social creatures and any struggle to describe our feelings can become a source of frustration. Given that ‘frustration’ is, itself, a feeling, it is not always easy to know what to do with such obstacles to our sense of well-being.

In addition, such obstacles can emerge from ‘cumulative developmental trauma’ (CDT). This arises not from just one unpleasant experience, but a number of events that stimulate and sustain the discomfort that comes from feeling different over many years. It is possible to feel trapped in a situation within boundaries often of our own making, but ones that limit our self-expression. Prolonged childhood neglect can promote those experiences.

Faced with such obstacles it is possible, over the years, for our human creativity to help us develop short cuts; to find ways to join in with others and yet retain a sneaking suspicion of not being quite like the others. This can manifest in the ‘impostor’ syndrome when we sense confusion about our identity, and a disconnectedness from others. One such way of ‘making good’ is labelled “external oriented thinking” whereby we observe others, and use our abilities to create responses that do connect to other people around us; maybe by mimicking others. This form of problem-solving serves to make the world more tangible, predictable, and reliable.

Possible experiments when our ability to express emotions fluently is blocked?

Many of the safe experiments relating to early trauma are relevant. The difficulty is that we may struggle to identify and describe our feelings, but they are there. You and I share a neurological map. Unprocessed or unexamined feelings do accumulate and generate other symptoms, e.g frequent headaches and panic attacks. Those symptoms seem disconnected from their sources and some safe epxeriments will help us to join the dots.

The main aim of safe experiments when alexithymia may figure in your life is to find a language for your feelings; otherwise known as building up your own emotional literacy.

How might that be done?

  • Practising ‘just noticing’ so you can identify for yourself some occasions when you are out of touch with your feelings. There is no need to name the feeling immediately, just to describe the unsettling situation in which you find yourself NOW.
  • Later on, experiment with labelling the outcome from some of these experiences. You may find that subtle emotional labels are missing and that you have a ‘small’ list of labels available, e.g. ‘happy’ or ‘unhappy’. Jot them down all the same. The third illustration down on this page offers some labels.
  • Over time, use this page to pull together information about your thoughts, memories and feelings. Here you will find an illustration with a range of feelings rubbing together. As your vocabulary increases and you want to label more ‘feeling’ words; have a go at:
  • Using the ‘Feelings Wheel‘ to explore what other labels might apply to your experience. This process is described on YouTube. Keep in mind such inputs on the Feelings Wheel can feel instructional. If that does not suit you, then use the principles behind the wheel to practice identifying feelings in your own way.
  • Once you are comfortable with your own range of feeling vocabulary, see if others can help you. Use the small, safe experiment of ‘Feeling Facts’ simply to experiment with a description of your experience in a given situation. Make a deal with some-one who can be trusted to practice this skill with you on a regular basis.
  • If you have difficulty interpreting the ‘meaning‘ behind the body language and facial expressions of other people, you can do a different deal – to use ‘Special Time‘ to try out a different way of talking. This is a large step, but it seems fair to say that relationships can provide the best way to meet this condition once-and-for-all.
  • Other people can help us do some very important things; help us create an environment where we can feel safe enough to express emotions. They can gently guide us when our words are lost. They can help us name our feelings without undue pressure.

Links to other models

Does this range of safe experiments help you feel just a little bit more connected to other people? If the wall between you is to turn from a brick wall, to a plasterboard wall, then some committed action will be needed! Walls can come down in time and with the right support and with a fair amount of practice.

There is a further complication to consider: for some people emotions remain concealed for the most part and then, suddenly, we can become flooded with anxiety or burst out in rage.

This is a feature of the Please Driver and Transactional Analysis has much to say about the way we can hone our communications skills to lessen the impact of the Please Driver.

As you continue to generate outcomes, and just notice what you get, keep in mind your level of motivation. This may falter as you stay with demanding experiments. If this happens, consider whether you have designed the ‘smallest’ safe experiment.

There are other tools you can use to find a connection with your inner world, e.g reading or using the expressive therapies such as art, dance, and music.

Leads to follow

What is a nudge?

Designing a nudge

Categories of nudges

The impact of control

The locus of control 

Life not worthwhile?

Grieving

An alphabetical index of pages on Your Nudge

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