Alexithymia - what is it?

Written in June 2024

Last week I wanted to explain Alexithymia to someone without using too many spoons, so I thought to myself “aha! I will give them the link to the article I have obviously written on the subject”. Well, that article only existed in my head so it's time to get it out of there, on to here, and available next time I need to do a spoonless explanation.

So, what is it?

Alexithymia is a difficulty (or inability) with naming and feeling emotions, both your own and those of other people. Some people find their own emotions very challenging, but with a lifelong study of other people, are actually incredibly good at recognising, putting a name to, and understanding other people's emotions.


That's me. I'm a good listener and advice giver. I understand how other people will be feeling in any given situation through a deep and complex understanding of the causes of emotions, how events affect different people with their unique worldview/life experience, and decades of practice.


I get the nuances of emotions in others, and how someone can feel apparently conflicting emotions simultaneously. I can help people understand and reconcile this state, and validate their emotional experience.

Seems like you get it, what's the problem?

When it comes to my own emotions, it's a completely different story. My first session with my ND specialist counsellor saw us do an exercise where I had to assign a coloured pencil to an emotion. I could do the “red means angry, blue means calm” bit but these had no relation to my experience. My face started to leak spontaneously, and I found myself having a big emotional reaction with no idea how I got there or why it was happening.


I'm a bit better at explaining emotional experiences through shapes or material states (spiky/fluffy/tangled/soft/melted/etc.) and I can get close to describing my emotions through metaphors and analogies rather than through direct labels and words. I've described disappointment as “the feeling you get when you have a bag of your favourite crisps, but when you open it there's only a couple in there”. I couldn't find the word “disappointment” until I'd gone through an analogous situation in my head in order to intellectually associate the emotional experience with a word.

In general, my emotional state is good, bad, or neutral. That's about as far as I can get if someone asks me how I'm feeling. Usually the answer is “I don't know”. I can work out whether I feel better or worse than the day before. I describe my emotions as being behind frosted glass; they're there but not recognisable until they're pressed right up against the glass, almost bursting through. Often they do burst through in the form of a shutdown or meltdown. Alexithymia also contributes to burnout, and is one of the reasons it is hard to avoid, because it masks the signs from me.

What helps?

There are various tools to help people work out their emotions. The emotions wheel graphics are pretty good, but restrictive in that you don't have a lot of choice, and they don't give much room for nuance. They can be a good starting point, when used in a guided manner. It took me a while to realise and accept that I could pick more than one, and that sometimes I wouldn't be able to pick any, and that sometimes it just wouldn't accurately reflect my experience, so it wouldn't help in every situation. But it's there, and it's a reasonable starting point.


The body sensations map can be helpful for people with a good sense of interoception because you can link up bodily sensations with the associated emotion to help you put a name to the physical feeling. My interoceptive sense isn't great with emotional experiences, and physical sensations often bear no relation to the suggested emotion on the body map, leading to more confusion.


Great, problem solved then?

Both these tools are a reasonable starting point and will help different people to different degrees.

What is worth remembering is that autistic and neurodivergent people will often experience emotions for different reasons than for neurotypicals. I experience a cold, flat, dread feeling when I see teddies being mistreated on TV (yes, it's hard to watch the unpicking on The Repair Shop). I get a blank sort of terror when I have to do something new that's physical. These emotions are valid for me, but they're not aligned with the emotional experiences society expects.


We can work on our alexithymia to varying degrees, but the end goal is always to understand and validate our own unique emotional experiences, and not to “learn” to have the same emotional responses as everyone else.

As I explained way back at the beginning, when I understand someone well I can understand and validate their emotional experience well because I am looking at it from their unique set of life experiences. Neurodivergent people all have a unique set of life experiences from living life through a different lens to the one society understands, and our emotional experiences have to be understood and validated within that same paradigm.



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