Alexithymia might be something you’ve not heard of. I hadn’t until a few months ago when I watched this video and realised I have alexithymia. (For reference I think the ‘ask an autistic’ videos are great, I have learnt so much about myself from them)
It isn’t a condition in its own right, but is called a personality construct or a way to describe having difficulty expressing or identifying ones emotions. It seems quite common in autistic people, although non autistic people can have alexithymia and of course autistic people don’t necessarily have it. It vary in degrees of severity and the way it affects a person can fluctuate.
Now I don’t want this blog to be about what alexithymia is, but rather how it affects me, how it appears in me and how it can impact on daily life.
Now you may think that something that is about having difficulty expressing or identifying emotions isn’t going to impact on someone’s day to day life, but it actually has a far greater impact on me than I think anyone knows.
For me alexithymia means two main things:
1. That I struggle to express my emotions or explain to others how I feel.
2. That I cannot identify what emotion I am feeling
I’ll go into more detail with the two points. Point one means that the question ‘how are you?’ is scary and terrifying. Especially if in a place like a therapy session or if talking to someone and they’ve sensed that something is wrong. I just do not have the words to say how I am feeling, even though I know feelings such as ‘happy’ ‘sad’ ‘angry’ ‘anxious’ and many others, having the words does not mean that I can express or explain my emotions. It might be that I can only say ‘I am sad’ but have no idea how to explain that any further, or to express why I feel that emotion. It might be that I burst into tears and that is the only way I have of expressing my emotions. This can cause things like therapy sessions to be very hard. Therapy is so often based around emotions and talking about feelings, that when you are asked ‘how are you?’ and expected to express it and talk about it, then therapy becomes very hard.
I currently see a private therapist and she understands that I struggle to express myself, she says the most common phase I say is ‘I don’t know’
When I saw her a few days ago she asked how I had been and I started crying, not knowing what to say, even though I knew that I didn’t feel good, but I had no way of expressing myself, everything was a massive jumble in my head. So she suggested that we use the sand tray that she has and I get objects that represent what is going on and put them in the sand and then we can talk about them. This helped me immensely as I saw objects and they made me think of something and then as we were talking about the objects and what they meant to me and I started to be able to slightly unjumble the stuff in my head.
Now you may think but how is alexithymia affecting your everyday life, as obviously I am not in therapy sessions constantly. Well when it is virtually impossible to understand and express your emotions I so very often feel distant from people, in an emotional sense. I feel I cannot connect emotionally with others. It makes me feel incredible lonely. I also find if talking to someone and they’re distressed I can only give practical advice, I find it very hard to give emotional advice. Sometimes people may want practical advice, but once someone very horribly told me that I have to stop giving practical advice as it is useless and people never want it. So I feel useless when someone I care about is talking to me and may be after emotional support rather than practical advice. As the emotional support is something I find so hard, yet I’ve been told that giving practical support is just wrong and makes things worse.
Now point two, being unable to identify emotions. Now obviously it links with being unable to express emotions, but there are times I have some idea of my emotions, but am unable to express or explain them. But being unable to identify an emotion means that trying to express my emotions is completely impossible.
So often I know that I feel something and I get this feeling I feel something bad yet I don’t have a clue what that emotion is. I cannot identify it. It is like if you hear a musical instrument and you know you’re hearing an instrument, yet you cannot identify it at all. You may spend hours trying to identify it, maybe trying different methods to work out what instrument it is, but you just cannot identify the instrument, even if it is very familiar to you.
This is how I so often am with emotions, I may know I feel something, but have absolutely no idea what emotion it is. I may try to work it out with clues. I may think ‘well my heart is beating fast and i have sweaty palms, so that could equal anxiety’ but that is me coming at it from a clinical and logical perspective. If I have read that anxiety can often cause a fast heart beat and sweaty palms, then if I experience them I may think that I must be anxious then. Yet these clues are not a guarantee, but so often they are the best I can manage.
Not being able to identify my emotions in general can really impact me, it can so often make it hard to know how a situation has made me feel (I may know I feel bad about it, but there is a massive difference between it making you feel depressed or angry) and not being able to identify that can make it really hard to know how best to deal with the situation, both in terms of self care afterwards and how to approach it if I have to do the same thing again.
I am trying to learn what bodily sensations come with which emotions for me personally and I often look at feelings wheels to try and work out the word for how I feel.
I also often express emotions in ways people don’t expect, or they would never do. Or my facial expression may not be what others would expect to match with a certain emotion. I’ve been told I look angry when I haven’t felt angry. I may also often randomly cry and when asked what is wrong I have absolutely no idea, often the fact that I cannot express my emotions build and build and my body can no longer cope and I just end up crying. Or people tell me my anger is too severe to the situation. So not only do I struggle to identify and express my emotions to others, but the way I naturally express my emotions, or show my emotions often seem strange to others.
Emotions seem to be so important to people, that I so often feel so desperately lonely, not understanding this complex world of expressing and identifying emotions.
I do often feel so very distant and disconnected and alone.