Alexithymia

This is something of a new concept to me, and one that I have read about several times in the last few weeks.

Wikipaedia defines alexithymia as

Alexithymia is a personality construct characterized by the sub-clinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self.

This is something I strongly identify with, although it has taken me until my 50’s to fully appreciate how this ongoing dysfunction has affected me. When I was in my early 20’s I had a boyfriend who came from a significantly more wealthy family than I did: although I often felt diminished and rather pitied by his parents because I had not gone to a notable public school, I prided myself on being able to ‘fit in’ to that environment. Similarly, when spending time with  a rather bitchy group of fashion obsessed young women, I could adapt to being ‘one of them’ with ease, this despite the fact that (a) I had nothing at all in common with them and (b) I was frequently the subject of  unkind comparisons and snide remarks. This pattern was repeated frequently with different groups of people, and boyfriends. I don’t recall having anything at all that I really believed in FOR MYSELF.

I honestly remember being pleased that I could pull on alternative personae and adopt the thoughts and feelings of those I was with. It didn’t occour to me that, by my early 20’s, it would have been more appropriate to have a strong sense of my own values and opinions. That drifting along with the crowd was not ‘zen’ and chill, but indicative of an alarming lack of self esteem and poor sense of self worth. It was as though I didn’t trust my own opinion about anything at all.

From here developed the typical ‘people pleaser’ who avoided virtually all forms of conflict. I literally couldn’t bear to state my own point of view – if I even knew what it was. I bent over backwards and sideways to accommodate other peoples needs and took little account of my own.  As a partner, if my boyfriend did something to upset or annoy me, I would not discuss it or confront him. Instead the anger took root and gradually built and built until exploding, always when I was drunk, in  a huge torrent of uncontrollable rage. Of course to my partner this was out of the blue as they had previously had no idea I was upset by what ever it was…. This pattern of extreme compliance followed by infrequent but unrestrained vociferous drunken outbursts, continued right through my relationships until I married aged 36. The interesting thing to me was that I didn’t KNOW what I was angry about until it all burst out of me. Its not that I noticed that X forgot my birthday and I stored the resentment away , allowing it to fester until it exploded. No, I would have noted that X forgot my birthday, explained it away to myself logically, never acknowledged to myself that it had hurt or upset me until weeks or months later when it would spew from me in a vituperous tirade that bordered on, or tipped into, verbal abuse.

I could, and will, examine the emotional vulnerability that culminated in an ill advised marriage, in a later blog. For now I want to look again at the construct of alexithymia.

later in the same article from wikipaedia

The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating. Furthermore, individuals suffering from alexithymia also have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding.

This passage does not resonate with me at all. If anything I have always been over attuned to the emotional needs and nuances of others, contorting my behaviour and emotional response to another’s perceived requirements.

So If i do not display the classic alexithymic traits, how would I be described in psychological language – an empath?

Empaths are highly sensitive, finely tuned instruments when it comes to emotions. They feel everything, sometimes to an extreme, and are less apt to intellectualize feelings. Intuition is the filter through which they experience the world. Empaths are naturally giving, spiritually attuned, and good listeners.”

This really doesn’t fit either. I feel, acutely and intensely, the emotion coming from someone else – especially if it is negative towards me; but I will intellectualize my own emotional response until it is NOT an emotion any longer.

Sometimes I think I drank as this was the only way i could lower my inhibitions enough to FEEL anything negative at all, or rather, allow myself to feel anything negative… anger, frustration, irritation, boredom.. not allowed. Unless I was drunk when the inhibitions would slide and the suppressed rage and despair came tumbling out.


6 comments

  1. Don’t know if you’ve read much attachment theory but what you describe is resonant with anxious avoidant attachment – intellectualising rather than feeling is a defense strategy much used by us anxious avoidant types as it keeps it in the head and doesn’t allow it to reach the heart 🙂

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  2. Thank you Lucy. I have briefly looked at attachment theory, but not for a long time. I am dimly aware that most of this comes back in some way to my relationship with my mother. although exactly how I could not say at the moment. Im not interested in ‘blame’, but I am interested in healing, and for me to heal I think I need to understand

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  3. Wow – your use of the word Empath is something that resonates totally with me. My husband calls me that as a bit of an in-joke. I too can sense an atmosphere, judge a situation, know what someone else is feeling (as you say, especially when negative). For me, i believe this is something that I picked up due to the relationships in my household as a child, and trying not to upset the applecart. Tip toeing around means that you are super sensitive to any atmosphere changes – a sort of self protection. Does that strike any chords??

    Thanks for this. It’s still so beneficial to not feel so ‘special’ – that one isn’t alone in all this

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    • Hi green&sober, yes that rings a lot of bells for me. As a child and young person I believed my parents hated each other. My father seemed to dislike both my younger brother and I. My mother loved me, but I have never felt “approved of “. This is something which I believe has impacted hugely in me – exactly how I’m not sure – but I am going to write, reflect and explore until I have a better understanding. lily 🌷 x

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  4. I am currently seeing a therapist for this.
    I have never told anyone I have Alexithymia, and I’m not even sure why I told this woman, but it turns out to be here area of specialty and she agrees.

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  5. If you look into some additional work on Alexithymia they consider a range of severity.
    I feel like I am also extremely empathic. I feel others emotions strongly.
    One trait of an person with Alexithymia is that in order to appear more functioning they learn to read others emotional states based on body language, etc to ensure they have an appropriate response themselves.

    It rings true for me.

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