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The experience of alexithymia

This post was written at a time when my alexithymia was very high,
making this post a perfect demonstration of alexithymia.
(Notice how I try to explore feelings I barely know I experience)

I have alexithymia, which is the inability to identify and describe emotions and feelings in the self. As such, the question “What does it feel like to be alexithymic?” can be challenging to answer. What does it feel like to have challenges in identifying what you feel like? The question is almost rendered absurd.

But it makes sense as an intellectual curiosity, and may serve as an exercise in alexithymia.


Ignorance of feelings

My first reaction is that it doesn’t feel like anything. In fact, for the larger part of my life, I didn’t even know I had it. So there seems to be a lack of awareness of my feelings, which is more or less what alexithymia entails.

I thought I was good at describing my emotions; I just didn’t feel many of them. A lack of inner dynamics as the psychologist who diagnosed me with autism called it. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, and it puzzled me for a long time. What I understood from it is that my emotions were shallow. That sort of made sense I thought, even though I have a very rich inner world. But due to my lack of insight into my feelings, I just didn’t care to describe them most of the time. Or maybe it’s the other way around; because I didn’t care to describe my feelings, I was lacking insight into my feelings. It seems both were true. Growing up, I experienced a lot of unwanted emotions, so over the years some of them seemed to have flattened out. Instead of talking about feelings and people, I would focus on activities and concepts. I still mostly do, actually.

It seems alexithymia is a protection mechanism against particular traumas, so I suspect the lack of experience of certain feelings and emotions as a result of alexithymia has been largely conducive to my wellbeing, albeit it has been frustrating at times. I probably wasn’t even ready to know what my feelings were, so identifying and describing my feelings may not have been in my best interest at an earlier point.

But I never imagined I was overlooking emotions. I mean, if you don’t feel them, can one really say you have them? Apparently so. It’s a confusing notion to me, but I suppose certain feelings and emotions fly under my radar, whereas in the end they do affect me, and at least in part inform me.


Panic attack without panic

And yet this explains a lot—emotions flying under the radar. For example, I’ve experienced panic attacks without panic; I feel pressure, my temperature goes up and I start sweating profusely, but those are all bodily reactions. In my head, I’m quite calm.

It usually happens in the supermarket when I’m waiting in the queue and there are many people around, and that nasty fluorescent light is flickering at a high frequency—apparently or seemingly beyond most people’s perception, or not truly registering to them.

When it happens I just think, “Let’s get on with it; I will feel better when I get outside”, which strikes me as a thought process contrary to how panic attacks usually manifest. It’s very different from panic attacks I’ve seen in others, where people become emotional, fearful, and irrational.


Emotional built-up

I do know that I let emotions build up inside. I’m not good at expressing emotions, and most of the time I don’t care to. As such, the emotions build up and up, until they are so prominent that even I couldn’t ignore them anymore. At that point, I need a release of emotions to let it all go.

It used to be that perhaps once or twice a year I got triggered by something, and used that opportunity to release all those built-up emotions, after which I would be good again for a while.

Nowadays, I have more frequent but less minor releases of emotions, which may have to do with my alexithymia having decreased. Effectively I am probably more in tune with my emotions, and more readily experience them as a result.


Awareness

I suppose alexithymia doesn’t feel like anything until you’re being confronted by it, and then it may lead to confusion and annoyance, coupled with fascination.

It’s strange when you’re being told you have emotions you don’t experience yourself, but which become apparent to others. Wouldn’t I know best what I feel? Well, apparently not necessarily. I was frustrated with Natalie at one point, because me being alexithymic, and her being an excellent therapist, she would often tell me about emotions I am experiencing which I was not aware of. Being made aware of them can be quite confronting at times. After all, you unpack the layers of alexithymia, and old feelings may come up. I mean feelings from early childhood that are stored in the mind and body, and which can come to the surface in unexpected ways.

For example, Natalie might say to me that my anger is misplaced, while I insist that I am not angry. I tend to get frustrated when someone tells me I have emotions that I am not actually experiencing, because it can seem like the other person is projecting, and/or that my account of my emotional experience is not heard or validated. That frustration can lead to anger (I suppose frustration in itself is low-level anger), and so I end up confirming what Natalie already indicated—that I am angry.

I still don’t quite know whether I am lacking anger initially and get angry when disbelieved, or that I just become aware of my anger at a later time, after being confronted with it. I suppose it must be the latter, because from the outside I certainly seem angry. So then who am I to insist that I am not, on account of not being aware of it, when I actually behave as if I am, indeed, angry?

Again, it’s hard to make sense of.


Empathy

This also rather explains why I’ve been having difficulty understanding my own empathy, and how surprised I have been at times about how empathetic I can be on occasions, which seems to go contrary to my feelings generally.

The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating. Furthermore, alexithymics have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathetic and ineffective emotional responding.[1]Addiction Medicine & Therapy (1970)

So I think you can see why I figured I have low emotional empathy. I don’t feel like I have emotional empathy most of the time. But actually, I can be very empathetic!

Emotional empathy appears to be perspective-taking or cognitive empathy to me, because I have to think about it rationally rather than that I can follow my emotions. It’s still really hard to make sense of all this, because how can my emotional empathy be considerable without me feeling it?

Does that not automatically make it cognitive empathy?

For more on empathy, read:

The different types of empathy

Conclusion

It can be very difficult for someone with alexithymia to make sense of their feelings and emotions—where an emotion begins and ends, and what distinguishes one emotion from another.

Emotions are either smeared out and cannot be described with a lot of nuances (saying “I’m content” rather than getting into the plethora of emotions that might fall within that positive range of emotions that are reduced to the experience of contentedness), or completely fly under the radar, leaving the alexithymic person to wonder what an unexperienced emotion is even supposed to mean.

I hope someone can make more sense of all this than I can!


For more information on alexithymia, have a look at:

Alexithymia & autism guide

Alexithymia, Cognitive alexithymia, Cognitive empathy, Emotions, Empathy, Feelings, Kryptonite, Lived experience, Qualitative research, Theory of mind


Martin Silvertant

Martin Silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace ASD, autism researcher, writer, ironically silver award-winning graphic designer, and type designer. I am also autistic, and I fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

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