Alexithymia- Not Feeling It Today
What is alexithymia?
“What is alexithymia?” you’re probably wondering… is it some kind of strong painkilling drug? It also sounds like a very rare disease? Or maybe an extinct dinosaur even!!
You are not alone in not knowing what it is. It is rather surprising how many people have never heard of it considering how common it actually is!
We will refer to an autism activist- Quinn Dexter- who has his own YouTube channel and website- Autistomatic. He does a lot of documentary videos on facts around autism. He discusses alexithymia in one of his presentations. Most of the following information is based on Quinn Dexter’s expertise.
10% of non-autistic people have alexithymia. It’s more common among autistic people, almost a third of them face difficulties when it comes to emotions. Alexithymia is the difference in how a person understands and interprets emotions, in particular their own emotions. The degree to which a person experiences alexithymia varies from person to person. It can vary from not knowing what words to put an emotion, to not understanding/experiencing emotions in the moment.
Alexithymia is not a mental illness or disability; it is a personality trait which is very common. Those who have this trait may not even realise it themselves. They may use unexpected language when talking about emotions, and respond to other people’s feelings differently too.
Signs of Alexithymia
Many autistic people may display non-verbal signal that contradict the emotions they are describing. A person may display or describe an emotion that is not a socially anticipated response. That person can be interpreted as being “rude”, “insensitive” or even “aggressive”. How others react to this can affect the way a person with alexithymia uses language.
A person may resort to being vague about emotions. If they are accustomed to people reacting adversely to the way they describe how they feel, they may choose to express their feelings in less “colourful” terms than others. So they may avoid using strong emotional words like “love” and “adore”, and use more subtle words like “fond” or “like” instead. Less powerful language is thought to reduce any repercussions if they are misjudged.
A person may also decide to take more time to commit themselves. In particular when in a larger group of people, the person may decide to hang back and wait while others display emotional reactions, so a consensus can then be drawn. They will then adopt the language they think would be appropriate to blend in with the prevailing mood within the group/situation (this can be a form of masking, for more information about masking, read our blog on Autism Masking). In some circumstances, one may get away without having to commit to describing feelings at all in order to avoid potential awkwardness.
Deflection is a common approach. A person may attempt to steer the conversation so as to change the subject away from an emotional or pragmatic topic. They may also do this by firing back the question to the other person, i.e., “Never mind how I’m feeling, how are you feeling?”
They may use distraction to gain breathing space.
People may lie or bluff their way out. This is where an autistic person can face difficulties, because lying does not come naturally- because it feels very uncomfortable, autistic people aren’t generally good at lying and they lack confidence when they try to do so.
The only other option is just being brutally honest about their emotions. Unfortunately, telling the truth can still get them into trouble.
Effects of alexithymia
There are some varied examples of how alexithymia has affected a person’s life. People have gotten into trouble at school, been suspended from their job and even lost friendships and relationships… all because of the way in which other people interpret their displayed emotions in a given situation.
Some people may laugh or giggle in a serious situation for example, EVEN THOUGH they do not find anything funny about the situation at all. But this is how they display the emotion of anxiety, guilt or grief. Because laughing is not the conventional way of behaving when anxious or sad, people will see them as being inappropriate, insensitive and even rude. This kind of situation can then lead to the alexithymia person being ostracized, bullied, getting into trouble, etc, which can lead to further repercussions later on after the situation.
“If we start giggling at a funeral or crying at a birthday party, don’t hiss at us to stop. Support us. When we make sense of it, and want to talk, we will turn to you because you were kind to us”
Another reason why a person may get into trouble is when interrogated about their behavior and the way they feel. I.e., a person laughs in a serious situation, they are asked why they are laughing, they then struggle to answer the question, and the interrogator interprets their inability to answer as refusal to answer which makes them come across as “disobedient”, “untruthful” and “trying to hide something”. People may jump to the conclusion that the person is trying to make a fool at of them, or that they have a sick sense of humor.
People are being judged by standards they cannot be held against fairly. This is the case even when they know they have alexithymia and are autistic.
The message Quinn Dexter is trying to push out there, is people should try not to jump to conclusions if a person is unable to express their emotions. ESPECIALLY if you know that person is autistic.
He also advises that people have faith if a person tells you their expression that is “inappropriate” and it doesn’t reflect their true feelings. NEVER assume someone is hiding something or trying to deceive you, just because they aren’t making the same connections between feelings and expressions as you do.
Now we have covered the general idea of what alexithymia is and what it means and how it affects the person who deals with it. We have shared the knowledge and wisdom of Quinn Dexter on alexithymia and his own advice on how other people should deal with it.
In the next blog, we will explore how alexithymia affects people’s relationships. The ways in which it can impact a person’s relationship can be quite detrimental without realizing it. So it’s important that more and more people are made aware of it. Then people know tips/strategies to help overcome the barriers and negative impacts alexithymia can have on a relationship.
We will discuss and highlight this in the next blog- Alexithymia in Relationships- How to Stop Being Invisible.