|EQI.org Home |Emotional Literacy | Feeling Words
Alexithymia is a relatively new term which means the inability to express feelings with words. The medical research coming under this term is showing what a lot of us already knew: If you can't express your feelings with words, you are going to have a lot of problems!
Why the Term Is Getting More Popular
Alexithymia and Emotional Intelligence
Alexithymia and Decision Making
How to Know if You Are Alexithymic
Primary vs. Secondary Alexithymia
Is There a "Cure" for Alexithymia?
Article about Alexithymia and Self-Harm
Emotionally Literate - The opposite of Alexithymic
Darren - A self-harming teenager who realizes he was not brought up to talk about his feelings
http://www.alexithymia.supanet.com/ - This site seems to be created by a PhD type person. It is a bit complicated, but seems well researched and written. It offers a lot of more detail.
Other EQI.org Topics:
Intelligence | Empathy
Search EQI.org | Support EQI.org
A Medical Definition of Alexithymia
A condition where a person is unable to describe emotion in words. Frequently, alexithymic individuals are unaware of what their feelings are.
It seems a medical doctor named Peter Sifneos is the person credited with creating the term alexithymia in 1972. He kept seeing problems with patients who could not express their feelings with words as he talked to them. So he created a term for this based on a few Greek words as follows
The first time I remember hearing of alexithymia was when I read Reuven BarOn's book which he claimed was a handbook of emotional intelligence. I have strongly disputed that the book had much to do with EI, but I did learn a few things that are at least related to EI, if not actually about EI. Since then I have gone back to my notes from Goleman's 1995 book and discovered that Goleman mentioned alexithymia
Reuven BarOn probably deserves a lot of the credit for making the term a bit more well-known, though, because he put a chapter about it in his book which he titled "A Handbook of Emotional Intelligence." Had he called it a "Handbook of Emotions and Alexithymia" probably almost no one would have bought it, but since he was smart enough to call it a handbook of EI, he sold a lot copies. So I would guess this is the first time a lot of people heard of "alexithymia."
Why the Term Is Getting More Popular
As I mentioned at the top of the page, the term sounds more impressive and more scientific than saying either A) the person is not in touch with their feelings or B) the person can't talk about their feelings. Also, it is more specific than saying they are not emotionally intelligent ( a term which has been used to mean so many things it has almost lost any meaning at all!).
Also, for people who like simplistic answers and who like to label people, they can now say "His problem is that he is alexithymic" in a superior kind of way.
Even people who have trouble with their emotions may feel relieved. They can say "Ah, my problem is that I am alexithymic." This could be more or less helpful depending on what the do next. I need to do some more research but I have found out there is an alexithymic chatroom and forum on MSN where people are calling themselves "Alex's". This gives the term a more friendly feel, and the fact that they have started calling themselves "Alex's" suggests that feelings do matter to even alexithymic people! The chatroom, forum and identifying a common label for themselves surely helps fill an emotional void in their lives, as all forums and chatrooms on the Net obviously do, although I'd say it is better to have connections in real life and our Internet connections are only partially filling our emotional needs. (And obviously not filling our needs for human touch at all.)
Another reason the term may be getting popular is because it makes it sound like it is something out of our control, and as if no one in particular can be blamed. It is a bit like saying a suicidal teen is "bipoloar" when the truth is they are suicidal because of the emotional dysfunction in the home, school and society. We can understand, of course, why parents would prefer to hear that their teen is "bipolar" instead of hearing they themselves are emotionally incompetent, neglectful or abusive parents.
One good thing about the term is that because it is pretty specific, and because it does sound scientific and not judgmental, people are more likely to seek a specific "cure" and not as likely to feel embarrassed trying to get some help. They can also focus in on getting specific help on both identifying their feelings and in expressing them with words.
Alexithymia and Emotional Intelligence
So what, if any, connection is there between alexithymia and EI? First, it depends on which definition you use of EI, if you go with my adaptation of the Mayer Salovey four branch model of EI, then we can see a bit of connection because the first branch of EI is defined as follows
This sounds like the exact opposite of alexithymia.
So does that mean that if a person is alexithymic there are, by default, not emotionally intelligent?
No, it does not.
It doesn't because we don't know *why* the person is alexithymic. Was i some kind of birth defect? Or was it a product of their environment? If I were a betting man, I would be on the latter. So I would say that telling us a person is alexithymic tells us little to nothing about how emotionally intelligent they were when they were born.
As I have written in my history and definition of EI section, there is a big difference between being born with high EI and how well a person manages his or her emotions later in life.
If, though, we talk about emotionally intelligent behavior, it is probably quite fair to say an alexithymic person will not appear to be emotionally intelligent.
This still does not mean, though, that the person is not emotional. A person could go on a tirade and smash things out of anger, thus showing they are very emotional, or they could cry and cry, which again would show their ability to feel emotion, but they still might not be able to put their emotions in words.
So we need to be very clear what we are and are not talking about when we talk about both alexithymia and emotional intelligence.
How to Know if You Are Alexithymic
One website lists these signs. It says you might:
There is also this test you can take, but you have to pay for it.
It's called the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20). It is a self-report questionnaire and is said to be a good test, according to the author of the site above. It is evidently avaliable from http://www.gtaylorpsychiatry.org/research.htm if you want to spend 35 dollars.
This, along with all the interest in EI tests makes me think I should be in the test designing, marketing and selling business!
All of the info from this section is from http://www.alexithymia.supanet.com/faq.html
This is the nature / nurture question. My best guess is that it is a combination of both. I would guess, in other words, it is exactly like emotional intelligence in this way. A baby is probably born with a natural potential. This potential can then be developed, or it can be neglected, or it can be corrupted.
Let's take three home environments.
So the same baby can have very different experiences as she grows up. At age 35 we might see the woman from Home C and say she has very high emotional intelligence. Everything in her life might be going well. But had she been raised in either Home A or Home B she might be called an alexithymic, or she might be dead from having killed herself.
I have been meeting people from all kinds of home environments. I see the difference that it makes. Therefore, as in the section above, I ask you to be very, very careful when you talk about things like alexithymia and emotional intelligence.
Primary vs. Secondary Alexithymia
As I talked about in the section above about where it comes from, there are two basic possibilities: nature or nurture. The academic people seem to be saying that if it comes from nature, it is "primary" alexithymia. If it comes from nurture (or the lack, or opposite, thereof), it is "secondary." This is a distinction no one in the academic field of emotional intelligence seems to be making, but is one I have been stressing for a few years on this site. Maybe the academic researchers in EI will learn something from the researchers in Alexithymia. One can always hope anyhow! (Not to mention write on one's website!)
Anyhow, here is how the academic people have discussed this:
This last line really gets me! To me its like saying, "Its too hard to figure out where it comes from, so let's not bother trying." That attitude seems a bit irresponsible to me since it makes a huge difference where this thing called "alexythimia" comes from. Take the examples I gave about the three homes above. Wouldn't society be better served if we knew why someone had the problems the girl's from homes A and B did? If we know why something has happened, we can address the root causes of it.
This is the same with asking why someone shows signs of low emotional intelligence as a teen or adult. And it is also the same as trying to figure out why a teen is suicidal instead of just using the convenient excuse that they have some "disorder", implying it is is all nature and no nurture. It seems that cultures where there is a high rate of teen self-harm and teen suicide, such as England and the USA, prefer not to take a look in the mirror to see what they might be doing wrong. They seem to want to stick their heads in the sand and not even look for any connection between their prevailing values, the school system and teen self-harm/suicide. So I say that in all cases, we must keep trying to make the distinction between things caused by nature and things caused by nurture.
This very issue is addressed in some detail by "Hal" on this site http://www.alexithymia.supanet.com/faq.html
Here is a quote from it, with my interpretation of it below.
Basically, he seems to be saying that alexithymia could be cause by a) birth defects b) a physical injury or c) upbrining or d) psychological trauma. To his credit, he says though it is hard to know where it comes from, "the question is still worth posing." He then says it makes a difference in the treatment and he tells us that Sifneos likes one type of plan and someone name Krystal, likes another. Krystal is said to like to try to help the person using "personal training and education in feelings and their psychological signficance." So in other words, he seems to be saying that he tries to get them to learn to talk about their feelings and also to understand why feelings and I talking about them, is important.
Nowhere in this discussion, though, is the idea of needed social change mentioned. It is not mentioned that we might want to look at the whole of society to see why so many people have trouble talking about their feelings I will give you my very short answer to this question in the section called Alexithmia and Society.
This is from the website.... http://www.alexithymia.supanet.com/faq.html
At several pages on this page I talk about nature vs. nurture, and I encourage us to try to figure out which is more responsible for some thing like alexithymia. And I suggested that we might want to look at the whole of society to see why so many people have trouble talking about their feelings. I will add that is not just people who are somehow "officially" called alexithymics, but I'd say there are a whole lot of people who have this difficulty.
My explanation for this is that the society we have created simply does not place a high value on feelings. Instead, we seem to value nearly everything else. Money, appearances, material things, grades, test scores are a few examples.
It has become painfully obvious to me that children and teenager's feelings are not valued in the typical school around the world. And I have personally been inside schools in many countries. At present, it is more important for children and teens to obey the teacher than to even take time to listen to their own feelings. Students are not asked how they feel about decisions. They are not asked how they feel about what is happening inside the classroom walls. They are not asked how they about one teacher vs. another. As I said in my 1995 book, they are taught the names of plants and insects, not to mention a lot of dead people, but not the names of their own feelings. And teachers are not in the habit of expressing their feelings with feeling words.
Nor are feelings valued at work. Dan Goleman has been making a lot of money talking about emotional intelligence in the workplace, but he does not even include emotional literacy in his "corporate definition" of emotional intelligence. Even the researchers Mayer, Salovey and Caruso have not placed a very high value on expressing feelings with feeling words. They talk a lot about using emotions and managing them, but they tend to skip over actually talking about them.
Another problem is that most of us live in places where it is not safe to show your feelings. It is not safe to be emotionally honest. Children and teens learn it is safer to lie about their feelings.
My basic hypothesis is that our society is so dysfunctional and we are in so much pain most of the time that we could not handle it if we stopped to either really feel our pain or really talk about it. There is just too much of it. If we made time to really talk about things like the death and bloodshed in Iraq, Israel, Palestine; the treatment of the POW's; the fact that students are killing other students in schools in a country that likes to think it is a model for the rest of the world; the fact that teens are cutting, burning and killing themselves....
If we really faced all of this, could we handle it?
I say that people know they can't handle their real feelings. So they learn not to talk about them. Adults don't talk about them, so how could we expect children or teens to learn to?
To have a less, "alexithymic" world, then, will require significant changes, and will surely have fairly dramatic impact on the future of human relationships. I suggest that the time to begin is now, and that the benefits will be worth the difficulties during the transition. I also suggest the place to start is in the schools. More specifically, teach children and teens the names of their feelings, in specific, their negative feelings, since those are the ones that tell us something needs to be changed. Then I suggest we listen ask the students how they feel, and then really listen. And then start to make changes to take their feelings into account.
This is how I see us changing society. If we do this, I predict there will be a noticeable decline in what is called alexithymia.
Is There a Cure for Alexithymia? - My personal story
I say yes. (At least for what some call "secondary" alexithymia.) I say this because I was once unable to express my feelings with words. Now I do it so much it is often annoying! So how did I "cure" myself? It's a bit of a long story but I will give you some bits of it for now.
One of the things I did was to start to read about feelings. This might have started giving me the vocabulary.
Something else I did was I started taking time to think about my feelings. To reflect on them.
Then I also started to write about them in personal journals.
At around the same time I went to some support group meetings where people who were less "alexithymic" than me were talking about their feelings. I was uncomfortable in these meetings at first. They were meetings like AA meetings (Alcoholics Anonymous) and I didn't feel very much at home in them since I wasn't religious (AA meetings have a strong religious base) and I didn't drink and never had. But still, in those meetings, I started hearing people talk about *their* feelings. And I saw people crying. And this is bring tears to my eyes right now to write about it.
So all of this helped me start to eventually *feel* my own feelings a bit more. I also started my own list of feeling words, which as you can see has now grown to be probably the largest in the world.
I also discovered teenagers. I discovered them on the Internet through a website called Opendiary. I discovered that teenagers were very emotional and, especially for the females, nearly constantly talk about their feelings. I started chatting with several teenagers and found I could let myself really open up with my feelings with them. Until I actually started chatting teens, I had no idea they were so emotional, nor did I have any idea they could be so emotionally supportive.
I come from a very emotionally dysfunctional family and it left me as a very emotionally needy adult. As a result I have needed a lot of emotional support and emotional healing. I could never begin to thank my teen friends enough for the emotional support, healing and understanding they have given me over the past few years. They have provided me a safe place to show my emotions. And this is one thing I would say is critical in the recovery process.
So that is a little about my personal story. I wish you well on your journey if this is an issue for you.
Emotional Literacy - The opposite of alexithymia
When a Patient Has No Story To Tell: Alexithymia
by Renư J. Muller, Ph.D.
Psychiatric Times July 2000 Vol. XVII Issue 7
Below are excerpts from a doctor who works with people who have self-harmed and have ended up in the emergency room (ER) of a hospital in the USA. My comments are in italics.
I would say it is more than "perhaps". I'd also say that the children and teenagers learned it was not safe to be emotionally honest at home. This is a very common theme in the suicidal teens I've known.( I am not sure who Winnicott is but later I will do a bit of research if I remember to.)
Unfortunately the doctor didn't tell us more about the specifics of her anxiety and depression. But I can promise you it goes back to her family. And also, if she had been self-harming for "many years", as he says, then it started when she was living at home. Note how the doctor confirms that, as I have said on my site, teenagers self-harm to stop their emotional pain.
Next he talks about a 37 year old named Maureen who also was self-harming and couldn't label her feelings. Then he wrote this:
Kooiman CG (1998), The status of alexithymia as a risk factor in medically unexplained physical symptoms. Compr Psychiatry 39(3):152-159.
Lesser IM (1985), Current concepts in psychiatry. Alexithymia. N Engl J Med 312(11):690-692.
Lumley MA, Stettner L, Wehmer F (1996), How are alexithymia and physical illness linked? A review and critique of pathways. J Psychosom Res 41(6):505-518.
Nemiah JC (1977), Alexithymia. Theoretical considerations. Psychother Psychosom 28(1-4):199-206.
Sifneos PE (1972), Short-Term Psychotherapy and Emotional Crisis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Sifneos PE (1996), Alexithymia: past and present. Am J Psychiatry 153(7 suppl):137-142.
Taylor GJ, Bagby RM, Parker JD (1991), The alexithymia construct. A potential paradigm for psychosomatic medicine. Psychosomatics 32(2):153-164.
Zeitlin SB, McNally RJ, Cassiday KL (1993), Alexithymia in victims of sexual assault: an effect of repeated traumatization? Am J Psychiatry 150(4):661-663.
The original article was found here http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/p000771.html
At the end of the article it tells us that:
My thanks to Brooke for her help on research for this page