If the word alexithmyia sounds like some strange foreign language, well it is. It’s made up from two Greek words that together mean ‘no words for emotions’.
So if you have alexithymia, you struggle to feel, understand, and describe emotions. This includes both your own emotions, and those of people around you.
Is Alexithymia a mental health disorder?
No. Alexithymia is not a personality disorder or a mental health disorder. It’s a personality ‘construct’, or ‘trait’.
What’s the difference? A personality trait is part of your way of being. It is not something big enough to completely dictate your way of being in all areas of life (personality disorder) or leave you incapable of managing your daily life (mental health disorder).
So if you are an ‘alexithymic’ or ‘alexithymiac’, you can be quite a regular person. And you can function perfectly well in life, except when it comes to intimate relationships. In fact some people’s alexithymia is so mild they live for decades without realising they even suffer from it.
That said, alexithymia is often a ‘comorbidity’ . This means it’s a diagnosis that is found at the same time as others. It’s also thought that having alexithymia makes you more vulnerable to other psychological issues.
Symptoms of alexithymia
So what does alexithymia look like?
Symptoms of alexityhmia can include the following:
if people ask how you feel you draw a blank
it’s equally hard to know what other people feel
you see emotions as just happy and unhappy, why must it be more complicated?
imagination and fantasy isn’t your thing
you’d rather do things than think about them
partners and friends often accuse you of ‘not understanding’ them (when you feel you do)
you respond to situations with logic over emotions
if you do have relationships, they are not equal, you are in charge or let the other person take charge
partners complain you are cold, distant, and/or not assertive enough.
The spectrum of alexithymia
Like many psychological issues, there seems to be quite a range when it comes to alexithymia. Some psychologists even divide alexithymia into two types, which they refer to as ‘primary’ ( you have symptoms all the time) and ‘secondary’ (you have symptoms when under stress).
Other differences are that some people with alexithymia do have emotional outbursts when others don’t. It’s just that the outbursts tend to be quick and extreme (tears, rage). And that afterwards you don’t have ways to understand or describe what happened, nor interest in doing so.
Nobody knows quite why one person has alexithymia and not another. Some scientists would like to prove it is simple as just genes and neuroscience.
But like most psychological issues, alexithymia is probably a a combination of both biology and environment. In other words, we might be born more prone to alexithymia than others, and then a substantial trauma when we were a childmight trigger that tendency.
We are all as infants born incapable of describing emotions. We have to learn how to develop this skill through our interaction with our caregivers. One argument is that those with alexithymia could have had a difficult experience during this stage of development that meant they decided it was safer not to identify emotions.