Photo Credit: .kleine. cc-by-nc-sa.
You don’t have to be a psychopath or a sociopath to have trouble feeling or identifying your emotions. You could have a recently identified condition called alexithymia, literally, “no words for emotion.” A person with alexithymia isn’t necessarily incapable of naming emotions, but they likely have a very unsubtle sense of what emotion they are feeling. They might interpret the increased heart rate of excitement as fear, for instance. It’s easy to see that such confusion about whether or what one is feeling can lead to many problems with relationships.
Despite the name, the real problem for people with alexithymia isn’t so much that they have no words for their emotions, but that they lack the emotions themselves. Still, not everyone with the condition has the same experiences. Some have gaps and distortions in the typical emotional repertoire. Some realise they’re feeling an emotion, but don’t know which, while others confuse signs of certain emotions for something else – perhaps interpreting butterflies in the stomach as hunger pangs.
In one of his first studies in this field, [Geoff Bird, a professor of psychology at the University of Oxford] linked alexithymia, as measured with a 20-item checklist developed at the University of Toronto, with a lack of empathy. If you can’t feel your own emotions in the typical way, it makes sense that you can’t identify with those of others, either.
“… for a few of our really alexithymic people, while they can tell a smile and a frown apart, they have no idea what they are. That is really quite strange.”
For Rebecca Brewer, a former student of Bird’s and now a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, this makes sense. “With alexithymia, people often know that they are experiencing an emotion but don’t know which emotion it is,” she explains.
Some studies indicate that the inability to detect what is going on within one’s own body has a strong correlation with the condition of alexithymia.
The ability to detect changes inside the body – everything from a racing heart to a diversion of blood flow, from a full bladder to a distension of the lungs – is known as interoception. It’s your perception of your own internal state.
In 2016, Bird and Brewer, along with Richard Cook at City University in London, published a research paper that characterised alexithymia as a “generalised deficit of interoception”.
Geoff Bird wants to look at the idea that there are two different types of alexithymia. People with one type don’t produce enough of the bodily signals necessary for the experience of an emotion, so would be unlikely to benefit from the Sussex group’s kind of training. People with the other type produce all kinds of bodily sensations but their brains don’t process these signals in the typical way.
Bird stresses that, although people with alexithymia struggle to understand emotion, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about other people. “For the most part, individuals with alexithymia can recognise that others are in a negative state, and this makes them distressed. The problem is that they can’t work out what the other person is feeling, and what they are feeling, and therefore how to make the other person feel better or how to reduce their own distress. I think that’s important because alexithymia is different from psychopathy in that respect.”
It would be a terrible thing if the only emotions you could feel were fear, anger and confusion. Getting the diagnosis of alexithymia and some techniques and exercises to deal with it could make a big difference in a person’s life, and the lives of those around them.