This last November, my boyfriend (now fiancé) and I celebrated our 10th year anniversary. This unmistakably leads most people to think that our relationship was always all kisses and roses, but the truth is that it has never been even close to that. Only in the last couple years has our relationship moved to a slightly more romantically inclined state. Here, let me explain, I’m not saying that he was being completely detached, uncaring or worse. He just seemed incapable of showing any signs of compassion (and no, this was no bull poop). It’s not because he didn’t want to make the effort or that he didn’t care. The reason was more likely related to the incomprehension of his feelings, and also mine for the matter.
Feelings are complicated, but with years of practice most of us become experts in decoding their meaning. That training starts in our early years by trying to discriminate differences with physical cues like the curve of our lips, the arching of our eyebrows, the shape of our eyes, the minute twitching of our cheek, etc. After that learning stage is completed, we proceed to relate emotions to cues we’ve observed. This eventually becomes fine-tuned by the use of trial-and-error processes. We become so good at it that we even come to dismiss that some people might yet struggle with it, which is the case of people affected by Alexithymia, or emotional blindness. Alexithymia can literally be translated to “A lack of words for feelings (or emotions)”.
In order to understand how these people may interpret emotions, we have to realize the intricate difficulties that lie behind interpreting emotions. You can actually observe the complicated nature of feelings by taking a look at scientific research exploring this topic. I may start by saying that even researchers have difficulty establishing a consensus on how many of them there are. For a very long time, we assume that there were only 8 distinct emotions: anger, fear, anticipation, trust, surprise, sadness, joy and disgust. More recently a study conducted by two researchers from the University of California, Berkeley (Alan S. Cowen and Dacher Keltner) have suggested that there may be up to 27 distinct emotions (see image below, for details). Surprisingly, they have come to exclude anger, trust, surprise (no word pun intended) and anticipation. They explained that those feelings might be different intensities of the newly considered distinct feelings.
Despite the difficulties demonstrated in academia for determining even the number of emotions, we still expect everyone to be geniuses at it. However, we have to open our eyes to the possibility that still about 10% of the population have drastic difficulties with both noticing or interpreting them. Alexithymic people are battling with more than just hurdles to describe feelings, they also suffer from impoverished dream recalling, emotion processing deficits, reduced expressivity of emotions, lack of daydreaming and/or fantasies and reduced sexual desire. Interestingly, I think that the reduced expressivity observed is actually part of a defence mechanism. I can imagine that having trouble identifying emotions may lead to many unsuccessful attempts in decoding emotion. This would in turn, drive people to react inadequately. As a need to save face in the future and they might decide to remain neutral in most circumstances. This would ensure that no insult, although inadvertently, could be done to the interacting participant.
My personal involvement with Alexithymia is, as you may suspect, through the interaction with my fiancé, Manuel. Then again, I was not aware of this from the very beginning. It took me attending a course for my undergraduate degree to figure this out, which was about 4 years ago. I guess we could have called this serendipity, because meanwhile I was discovering this subject, an awareness of his lack of feeling surfaced. However, love relationships bring their lots of mystery. Manuel’s mystery was his exceptional ease at hiding his emotional deficits. Again, I don’t think it was voluntary. He wasn’t trying to be a manly man and bottling down his emotions. He just couldn’t understand his underlying motivation to avoid expressing emotions. It’s only in retrospect that I realized, I should have been able to point this out sooner. I remember one day when I was crying, I was completely devastated. I remember not knowing why I was even feeling that way. In this situation, you and I would think that Manuel would try as hard as he could to comfort me. He had another reasoning at that time; instead he proceeded to have a laugh. When we talk about what happened back then, we both cannot explain the reasoning behind this. However, my intuition is telling me that it must have been a manifestation of a deep uneasiness with the situation. I assure you that now, when it comes to comforting, he is acting like a perfect gentleman, well at least with me. Using a lot of compassion about his condition, I now inform him of the best approaches when my reactions become a bit too much for him.
Full disclaimer: Manuel has never been formally diagnosed. Yet, we still have evidence supporting this statement. Manuel filled an online questionnaire about Alexithymia for which he scored high on most of its categories. The online questionnaire can be accessed through https://www.alexithymia.us/. But beware that this does not, by any means, replace a proper diagnosis made by a trained professional such as a psychologist, psychiatrist or physicians. So, if you believe you are affected by alexithymia and you feel as if it’s impacting your life for the worse, then you should definitely seek those professionals.
Coming back to Manuel, we did mention that he shows emotion processing deficits and reduced expression of emotions, but we haven’t talked about his experience with the other aspect of Alexithymia. If we examine the lack of daydreaming/fantasies, it manifested mostly in his inability to visualize a future with me, or any medium to long-term future for that matter. It really created some stress in the relationship, but we got through this by making an if-then statement, which I found he responds very well to. Without this push through in the form of communication (and a little leap of faith), we got through the point where the two of us agreed to get married later this year. As for the impoverished dream recalling, I can guarantee you that it couldn’t be further from the truth. He can recall dreams to such details that gets me envious of him.
As a bonus segment, I would like to share with you two memories where we could really notice some significant breakthroughs. About three years ago, I saw Manuel cry for the very first time. We were at his brother’s wedding and he was a groomsman, so these were obviously tears of joy. I just remember the feeling of joy and surprise I was experiencing seeing him like that. Even he could not even comprehend the full extent of his emotions at that moment. This has led him to be more interested in his feelings from this point on. At last, I want to share what I believe truly opened him up to the feelings of love. Four years ago, his brother got his first child, which meant that Manuel was becoming an uncle for the very first time. A little more than a year ago, that young niece went on to do the most precious thing. She looked in Manuel’s eyes and told him that she loved him. Manuel told me that it’s at that very moment that something switched inside of him and he felt this strong tug wanting him to express the same feeling back at her. That only would have been enough to make me the happiest girl. And, at my surprise, this change was not only directed at his niece, but at me too. Yes, he told me the three-word sentence (I love you) for the first time last year. Soon after these words were repeated once again, but this time, to his parents.
I hope you have learnt a lot about Alexithymia and that you will be able to help others or yourself, whichever is appropriate. Remember that the difficulty brought on by this condition can be tackled using proper tools like communication as well as the openness to becoming more attentive to feelings. It is easy to dismiss emotions completely, exceptionally when it becomes so difficult and our efforts constantly end up hurting people that we care for. Still, with the right people you can find a safe way to develop a better understanding. We simply have to be true to ourselves and accept help when needed.
I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer as soon as humanly possible.