Wednesday 14 February 2024

How Do I Feel? Exploring Alexithymia and Emotional Blindness

And sometimes I have kept my feelings to myself, because I could find no language to describe them in.

— Jane Austen

This post was inspired by a conversation with Fran. She’d shared a piece of writing with me and asked how I felt reading it. Not what I thought about it or whether it could be improved, but how it made me feel. As simple as it sounds, her question brought me up sharp. I didn’t know how to answer. It wasn’t that I hadn’t felt anything. I just had no idea how to convey my feelings to her. I didn’t know where to start. In that moment I realised this is a big deal. Because it wasn’t just my feelings about this one passage of Fran’s that eluded me. I’ve been a writer most of my life, but I’ve always found it hard to communicate my emotions in words.

I remembered my discomfiture years ago when Fran and I began studying Non-Violent Communication (NVC). This technique focuses on identifying feelings and needs as a means to understanding what’s going on in our lives. To aid the process, there are two lists, a Needs Inventory and a Feelings Inventory. The latter contains well over two hundred feelings categorised into feelings when our needs are satisfied (86) and feelings when our needs are not satisfied (147). The idea is to use the list to identify our feelings in the moment, but I was overwhelmed at the number of options. Surely there weren’t that many feelings? (Incidentally, overwhelmed is in the needs not being met list, in the “tense” category alongside anxious, crank, distressed, and more.) I understood the purpose of the inventory was to help me clarify what was going on for me emotionally, but I found it incredibly hard to label how I was feeling at any particular time. Was I tired, for example, or was I exhausted, weary, worn out, or lethargic? Calm, or comfortable, mellow, quiet, or relaxed, all of which are in the peaceful category of feelings when our needs are being met.

It reminded me of working with colours in web and graphic design. It depends a bit on how we define things but around ten million colours can be seen with the naked eye. (1,000 levels of light-dark times 100 levels of red-green times 100 levels of yellow-blue.) Most phone cameras capture 8-bit colour, which means they can distinguish almost seventeen million colour values. Recent models can operate at 10-bit which equates to one billion colour values — way more than we can distinguish visually. Not all of these have distinguishing names, of course. It varies depending on specification but the HTML4 colour palette lists 140 names in total, including sixteen basic colours (aqua, black, blue, fuchsia, gray, green, lime, maroon, navy, olive, purple, red, silver, teal, white, and yellow). I get it, but ask me what colour the sky is, or the coffee in my cup, or the ink in my fountain pen, and I’ll struggle to reply in anything but the most basic terms. The sky is grey with flashes of blue. My coffee is dark brown. The inks in the pens I’m using are black, blue, and brown.

Back in the days when I counted myself a poet (blame Ezra Pound’s “And Thus In Nineveh” for such pretentions) I was acutely aware of how hard it was to label my feelings. No single word could accomplish the task. It was only in the mesh of words, creatively and poetically woven together, that I could capture anything of the shape and nature of my emotions. Imagine an opaque sheet draped over objects on a table. We don’t know their precise nature but we can sense their shape and texture, and their relation to one another. A further example of how hard I find it to express my feelings in writing is my use of “dot words.” This started years ago but I still do it in my journal and other personal writing. I place a dot (period) at the start of a word to indicate I’m using it in a deliberately non-precise way. It’s not so much an approximation, more a place-holder for something I can’t adequately describe or convey. I might write “I’m feeling .low today” as shorthand for “I’m feeling something I can’t really express that’s not exactly low or depressed or flat but something like that.” It saves a lot of time. I’d no idea there was a word for this difficulty in expressing my emotions but there is.

Alexithymia, also called emotional blindness, is a neuropsychological phenomenon characterized by significant challenges in recognizing, expressing, and describing one’s own emotions.

There’s an excellent overview on its presentation and overlap with other conditions including depression, autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and trauma in Alexithymia: When You Have No Words To Describe How You’re Feeling. The article includes a downloadable guide to describing your emotions (similar to the NVC Feelings Inventory) and the following self-assessment checklist.

True/False Self-Assessment

Ask yourself if any of the statements are true to you.

1. I generally don’t know how I feel.

2. I typically don’t have words to describe what I’m feeling, and resort to simply saying statements such as “I’m fine,” or “I don’t know.”

3. I usually have difficulty expressing how I feel about other people.

4. When relating to others, it’s hard for me to imagine how they could be feeling.

5. It’s easier for me to talk about situations/events rather than feelings.

6. I get confused or have a hard time understanding the physical manifestations of my emotions.

I’d answer true to four of those six statements (1, 2, 3, and 5). I don’t find it hard to imagine how someone is feeling, although I’d struggle to express it to them or someone else. Regarding statement 6, I have occasionally been surprised at my emotional response to situations and events. I never cried through most of my adult life. Then one day the dam broke and I ugly cried for two hours over something that, objectively, warranted no such response. More generally, though, I’m not confused by my emotions or how they manifest. I feel a wide range of emotions. I just find it really hard to label or communicate them.

I used the word label there deliberately. To me, words are labels we attach to things. Communication requires that we attach the same labels to the same things. This is straightforward enough with physical objects. I’m happy to accept that you and I label the same things with the word tree, for example. When it comes to emotional states, though, I struggle to find the right label because I don’t know what you use it for. If I tell you I’m distressed or delighted, how do you know what I’m labeling with those words? I tend to stick to generic labels like good, sad, tired, or okay. In doing so I sacrifice fine discrimination between emotions for an improved chance you’ll get the gist.

The same applies to my use (some might say over-use) of emojis when I’m chatting online with friends. My phone keyboard supports some ninety emotion (face) emojis. I use eight with any frequency: thinking face, wink, kiss, laughing with tears, crying face, smiling face, sad face, and red heart. Limiting myself in this way, I can be reasonably sure the other person will understand what I mean. I use the smiley face and heart most of all. They convey genuine but non-specific humour, love, affection, and care. At least, I hope they do.

I mentioned my former self-identification as a poet. Published in 2008, Collected Poems: 1977–1984 is an anthology of my poetry between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. Four decades later, they evoke the feelings and emotions of those distant times, sometimes down to the day, even the moment of the day. What do they convey to others, though? I shared them with people I was close to at the time. I published a book of them. I’ve read several of them at open mic events. They’ve moved some to tears. At least one to kisses. I shared a link to my poetry book recently on social media. Someone very dear to me from those days, who knew me as well as anyone had at that point in my life, who knew all my poems and had inspired the best of them, responded with “They were rather good.” I’m glad others are not as stricken with alexithymia as I am. Those four words conveyed as much feeling as all the poetry in my book combined. (Thank you.) When I mentioned to a different friend that I’d been reading some of my old poetry and she asked how it felt to do so, all I could say was “It feels good.” Was that it? Is that really the best I could do?

I’m reminded me of the song How Do I Feel by English singer-songwriter Judie Tzuke.

How do I feel when you’re gone?
The days and nights go on and on.
How do I feel when you’re here?
The days and nights just disappear.

The song evokes personal and very specific memories of one night in the 80s at a Judie Tzuke concert. I’d seen her perform live before, but hearing — and feeling — this song for the first time with someone I cared for yet never knew how to talk or relate to, was an experience that has never left me. Our difficulties weren’t solely due to my inability to express my feelings, but it didn’t help.

How do I feel? What do you want?

Forty years on, the same questions haunt me and I’m no closer to putting the answers into words. Maybe that’s okay, though. There are other ways of expressing emotions. I couldn’t describe to Fran how I felt reading her words, but she reassured me. “Your heart leaks over everything you do.”

It’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in this, as the quotation I opened with attests. If Jane Austen struggled at times to describe her feelings, I can be at ease with my own difficulties. This poem of mine was written four decades ago, but still has something to say.

I should have thought it IMPOSSIBLE
(before I realised the meaninglessness
of the word) to find myself
in the midst of
yOUR dream:

it is only in sharing something
this BEAUTIFUL that
we can realise the
of the words.

I may struggle to express how I’m feeling, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel. Perhaps I experience my emotions all the more intensely because I understand there’s no way to put them into words. I’m going to close with a line from the 2022 movie Tár starring Cate Blanchett which captures the essence of alexithymia perfectly.

We can’t always name the things we feel. We have feelings that are so deep and so special that we have no words for them.


Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more, the free online questionnaire at Alexithymia Online is a good place to start. I scored 129 out of 185, where 0–94 indicates no alexithymia traits, 95–112 indicates possible alexithymia, and 113–185 indicates alexithymia.

Alexithymia Online recommend Animi, “the first app dedicated to improving alexithymia, emotional awareness and emotional intelligence” but I’ve not had chance to try it myself.


Photo by Denis Cherkashin at Unsplash.


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