What Is Alexithymia & Why Does It Matter?Jul 18, 2023
Alexithymia is an uncommon word that's been gaining traction since the 80's. It can be defined as the inability to recognize or describe one's own emotions. While it's not a diagnoseable condition according to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), it IS an extremely useful concept when it comes to recovery.
For linguists like me, it's helpful to know that alexithymia is made of three parts taken from Latin origin...
- A meaning NOT
- LEX meaning WORD or LANGUAGE
- THYMIA meaning EMOTION or MOOD
When combined, it means "not having language for emotions." While this is cool linguistically, it's devastating relationally. Because marriage depends on the ability to attune to the emotions of another person, the quality of relationship is dramatically hindered when one or both spouses lack the ability to identify their emotions and express them in constructive ways... otherwise known as alexithimia.
If you're in relationship with someone who lacks the ability to identify and express THEIR emotions, what chance is there that they'll be able to understand and empathize with YOUR emotions, much less, have a productive conversation about them?
I hope you guessed ZERO... or something close to it.
Those who have experienced trauma at a young age are especially prone to alexithymia... and yet they have emotions and often strong ones they don't know how to handle.
Strong emotions paired with a lack of an ability to recognize and communicate them creates a perfect environment for a quick-fix external solution, often in chemical or behavioral form. Once the power of a quick-fix takes hold, there's little need to grow emotionally, since the drug of choice is a known "solution" to numb whatever uncomfortable sensation a person may be feeling.
The result is persistent emotional immaturity and chronic inability to recognize and address emotions both in oneself and with others.
Now here comes the good news...
While alexithymia can be caused by neurodevelopmental disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it can also be caused by trauma or attachment disorders from early childhood. The first group cannot be changed, but the second can.
So if your spouse seems to lack empathy, has trouble identifying or expressing their emotions or displays inappropriate emotional exchanges, then you may be dealing with alexithymia. Since only 1% of the population has autism, then there's a 99% chance your spouse can grow out of their emotional disorder.
Now THAT sounds like good news to me!
The process of identifying and expressing emotions is a learnable skill, but it takes time and effort. Seventeen years in recovery has shwon me time and again that it CAN happen. So while men especially struggle with alexithymia, they quickly grow in empathy and emotional attunement once their addiction is curbed and their traumas are healed.
To start overcoming alexithymia in your life, enroll in one of our coaching programs.
To learn more about the correlation between alexithymia and childhood trauma,
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