Our emotions impact every aspect of our lives. They affect how we communicate, both with ourselves and with others. While defining what an emotion is can be challenging, we can most definitely determine why we have them. Emotions help us understand how we fit into the world. We get a sense of what things and people are important or not, we relate who we are and how we feel about situations to other people, decisions are easier (or harder) because we make them personal, and most fundamentally, our survival is determined by whether or not we can recognize danger.
Some people can’t feel or recognize emotions. Some people disregard them out of self-interest. Others have too many emotions. Or they are hyper-sensitive to those of the people around them. There are also many different kinds of personality disorders, all having to do with under-developed or over-developed responses to emotions.
Personality disorders are problematic because our emotions have a direct effect on our behavior (whether we realize it or not). But a significant segment of the population has a different problem: they feel emotions, they just can’t accurately recognize or express them.
One of the common beliefs about individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is that they lack emotion (or at least empathy). While this has been disproven in multiple studies (Google pulls up over 2.5 million hits) people still buy into it. And they are half-right. The debate, it turns out, is a legitimate one. But it turns out it isn’t even a debate. Around half of individuals on the autism spectrum are unable to recognize or express the emotions they feel.
Guess what? Neither can a full 10% of the general population.
Have you ever heard of alexithymia? It isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a personality construct in around 8% of males and 2% of females.
So what is it?
Broken down into its three roots, it literally translates: a- (lack) –lexia- (words) –thymos (emotion). Not having words for emotions. It can be defined as: difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal; difficulty describing feelings to other people; constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a scarcity of fantasies; and a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style.
If you think about it, you know at least one person that fits these traits. However, I’m on the autism spectrum, and I don’t. So now for the fun part!
Taking the Test
I am going to compare two people in a very unscientific way. I had a friend, who is not on the autism spectrum but generally isn’t very open with emotions, take an online alexithymia test. I took it, too. (www.alexithymia.us/test-alex.html)
We got very different results. I got 80 points, or demonstrated few or no alexithymic traits. He got 120 points, demonstrating high levels of alexithymic traits.
The causes of alexithymia aren’t very well known. Physiologically, it may be that a decreased corpus callosum impacts the ability of emotional information to be transferred from the right hemisphere to the left. Psychologically, someone could experience serious emotional trauma that challenges their very sense of self and causes them to become disaffected emotionally as a defense mechanism. This second theory was introduced by Joyce McDougall, who also noted that infants are, by nature, born unable to identify or speak about their emotional experiences, and parents are the ones who begin to imprint emotions upon their children. Therefore, neglect or indifference by a parent could lead to alexithymic traits in the child.
Autism is only one co-occurring neurological state. Alexithymia has been identified in individuals with depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, social phobias, and substance abuse. In addition, correlations have been found between alexithymia and those with personality disorders and sexual disorders. It also occurs at a higher rate in those who have suffered traumatic brain injury. Therefore, it is clear that there can be physiological and psychological causes.
Alexithymia can also manifest itself through physiological symptoms. Obviously, when you hold onto your emotions with no release, there will be some buildup because they have to come out somehow. So alexithymics may have migraine headaches, lower back pain, irritable bowel syndrome, functional dyspepsia, and chronic hypertension, asthma, nausea, allergies, and fibromyalgia. It can also lead to somatic complaints.
I mentioned earlier how our ability to recognize and understand our emotional responses can affect behavior. When I was younger, I would get in arguments with my dad. When I got angry, I’d start to cry. This reaction is not alexithymic, though. Have you ever had a fight with someone you respected, and you were torn between wanting to react harshly and not wanting to hurt them? The tears were my alternative to saying the typical childish “I hate you!” My friend reacts differently to anger. Instead of finding the words to express his feelings, he lashes out physically by punching. He becomes too overwhelmed to react appropriately.
So here’s my non-expert thoughts as to why he has alexithymia, while I do not. His stems from psychology, not physiology. His parents were never married, and after living for a short time with his mom, he was adopted by her parents because his dad was unable to take appropriate care of him at the time. He also was abused as a child by his mom and her sister. Although he is highly intelligent, he didn’t care about school and skipped most of tenth grade. He was diagnosed with intermittent explosive disorder. After being exposed to such a tumultuous childhood, it makes sense that he would distance himself emotionally from the people around him.
On the other hand, while I did not have many friends when I was young, and he did, I had a very happy and stable home life. While my parents and siblings tease each other for emotional moments, we are nothing but loving and supportive of each other. I did develop depression and have always had some anxiety, but I never had a triggering emotional stressor.
As a person on the spectrum, I get offended by the notion that we all don’t feel emotions, or at least cannot recognize them when we do. I would argue that I, at least, sometimes feel too much and have to push it down in order to function. I believe the most important thing to keep in mind in discussions of autism, as with all other discussions, is that nothing exists in a vacuum. There could always be multiple factors acting on a person’s mental state. We on the spectrum tend to be much more direct in our dealings with people because it is logical. This could be seen as being less emotional; however, that does not mean that we all have difficulty identifying and expressing emotions.
***DISCLAIMER: While these are the experiences of two people, they are by no means a statement on one type of parenting over another. This is just one example of how emotional intelligence/awareness can differ between individuals.***