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Alexithymia (trouble identifying and describing emotions)

By Matthias · Jun 25, 2020 · Updated Jun 25, 2020 · ·
This guide explains alexithymia, what causes it, the harmful effects of it, and how to better understand your feelings so you can be yourself and be in control of how you feel.
    Alexithymia refers to trouble identifying and describing emotions. Everyone is born with alexithymia since the ability to identify and describe emotions is not genetic. It is learned through experience. Research estimates that 10% of the general population and 50% of autistic people suffer from alexithymia.


    People born with autistic traits often think and act differently than people without autistic traits. When people act differently, it’s common for other people to react negatively. Their negative reactions can result in people with autistic traits forming negative opinions about themselves and other people. These negative opinions can cause people to feel discouraged, ashamed, embarrassed, upset, frustrated, anxious, angry, fearful, and a variety of other emotions. When people experience too many emotions at the same time early in life, it can make it impossible to differentiate between emotions. The result is that people don’t learn to differentiate and understand the emotions they are feeling. Many people cope by avoiding situations that are likely to result in unwanted emotions which results in them never learning to understand and differentiate between the various emotions they experience.

    People who aren’t attuned to their emotions and those of others may come across as cold and distant by other people. They may find it harder to be assertive. Emotional states, even if a person isn’t aware of it, alter brain function which can lead to misunderstandings, getting upset easily, being sensitive to criticism, and feeling overwhelmed in social situations. Alexithymia may increase the risk of developing depression and social anxiety.


    One way to understand emotions better is to reduce the number of emotions experienced in various situations. Despite what many people think, numerous studies have shown that our emotions aren’t caused by other people’s words or actions. They are strongly influenced by our own beliefs (among other causes). Someone with an unhealthy self-esteem and negative opinions of other people may experience a variety of emotions in social situations that make it difficult to differentiate between them. For example, someone who is struggling to get his point across may be frustrated that other people aren’t understanding, embarrassed about having difficulty communicating, ashamed because he thinks something is wrong with him, anxious that other people might think there is something wrong with him, upset that people are criticizing him, and angry that people aren’t trying harder to understand. When anyone experiences six emotions at the same time, it’s hard to tell or describe what they are feeling.

    Improving self-esteem helps reduce some of those negative emotions which makes it easier to identify and understand the remaining emotions. For example, if a person struggling to communicate improved his self-esteem by forming a more accurate opinion of himself, he might not feel embarrassed or ashamed because he’d know that no one is perfect and that having weaknesses or flaws is normal and nothing to be embarrassed about or ashamed of because it doesn’t make him inferior or any less of a person. He may also be less anxious if he stopped basing his self-esteem on other people’s opinions of himself. If the reason criticism made him upset was because it reminded him of his own belief that he was inferior, he may no longer feel upset when he is criticized since he now knows he’s just as worthy as everyone else.

    Evaluating and correcting unhelpful beliefs about other people can eliminate unwanted emotions. If someone who thought other people were criticizing him because they were judgmental or bad people realized they were just questioning his words in an attempt to understand his point better, he wouldn’t feel upset about it. If he understood those people were only judging his words or actions and not him as a person, it wouldn’t cause him anxiety. If he realized the problem wasn’t other people but his own emotions that were causing him difficulties, he wouldn’t have any reason to be angry with them.

    After improving self-esteem and forming more helpful and accurate beliefs about other people, a person can get to the point where he only experiences one emotion when he has trouble communicating (frustration) which would make it easier to identify, describe, and understand that emotion.

    The example above shows that alexithymia can occur when people experience multiple emotions in situations where other people only experience one emotion (although it’s normal to experience 2 or 3 emotions sometimes). It also shows how improving self-esteem and changing inaccurate beliefs about others can reduce the number of emotions a person experiences in various situations which makes it easier to understand the emotions that remain.

    When people experience positive or negative emotions when something occurs, their brain makes associations that result in them experiencing the same emotions when something else reminds them of that event. If you've heard about soldiers with PTSD reacting to a sound that reminds them of a warzone, it's because their brain associated the sound with the war which caused them to experience the emotions they felt during the war when they heard the sound. The same thing happens to everyone to a lesser degree. For example, suppose you had a bad relationship with your father who got very angry whenever you disagreed with him. If you get into a disagreement with someone or are talking to someone who reminds you of your father, you may experience the same emotions you felt when you disagreed with your father. If you've had bad experiences with a large number of people throughout your life, you can end up experiencing a bunch of unwanted emotions in a variety of social situations. These associations can be a major cause of unwanted emotions for people who suppressed their emotions for much of their life. Although you may not be aware of them, the emotions you experience on an unconscious level will still affect the way you think. The harm caused by negative associations can be reduced by forming more helpful beliefs about the people or things associated with those negative emotions (or other people in general if you've had many negative social interactions). You can also counteract negative associations by forming new positive associations with the same people or events. For example, you can ask a friend to judge you while thinking about it in helpful ways to weaken the negative associations which will reduce the unwanted emotions you experience when other people judge you.

    To help with the above mentioned problems, I created the following guides:
    How to improve your self-esteem
    Replacing Unhelpful Beliefs with More Accurate and Helpful Beliefs


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  1. Giraffes
    Thanks for the links i've held negative views of myself throughout my life and the things you wrote rang true, i will explore ways to improve my self esteem.