One in 10 people struggle to recognize their emotions. New research suggests a vital link between our ability to sense our physical bodies and knowing how we feel. Stephen has been married twice. Two wedding days. Two “I do”s. Yet Stephen has no happy memories from either – or, in fact, from the marriages or any of his relationships.
He met his first wife on a pre-nursing course when he was just 16. Six years later, they were married. Three years after that, they got divorced; she was never really the right one for him, he says. Almost two decades on, in 2009, he met his second wife through a dating site. He threw himself into the relationship and, the following year, with his father and her two adult siblings present, they married at the registrar’s office in Sheffield, where they both live.
He put on smiles for the wedding photos because he recognized that they were expected but, as he explains: “From an inner feeling point of view, anything I do that requires an emotional response feels like a fake. “Most of my responses are learned responses. In an environment where everyone is being jolly and happy, it feels like I’m lying. Acting. Which I am. So it is a lie.”
Happiness isn’t the only emotion that Stephen struggles with. Excitement, shame, disgust, anticipation, even love… he doesn’t feel these, either. “I feel something but I’m unable to distinguish in any real way what that feeling is.” The only emotions he is familiar with are fear and anger. Such profound problems with emotion are sometimes associated with autism, which Stephen does not have, or with psychopathy, which he doesn’t have, either.
Last year, at the age of 51, he finally learned what he does have: a little-known condition called alexithymia, a word made from Greek parts meaning, roughly, “no words for emotion”. Despite the name, the real problem for people with alexithymia isn’t so much that they have no words for their emotions, but that they lack the emotions themselves. Still, not everyone with the condition has the same experiences. Some have gaps and distortions in the typical emotional repertoire.
Some realize they’re feeling an emotion, but don’t know which, while others confuse signs of certain emotions for something else – perhaps interpreting butterflies in the stomach as hunger pangs. Surprisingly, given how generally unrecognized it is, studies show that about one in 10 people fall on the alexithymia spectrum. New research is now revealing what’s going wrong – and this work holds the promise not only of novel treatments for disorders of emotion, but of revealing just how the rest of us feel anything at all.
After working as a nurse for 10 years, Stephen decided he wanted to do something different. A two-year Access to University course led to a degree in astronomy and physics, and then to a job testing computer games. He built a successful career for himself, working for various companies in their computer testing departments, managing teams, and travelling around the world to speak at conferences. He had no problem conveying facts to colleagues.
It was in the context of more personal relationships – or any other scenario that would typically involve expressions of emotion – that he felt things were “wrong”.
“At the beginning of a relationship, I’m totally into who that person is,” he explains. “I’ve been told I’m very good at maintaining a honeymoon period for ‘longer than expected’. But after a year it takes a massive turn. It all falls apart. I’ve put myself on a pedestal to be this person which I’m really not. I react mostly cognitively, rather than it being emotions making me react. Obviously, that is not valid. It’s not real. It seems fake. Because it is fake. And you can only pretend for so long.”
He and his current wife stopped living together in 2012. He saw a GP and was prescribed antidepressants. Though he was still in contact with his wife, it was clear that the relationship was no longer working. In June 2015, he attempted suicide. “I had actually been posting on Facebook and Twitter regarding killing myself and someone – I’ve never found out who – contacted the police. I was taken to hospital and treated.”
A psychiatrist referred Stephen for a series of counselling sessions and then a course of psychodynamic psychotherapy, a type of Freudian-based therapy that, in trying to uncover unconscious drivers of thoughts and behaviour, is similar to psychoanalysis. It was in a book called Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt, which his therapist recommended, that he first came across the concept of alexithymia.
“I brought it up in therapy, and that’s when we started talking about how I was very alexithymic. Obviously, I’ve got a vocabulary. I’ve got words for emotions. But whether they’re the right words for the right emotion is a different point altogether… I just thought that I wasn’t good at talking about how I feel and emotions and stuff like that. But after a year of therapy, it became apparent that when I talk about emotions I don’t actually know what I’m talking about.”
The term “alexithymic” dates from a book published in 1972 and has its origins in Freudian psychodynamic literature.Freudian ideas are now out of favour with most academic psychologists, as Geoff Bird, a professor of psychology at the University of Oxford explains. “Not to disrespect those traditions, but in the cognitive, neuro, experimental field, not so many people are really very interested in anything associated with Freud any more…..Read more….
By: Emma Young
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