I am feeling something, but I don’t know what it is.
There’s a bit of tightness in my chest, a slight constriction in my throat, and an odd sense that some portion of my mind has gotten “hooked,” like a sleeve snagged on a thorn. All of these sensations are subtle, and sometimes it takes me a little while to notice that I’m feeling them. Sometimes I can at least track down the snagged thought and figure out what instigated the rise of this feeling, but any attempt to put a name to the feeling itself causes my thoughts to go fuzzy and vague.
If you asked me right now what I’m feeling, I would answer, “I don’t know.” I answer that way often, and I remember getting incredulous responses when I did so as a child. I think my parents and teachers must have thought I was being evasive, but I honestly just didn’t know. Sometimes I can take some time and figure it out, but not always — and for a long time it just didn’t occur to me that there was something unusual about needing to “figure out” what I was feeling.
There’s a (very cool-sounding) word for all this: alexithymia. This (in part) refers to a difficulty describing or naming one’s own emotions, as well as difficulty identifying the emotions of others. It can include a high sensitivity to physical sensations, and an inability to distinguish between those sensations and an emotional reaction. It is also very commonly found in people on the autism spectrum.
I get the big emotions most of the time — I know when I am angry, and I know that I love my husband. I know when I am happy, and I know when I am sad or grieving. But many other emotions are confusing, or just fly under the radar as some vague, unsettled feeling for a while until enough of it builds up that I take notice. More often than not, though, that build-up will quickly flash over into anger or tears, and I’ll still have missed the original source. And those strong emotions often come on too strong, enough so that I still struggle to convey the cause of my feelings to others in the midst of a tearful meltdown.
Alexithymia also makes it hard for me to know what I want. You ask me what I want for dinner? Open-ended possibilities are particularly daunting, but even when presented with options I can dither for a long time. And if I’m trying to figure out larger life goals, such as what kind of work I want to do? So hard to know.
Not all autistic people have alexithymia in the mix, but it is more common among autistics than it is in the population as a whole. Unfortunately, this may have contributed to the misconception of autistic people as not having feelings, but not having words for emotions does not mean that they aren’t there.
I am still learning more every day about all of these things, but I wonder if alexithymia is related to the autistic tendency to take every situation in as something new, instead of generalizing. We feel an emotion, but don’t automatically connect it with those that we’ve previously felt. This makes it difficult to build up a body of knowledge about what each emotion is and what it is called. And that, in turn, makes it hard to relate to what other people might be feeling; we basically lack a common language in which to share our inner experiences.
Some of that language can be learned, whether through books about psychology or by reading well-written fiction. But while learning more about emotions can be helpful, it is also helpful to realize that it isn’t always necessary to name what we are feeling. In fact, it is possible to acknowledge and process our feelings without naming them at all. And if we can help the people around us to accept our inability to explain what we are feeling — especially in the moment — we can give ourselves time to explore our inner lives on our own terms, without feeling the need to label anything.
And who knows? Maybe that approach can lead us to new insights that we might have missed if we had quickly named our emotions and moved on. 🙂