It may sound like a barbarian princess from a high fantasy novel, but alexithymia actually means a chronic struggle to find words to fit emotions. I scored highly for it when they tested me for autism, and while the two often co-occur, you can have one without the other.
The discovery that alexithymia is a part of my personal psychological makeup didn’t come as much of a surprise. I have sat there, intensely feeling ‘some sort of way’ and immobilised by my inability to identify which way, more often than I could account for. Oddly, it doesn’t affect my ability to write about emotions, especially when I am writing fictional characters; this particular difficulty only seems to be present in the emotional moment.
Alexithymia has been connected with an overall lack of empathy, because of course it has. Heaven forbid that anyone should not be able to immediately label every sensation present in themselves while also being perfectly attuned with the emotional state of everyone else. To struggle with this surely means that we don’t give a shit about anyone but ourselves, right? (I hope the sarcasm is plain here.) But I’m here to say that I reject that view.
(Amusing side note – the first word suggested to me by my phone after hitting Enter at the end of that last paragraph was ‘FUCK’. Yes, in all caps. My keyboard knows me too well.)
Cognitive empathy, or knowing what the other person is feeling, is one thing. Sadists and abusers have cognitive empathy. They know their target is suffering, but they either enjoy that knowledge or are indifferent to it. But affective empathy – feeling the emotions of others – well, I am not the only alexithymic/autistic person who can say that we might not be able to state “There is an angry energy in this room” or whatever, but we have walked into places and felt that tension in the air. Many of us can attest to feeling excited when someone is happy – it’s just that excitement might look very different for us (I for one tend to confuse it with anxiety) and we might not realise at the time that we are empathising. Sometimes we might experience emotion as physical sensation, like the headache and sudden fatigue I get when I’m around someone who later turns out to be bad news – I have picked up on that vibe all right, but it’s expressing itself in a different way and I’m not able to connect the two until some time later.
And that’s the key point, really. It’s in real time that I and people like me come undone with handling, recognising and processing emotions, whether our own or someone else’s. Once we are out of the immediate situation, we will often be able to think it all through and realise what was going on there. If we’re lucky, we will be able to carry that awareness into new situations and our reaction time will improve. But often that just isn’t possible despite our best efforts, and I think it would be good if NTs/Codies could use their apparently superior empathy to understand that delay does not mean absence.