In everyday society, I have learned that when most people ask, “How are you feeling today?,” they don’t really want to know the truth (or at least the full truth) so “I’m fine, how are you?” is our automatic response, which is often a lie and deflects the question away from ourselves and onto the other person. I am guilty of this and find it problematic for a number of reasons, mainly that I feel “fake” when I don’t answer truthfully/fully and that I think that this action doesn’t support good emotional health.
I don’t think that I need to explain why the response leaves me feeling fake when I use it, so I’ll dive right into the emotional health bit. If you have ever been to talk therapy, you know that the first question that is asked of you every time you visit is, “How are you feeling today?” In this situation, the therapist wants an honest answer from you and “I’m okay,” “Fine, thank you,” “Not good,” and other vague replies usually don’t cut it. For instance, I tend to say “I’m feeling okay,” at which point my therapist asks me “What does that mean? What feelings do you identify with right now?” The first time that a therapist asked me this and wouldn’t give up, I must have looked lost because I have a hard time putting a name on my feelings. Luckily, this particular therapist was quite resourceful. She dug around in her file cabinet for a few minutes, found a handout, and made me a copy of something very similar to this:
As I sat across from my therapist, I felt bad about myself because I had a difficult time naming my feelings even with the help of this handout. The official word for this condition is alexithymia, and this is what Wikipedia teaches us about it:
…a personality construct characterized by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment, and interpersonal relating. Furthermore, alexithymics have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding. Alexithymia occurs in approximately 10% of the population and can occur with a number of psychiatric conditions.
While my therapist and other mental health professionals never offered me this label, which I find morbidly ironic, she had me bring my “How Do You Feel Today?” handout to every session. I would look at each face at the beginning of our meeting and try to decide if that was how I felt. There were at least a handful of faces/words on my list like demure, loaded, purlish, and surly that I simply couldn’t relate to and my personal list of feelings was extremely limited (happy, sad, angry, bored, disappointed, frustrated, lonely, overwhelmed, scared, hopeful, proud, tired, and worried). Eavesdropping was also on the list, which really confused me. Isn’t that an action, not a feeling? I mean, you can feel like eavesdropping on someone, but that’s an urge to take action. I digress. My original handout, with my added list of feelings:
A Facebook friend posted something today that made me start thinking about all of this:
Lightbulb moment! I have been frustrated with myself because I always use the same boring emoticons: 🙂 & <3. I realized today that it’s probably because I have a hard time matching the expression to the feeling! I saved Shira’s post. I don’t really care if I use emoticons on my personal accounts, but I have a small business and I want to use them more in those posts.
Almost a decade later, I choose not to attend therapy regularly anymore but I continue to try to get more in touch with my feelings in terms of putting a name on them. I just found the term, alexithymia, today and I am 100% certain that I have it, as I have issues with social attachment, interpersonal relating, and emotional responding too. I plan to learn more about it. After reading a little, I found out that it is not considered to be a mental disorder in the DSM-IV, but rather a personality trait that can influence mental health. The cause is unknown. Also from Wikipedia:
A person’s alexithymia score can be measured with questionnaires such as the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20), the Bermond-Vorst Alexithymia Questionnaire (BVAQ), the Online Alexithymia Questionnaire (OAQ-G2) or the Observer Alexithymia Scale (OAS).
Do you struggle with identifying feelings? How do you cope? Do you have any tips for becoming more aware of your feelings? Please share!