Emotional intelligence—the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others—was quickly (and somewhat blindly) accepted as a fundamental human trait after being introduced to the masses in 1995. These days, being able to live in harmony with your feelings is one of the most resume-worthy qualities, with an overwhelming majority of employers favoring emotional intelligence over IQ.
This placing of emotional intelligence on a pedestal, though, has made life more difficult for the estimated 10 percent of people who struggle with alexithymia, a personality trait characterized by an inability to recognize, identify and verbalize their emotions.
Internet commenter melissa17b explains how it feels living with alexithymia on an online forum [sic, throughout]: “To me, the most striking aspect is that I’m not aware of most emotions in real time; at best, there’s only a general ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ feeling. Actual recognition of emotions, to a point where I can even begin to articulate them, is delayed.”
On the same forum, commenter Mama_to_Grace chronicles what it’s like watching her daughter, who has alexithymia, attempt to navigate emotions [again, sic throughout]:
“If something happens, such as she sees me crying, or if something bad happens, or if she gets really happy/excited about something, after a few moments, she’ll say, ‘I don’t feel good.’ Even when she’s tired, instead of realizing she’s tired, she says, ‘I don’t feel good.’ It seems every emotion/feeling that she experiences (I do believe she’s feeling things) seems foreign to her and elicits a feeling of being uncomfortable for her.”
It is, in short, a tough condition to live with. “Without having a way to identify and express emotions in words, alexithymics are cut off from their feelings,” explains L.A.-based psychologist and psychotherapist Jeanette Raymond. “Therefore, they can come across as shutoff, shutdown, unresponsive and unreactive.”
It’s worth emphasizing that most alexithymics still feel emotions—at least, a minimized range of emotions—but they genuinely can’t comprehend how to verbalize them. Alexithymics are also often unaware that certain sensations are, in fact, emotions: A person with severe alexithymia may cry as a result of sadness, but will simply assume they have something in their eye because they can’t recognize that feeling as sadness.
While alexithymia can certainly limit your job opportunities nowadays, it can also make maintaining relationships incredibly difficult. “One party thinks that they have a cold and/or unresponsive partner (the alexithymic), and they complain about that partner never talking about their feelings,” Raymond explains. “The alexithymic partner doesn’t know any different and is at a loss for how to ‘be there’ or engage in a relationship in any other way than they already do.” As a result, alexithymia is directly linked with poor marital quality and high rates of divorce.
Even worse for maintaining relationships, alexithymia tends to get in the way of sex, because you have to be able to recognize and respond to non-verbal communication when engaging in truly fulfilling sex (something that can be extremely difficult for alexithymics). All in all, this results in very little spontaneity, which makes for very robotic, unsexy sex.
How exactly alexithymia develops is an increasingly complicated area of psychology, but there are numerous theories floating around. For one, children who were taught that they shouldn’t express emotions may develop alexithymia (which could explain why men, who are frequently told to “man up,” are more likely to be alexithymic than women). Brain scans have also found that people with alexithymia have abnormal connections between regions of the brain that process emotions and those that process language, which can be either hereditary or the result of trauma.
Alexithymia is associated with numerous other neurologic disorders, too: Recent studies have found varying degrees of alexithymia in approximately 50 percent of individuals with autism, meaning it truly could just be a matter of how the brain is wired.
Because the exact causes of alexithymia remain scattered, treating the condition can be challenging. Of course, therapy is an option: “With therapy, an alexithymic can get in touch with the emotions in their body, learn the vocabulary of emotions and then feel safe to express it,” Raymond says. But it’s possible that an alexithymic may also not be able to accurately describe their emotions, which could pose problems in talk therapy.
Still, it’s apparent that treatments designed to help alexithymics describe their feelings actually work: A recent study found that, after two months in an emotional-awareness program, participants experienced considerable improvements in their emotional self-awareness and their ability to regulate emotions.
Now if only we could get employers to understand that not everyone is an emotional superstar.