If we break Alexithymia down into its roots:

  • A – means “no” or “not”; as in Asymmetry – not having symmetry; Amoral – having no morality
  • Lexi – Greek for “word” or “phrase”
  • Thymia – from the Greek word thymos referring to the spirit, soul, or emotion inherent in a human being

So a-lexi-thymia literally mean “no words for emotions”. Individuals suffering from alexithymia have a difficult time or are unable to experience and express their emotions or perceive them clearly in others, which often causes trouble with their relationships. Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek would be considered a good example of a person with alexithymia (though he and his culture developed cultural alexithymia intentionally).

Psychologists and researchers of alexithymia estimate that just under 10% of the general population suffers from alexithymia. Alexithymia is highly correlated with many mental health conditions and also co-occurs with a number physical health conditions.

After reviewing this website I think you will agree with me; that the majority of our population actually suffers from culturally induced alexithymia.

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexithymia for a nice summary of the basic research and theory on alexithymia.

Cultural Alexithymia

I coined the term “cultural alexithymia” to refer to the idea that (when you look closely), our entire culture is suffering from alexithymia. It may not be as severe as for those people that make the top 10% of the alexithymia scales, but its severe enough that it affects everyone’s psychological health and relationships. In other words, all people, not just people showing up at the doors of a clinical psychology practice, but everyday people who consider themselves well-balanced and functional, have difficulty finding words to describe their emotional experiences. See “Cultural Alexithymia in a Evolutionary Context” for a short historical explanation for why we are only now waking up to our cultural alexithymia.

This inability to communicate feelings easily is quite understandable given the fact that even after 100 years of trying, our culture still has no accepted theory and language for emotions and feelings. In fact many theories of emotions do not even make the distinction between the feelings and emotions. Also, our culture is largely set up to avoid and ignore emotions and their impact on people.

Try this: Next time you are talking to someone who is upset by something, ask them (assuming you have a close enough relationship) how they are feeling. Most people will talk all about the event, who did what, who said what, how mad they are, etc. If they do get past just describing the behavioural details of the event, most people tend to use words from one of these three categories:

  1. General Activation Words: e.g. Upset, distressed, frustrated, anxious, mad, etc
  2. Cognitive Counterparts: e.g. Confused, worried, concerned, etc
  3. Behavioural Metaphors: e.g. Pissed off, trapped, heavy, feel the weight of the world on my shoulders, etc

Seldom will they use feeling words, like “I feel rejected”, or “used”, or “inadequate”, etc to describe how they are feeling.

Our culture perpetuates alexithymia in other ways we are likely not to notice until its pointed out. For example, everyone has heard of the “Fight-Flight” response but few people understand that it is referring to the emotional responses of anger and fear. Why do we not refer to it as the “Anger-Fear” response? In part its a hold-over from the “behavioural revolution” that occurred in psychology in the early 1930’s or so. In an effort to appear more scientific, it was decided to work only with those things that could be seen and measured objectively. Thus constructs like “emotions” were replaced with constructs such as “behavioural action sequences”, and other descriptors of behaviours that could be seen and measured. Unfortunately we lost our “interiors” at the same time. Mainstream medicine has also contributed, by using biological reductionism, and assuming all behaviour and feelings are products of genes and chemistry. Depression IS a chemical imbalance, Anxiety IS a chemical imbalance, both of which NEED medications to fix. This is so accepted in our culture that most people, including physicians and psychiatrists, don’t even realize that there is not a lot of evidence or theory to support this position, and newer data suggests it is not the case.

In an effort to become more objective we lost the subjective, we lost the psychological and the psychosocial components of our nature; We threw the baby out with the bath water.