Alexithymia: The forest and the trees

photo of a sparkling background. there is a tree in focus inside a crystal ball on a prism block.

Alexithymia is a common occurrence among autistics.  If you are not familiar with this term, there’s a great explanation here.

My experience with alexithymia has changed over the years, and it’s difficult to say if it still applies to me today… but it certainly did in the past. I remember putting fingers to my neck to check my pulse to determine if I was stressed.

When working with a therapist, I remember having the image of a holding a bar of soap when asked about emotions. If I squeezed too hard, the bar slipped out, and I was then incapable of identifying what that emotion was. When I was asked what I was feeling, I found nothing. I couldn’t identify a thing that made sense to the question that was asked.

Something changed when I started learning about meditation. In his book, The Mind Illuminated, John Yates describes two different sensing experiences: attention and awareness. Attention is your focus. It has all the details, and it’s directed at a very small area. Awareness is broad, but lacking in details. You can be aware of the whole door, but your focus is on the handle. After creating this distinction, Yates then said something that clicked for me; emotions are completely in awareness.

I was over-using my attention in an attempt to figure out my emotions. I would scan all of my thoughts and couldn’t find a thought that said anything about a particular emotion. I would have thoughts about not liking and not wanting. I would have thoughts about what was good or what was bad, but it didn’t connect to any kind of feeling.

I would scan bodily sensations, but couldn’t really find a sensation that seemed unique to an emotion.  There were senses in the stomach, in the arms, in the chest, and to me those senses belonged to those parts.

What I have since learned is that emotions are all of these things together. Prior to this understanding, it was like people asking me to describe an entire forest, but all I could come up with was the texture of the bark on a particular tree.

Nature, Forest, Sun, Moss, Rays, Green, Sunbeam, Tree

Things have changed now. I use meditation and reflection to train these skills, and I’m more able to speak about emotions. I can tell when I’m upset, or jealous, or happy. I’m still not a strong emoter, and the process I use to identify emotions is likely different from most people– but I’m better at it.

I also think there’s a strength in all of this. My hyper focus and sensitivity to the details makes me better at solving confusion for other people. I connect all the dots and make very few inferential leaps. I think my attention-driven, detail-oriented way lends itself to deeper understanding. I now use that understanding to help other people get unstuck from their emotions.

If alexithymia is something you have, try scaling your focus back. You might be able to catch some awareness of things that were confusing before.

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