“Alexithymia” is a term coined to describe patients who have so successfully buried their emotional problems that they no longer have any capacity for genuine insight. These patients present as being “emotionally illiterate” such that they have great difficulty in expressing or describing their feelings. Because their capacity to intellectualize and rationalize can be highly developed they often have very strong and rigid opinions about themselves and their life, making two-way communication about these very important issues very difficult and frustrating.
Importantly, such patients do not even realize they cannot identify their own feelings, and while they can use words like “love”, “hate” and “jealousy”, close inspection reveals that they have never actually experienced them. They typically show no emotion while telling sad stories, presenting details of their unhappy relationships, or discussing events of their childhood.
Such individuals are often highly successful in their careers and can seem remarkably adept at dealing with stressful life issues that send others into tailspins. In contrast to the general presentation of many personality disordered patients, these patients typically appear as high functioning, strong minded, articulate, and emotionally untroubled individuals.
As Marion Woodman, a Jungian analyst notes, “Disconnected at their deepest instinctual level, they hang on to life by becoming “super adjusted to reality”. They develop a charming persona, perfect their performances and deny who they really are” (pg. 131).
This disconnectedness between language and emotions has also been linked to the development of illnesses such as hypertension, migraine headaches, eating disorders, and heart failure to name just a few. People unable to recognize the presence of stress at an emotional or physical level will not only fail to take proper countermeasures, they will also suffer in ignorance until their body begins to manifest physical symptoms.
It is not hard to understand why such people can create frustration for those who have relationships with them. Their world is so tightly and logically ordered they cannot understand why anyone would operate differently and will often express a surprising degree of resentment and cynicism towards those who do not see things the same way. Trying to be rational with such individuals does not help, and presenting emotional experiences only complicates matters.
Spouses of such individuals often report feeling depressed and suffer from low self-esteem as the years of unsuccessful and frustrating attempts to connect to such individuals takes its toll.
While supportive therapy can be helpful for these patients it is seldom enough. Years of living in such a disconnected state leads to a kind of psychic atrophy and disconnection. Attempts to re-establish and re-grow mental, emotional, and physical linkages can occur but it requires patience and discipline for that person; qualities which are often in short supplies with these individuals.