Alexithymia, emotional neglect & capitalism: How are they related?

Photo: Broken Ceramic Deer.

Alexithymia. Now that’s quite the word. Derived from the Ancient Greek, it means “without words for emotions,” and identifies difficulties with recognizing and naming feelings. Since emotions are central for understanding oneself and others, not being able to discern what you feel can cause distress, agitation, and anxiety — along with rocky, unsatisfying relationships. (Honestly, I think I might love you, but I’m not sure if what I am feeling is irritation, elation, or just fear.) While alexithymia can reach the level of a disorder, becoming an obstacle to finalizing decisions (What do I really want?) and making commitments (Do I really love him?), alexithymia also seems like an increasingly common response to the conditions of late modern capitalism. (I’ll get to the latter point shortly.)

Attributes of people who show signs of alexithymia include:

  • Difficulty identifying feelings
  • Difficulty finding the correct words to describe what they are feeling
  • Difficulty distinguishing feelings from their associated body sensations
  • Restricted imagination–having few fantasies and very realistic dreams
  • Focused mostly on the external world and factual information
  • Highly logical thinking
  • Low levels of empathy

Alexithymia is most often considered a personality trait. However, it has also been identified as a precursor to Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Affective Disorders, and is associated with traumatic events in childhood such as physical and sexual abuse. It also co-occurs with Asperger syndrome.

Research conducted by Sabine Aust and her colleagues in Berlin (2012, citation below) showed alexithymia might also originate with early emotional neglect that is too mild to cause psychological disorders, nevertheless is enough to strain the flow and interpretation of feelings. In their study, Aust and her colleagues examined the role of early attachment and emotional regulation for developing alexithymia. Using questionnaires, they assessed for early life stress, emotional functioning, as well as alexithymia. They excluded from their study people who scored high on these scales, but also showed evidence of a psychological disorder. And they found themselves left with a relatively intelligent bunch of people.

Aust & colleagues saw greatest impairment when emotional neglect had occurred in childhood. But their study also showed some with alexithymia lack histories of emotional neglect. Furthermore, they confirmed alexithymic people with histories of emotional neglect could also be psychologically and physically healthy.

What to make of these findings? They certainly suggest possible genetic precursors to alexithymia and the likelihood of it being a relatively isolated trait with limited impact. In contrast, alexithymia might also be described as the outcome of environmental conditions in a culture that habitually devalues emotional connections.

At birth, the human brain is 25% developed (compared to 45% for chimpanzees). The genes that program the developmental trajectory of the human brain wait for cues from the outside world for how to proceed. Like the responsive dance partner sensing a subtle shift from ball to toe, neural networks and synaptic connections are laid down and pruned back in response to even the most muted nuances of culture, relationships, and sensory data. In a perfect world, genes and environment find the ideal rhythm, their synchronicity mesmerizing.

But as neuroscientist David Linden pointed out in his book, The Accidental Mind, “in the extreme case of environmental deprivation…the effects of environment become much greater and largely overcome the effects of genes.” As an example, Linden relayed what happens when a patch covering an injured infant’s eye is left on too long: “If a baby has an eye closed with a bandage (to treat an infection, for example) and the bandage stays on for a long time, then that baby can be blinded in that eye for life.” According to Linden, “The reason for the blindness is not that the eye has ceased to function…but rather that the information from that eye was not present to help retain the appropriate connections in the brain during the critical period for vision.”

A similar case could be made for the impact of emotionally neglectful caregivers and cultures. When emotional neglect occurs in childhood, emotional regulation and communication atrophy. Yet as Aust and her colleagues showed, emotional neglect is not a necessary precursor for later difficulties with feelings. More ‘low-level’ disturbances in attachment must also cause reduced emotional capacities.

One likely culprit is the Western style of child rearing. Few things are as unnatural and engineered as child rearing in Western cultures where the need for highly individualistic people dictates what “successfully” raising a child looks like.

To understand the impact of Western child rearing practices on emotional development, it helps to look at how other cultures raise children. Jean Liedloff conducted ethnographic work with the Yequana Indians of the Amazon Rainforest and wrote about their parenting practices in her book, The Continuum Concept. Liedloff developed the continuum concept to describe “natural” ways of raising children that evolved over millions of years of humans living as hunter-gatherers. According to Liedloff, the Yequana’s child rearing practices respond to innate expectations for the kind of social environment humans evolved to inhabit.

Liedloff identified one Yequana parenting practice that differed significantly from child rearing in the United States: The Yequana caregivers continually held their infants until they developed the need to roam freely.

Liedloff believed the Yequana’s habit of honoring their children’s innate timeline for developing independence contributed to the general sense of well being seen not only in children, but also in adult members of the Yequana tribe. Liedloff argued the Western emphasis on children gaining independence at the earliest possible moment contradicts innate developmental needs, which for millions of years centered on fostering healthy attachment, and not preternatural independence. Liedloff believed the emphasis on independence in the West leads to emotional suffering for both mother and infant: “The violent tearing apart of the mother-child continuum, so strongly established during the phases that took place in the womb, may understandably result in depression for the mother, as well as agony for her infant.”

If reducing opportunities for physical closeness has such dire consequences, what is the impact of denying or ignoring emotional needs? According to Liedloff, “There are neuroses and insanities to protect the deprived from the brunt of unmeetable reality. There is a numbness that overtakes pain beyond bearing.” And this numbness may very well be what the term alexithymia describes.

What happens when children must behave as individuals too soon? For one thing, the parent may speak harshly to the naturally curious child courting danger (e.g., reaching for a hot stove).  Alternatively, even a “good” parent risks being permissive to the point of neglect, letting the child do what she pleases as long as she stays out of trouble (e.g., hours plopped in front of the TV) and excels as an individual (e.g., picks up her toys). There’s a double risk here, one obvious and the other imperceptible. Obviously, children’s interests do not necessarily lead to optimal development.  However, when the caregiver continually holds her young child, the child sees and feels the rhythms of the type of life she will eventually live, and thus her experiences will be meaningful and engaging, since they relate directly to her future.

In contrast, the critical voice of the well-meaning parent, although intended to protect and guide, is potentially pernicious in its invisible influence on the developing child. To keep herself safe and on track, the child internalizes the critical voice of her caregiver. Depending on the child, the caregiver, and the nature of the criticism, the internalized voice can reduce self-empathy, which could limit internal emotional communication, impacting the corpus callosum — the “superhighway” connecting the right and left hemispheres of the brain. The corpus callosum transfers emotional information from the right hemisphere to the left hemisphere, where associations between language and feelings then occur. Reductions in the volume of the corpus callosum have been found in people who suffered severe childhood abuse. Studies also associate a smaller corpus callosum with alexithymia. Like the eye patch that inhibits the child’s vision, limited opportunities for developing safe, internal emotional communication through supportive, external attachments might make the corpus callosum more of a goat path than a major thoroughfare.

Capitalism needs winners and losers to keep the system going. It’s also a fear-based system, one that promises great rewards to those who master the game, and abject poverty to those who don’t. Individualism is a key trait of capitalism’s winners, in part because being highly individualistic seems to dampen the fear capitalism instills. According to psychologist Hazel Markus, in middle class communities (the supposed winners), people more likely see the world as welcoming and seek opportunities to express their individualism, whereas working class people more often perceive the world as uncertain, and protect themselves by fitting in. Markus also claims that, for members of the middle class, individual achievement is the prized experience, whereas for lower class people, being interdependent and part of the community is the greater goal. (Of important note, these observations ignore the role of oppression for both socioeconomic status and comfort with individualistic expression.)

Capitalism rewards people whose brains and relationships change to meet its demands, but it also expects them to pay the price of success. And the cost for some may be the sliver of grey matter connecting the two halves of the brain. Another potential drawback is increased anxiety, since without the ability to identify and name feelings, intense emotions can be overwhelming and indiscriminate, just as the meaning of alexithymia suggests. To protect from the onslaught, people with alexithymia often build walls around their hearts, damping down feelings, and in the process, limiting opportunities for emotional connection with others.

How is capitalism “cured”? Probably the same way alexithymia is cured, or at least alleviated: by increased opportunities for playing, loving, and just being.

I believe that in the well-armored heart of every alexithymic person — as well as every industrious, over-focused individualist — is a longing for tenderness and connection. And the good news is our brains are forever growing, continually redefining “normal,” changing the person, but also potentially changing society as well.

References

Aust, S., Alkan Härtwig, E., Heuser, I. & Bajbouj, M. (2012). The role of early emotional neglect in alexithymia. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. DOI: 10.1037/a0027314.

Liedloff, Jean. 1985. The continuum concept. New York: Da Capo Press.

Linden, David J. 2007. The accidental mind: How brain evolution has given us love, memory, dreams, and God. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

© 2012 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

  • Kamilla Vaski

    This state of mind appears to be deliberately fostered in order to prevent us from trusting our subjective experience, our real emotions and our ability to connect with our world in our uniquely individual ways. Thus we are prodded to remain in a chronic state of anxiety and mistrust of self and others.

    • Thanks so much for your insights. I wrote another blog post on psychological neoteny that explores how capitalism fosters dependency and psychological immaturity. As you point out, one of the more insidious outcomes is a distrust of our own subjective experiences and mistrust of others. And when we are lonely, as well as unsure of what we feel and what we need, we are much easier to manipulate — buy things we don’t need, work in meaningless jobs, etc., etc…

      If you are interested, here’s the post on psychological neoteny:

      http://www.laurakkerr.com/2014/02/20/globalization-psychological-neoteny/

      • Kamilla Vaski

        I never heard the term ‘neoteny’ before. Thank you for the link.

  • Vargas Ruiz César

    I never understood my own behaviour until i recently stambled upon this disorder… I am now worried about this but also relieved… Finally an explanaion for all this inner confusion I could never properly explain…

    • Keep in mind, though, that you will always be so much more than any disorder. And nonjudgmental self-acceptance is the best first step towards any change you want to make in yourself.

  • anxious

    Well that was good…if it helps anyone else, I have some tips.

    I have alexithymic traits – not all of them as I appear to have strong empathy and I’m good at reading people – but I wasn’t able to describe what emotions I was feeling except in imagery (it feels like a bird with its wings spread, etc) when I first started therapy. I also strongly distrust subjective experience and prefer to rely on rationality and objectivity but I’m not sure I distrust others’ experiences. It’s like some experiences or emotions (there are some emotions I definitely can pinpoint if they’re extreme enough) are ‘ok’ and others are ‘not ok’. Some emotions I just see as unproductive and silly, so I attempt to ignore them, thus making them worse…

    As a result, I suffered from debilitating chronic fatigue and body agitation (muscle spasms), physical anxiety symptoms (normally without the emotion of fear, unless I was having a panic attack), and these odd ‘falls’ where my muscles went limp and I just fell to the ground and couldn’t move or speak for a bit. Once neurological problems were ruled out, I focused on the psychological possibilities (I had a history of eating disorders and really extreme workaholism – which I believe also have some association with alexithymic traits? – so I felt it was highly likely there was a link).

    What I found helpful (we got there eventually…) was mindfulness meditation and also using anything you can to identify feelings. So if you feel a stone in your stomach or a pain behind your heart or whatever, don’t worry about what emotion it is right away, just describe the physical sensation. Mindfulness helped me to ‘look inside’ for emotion and try to label it, even if all I notice is physical sensation at first. Sometimes I find it easier to label a physical sensation if I imagine an event happening that seems to correlate with the emotion. So I felt a stone in my stomach in the other week and I tried to think of what images related to the sensation and thought of losing a competition when I really wanted the prize, thus came up with disappointment.

    I use to feel ill every morning, but when I started this I’d think ‘I feel ill, what emotion is behind this’ and eventually I found guilt. I had stayed with a boyfriend I didn’t love for years and hadn’t realised it was affecting me until I realised I felt guilty about it, then I left. My intentions were good, by the way, I wanted to protect him, but really by trying to protect him I was holding him back from moving on with his life. Once I had left my physical illness disappeared.

    • Thanks so much for taking time to share your experiences. When I have worked with people who have strong alexithymic traits, I have supported them pretty much as you are supporting yourself — by identifying the body sensations or images that arise with experience. But most importantly, I think it helps to learn how to listen to the body.

      When I read what you shared about your boyfriend, I thought that alexithymia is not so much a lack of the ability to identify emotions, as it is a different way of communicating with oneself, and consequently, other people. Emotions are meant to protect and connect us. Perhaps for some people, this function is best met by listening to physical sensations in the body. However, in Western societies, we are taught first to think, second to feel, and hardly any attention given to listening to the body.

      Thanks again, Laura

  • Michael Warren

    I dont think I really have alexithymia, but I definitely hava a lot of issues with describing emotions besides happy, sad, or angry

    • Some research suggests that issues with describing emotions is a natural outcome of the families and cultures we grow up in. Some families and cultures are less emotionally expressive than others. Thus, there is less focus on creating a wide vocabulary for emotions — kind of like the reverse of the idea that Eskimos have lots of words to describe snow.

      Dialectical Behavior Therapy associates having less vocabulary for emotional words with growing up in families that lack emotional validation. This is often related to abuse or emotional neglect in the home, but it can also happen in homes where the children are taken well care of, yet the parents have their own histories of trauma and thus are uncomfortable with their own emotions, or try to regulate their emotions by avoiding them. (And, of course, they could have come from a culture or family that wasn’t particularly emotionally expressive as well.)

      In Dialectical Behavior Therapy, one of the focuses is on learning a rich emotional vocabulary. Part of this process involves keeping an emotion word list handy, and practicing finding the best word to describe what you are feeling, such as this list here:

      http://www.psychpage.com/learning/library/assess/feelings.html

      The idea is that when we have access to more feeling words, we can also start to witness the wide variation of emotions we experience, as well as how they naturally are constantly changing, and sometimes very subtly.

  • Neil

    My name is neil , I can relate to Alexithymia through my gambling addiction as i stuck by my intentions but reality made me wrong year after year a distrust of self guided by fear.

    • Hi Neil,
      First, I just want to say I am sorry you have had to struggle with addictions. That’s a hard road to travel. Second, I am very intrigued by your connection between alexithymia and addiction. It certainly makes sense there could be a connection, although I haven’t seen one made. Nevertheless, it’s definitely worth a look at the literature.

      • Neil

        I have worked in local prison with gamblers for several years and one thing keeps coming up, some gamblers feel a sense of injustice because they intended to put the money back. My question , how would this lie of only believing their intention effect internal dialogue.

        • That’s a great question, Neil. To answer directly, I can’t say! One of the things that has been profound for me as a result of practicing sensorimotor psychotherapy is observing how unique each person is. Although we naturally make generalizations to get the process of communication going, the more deeply or detailed we get to know someone, the more we see his or her uniqueness.

          However, I volunteered in a jail once, and studied the issue of guilt and shame and how it relates to reform. So if I were to speak generally, I think that sometimes people want to believe in themselves and imagine a different life for themselves had circumstances been different. And this gives hope, as well as helps avoid difficult emotions like shame or guilt. So they tell themselves “lies” (if that’s what they really are) so they can avoid self-doubt and let go of being concerned with the past and feelings of shame or guilt.

          And in prison people will lie if it can help them get out sooner. Did you ever see the movie Shawshank Redemption? I loved that movie. I think it captures how prisons implicitly expect people to say certain things to prove they have reformed, which encourages people to lie so they can get out and get on with their lives. It’s that old distinction between ‘talking the talk’ and ‘walking the walk’.

  • Candra

    Hi, I read about Alexithymia while studying Yoga Nidra. I have never had a problem identifying nor expressing my emotions (quite the opposite), and was always “too imaginative” according to my family. I was raised by two narcissists and my emotions were not tolerated. But, as I said I didn’t have a problem until being in a twenty year relationship with a person who probably has Alexithymia (he can’t describe how he feels and does not connect on emotional levels at all unless he watches something emotional on TV). He’s also a narcissist with sociopathic tendencies. This has all left me stressed to the extreme and worn down. Then I recently went through losing two family members after caring for them, and being exposed to environ. toxins, etc. Now I’m wondering, can a person develop some levels of Alexithymia later in life as a response to life? It seems that my imagination and my ability to identify my emotions are not there anymore. Furhtermore, I now have many of the physical traits associate with Alexithymia. thank you for your information and help

    • Hi Candra,

      I’m sorry for your losses. And all that you have been through. It’s understandable that you would have difficulty connecting with your imagination and your emotions right now. When people go through overwhelming experiences like you describe, the body sometimes kind of shuts down to its own internal input.

      But you haven’t developed alexithymia. Instead, it sounds like you need to attend to the extreme stress you have been experiencing and the impact in has had on your body. When the body gets worn down, it impacts both the imagination and the emotions. Especially if you are showing signs of burnout, which it sounds like you are.

      The “Widow of Tolerance” guide (see sidebar at right), shares ways to identify the signs of stress and how to work with your body to reduce them. I think it might help you.

      By committing to regaining your health, reducing your stress, and addressing your grief, your emotions and imagination should return just fine. But often it helps to seek support. A good grief group is a great place to start. Lots of community mental health centers and places of worship have free grief support groups, or for a small fee.

      Take good care, Laura

      • Candra

        Thank you so much for sending this helpful and thoughtful reply. I’m glad I found your site!