Alexithymia is a mental disorder where the individual has trouble identifying and describing emotions. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of men struggle with this disorder. I’ve talked a lot about the struggle men have in identifying and expressing emotions. This is primarily due to socialization, in which men are taught that emotional expression is not masculine, because it makes you look weak and vulnerable.
The trouble is that just because we don’t express emotions, doesn’t mean that we don’t experience emotions. Research shows that men tend to experience emotions more intensely than women do, on average. Since men still have emotions, but they aren’t allowed to look vulnerable, they learn other ways of coping with them. I’ve talked in more detail in other posts about how men cope. They tend to funnel their emotions into anger (which is an acceptable masculine emotion), or use things like alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex, or other dopamine producing activities to drown the negative feelings. I’ve argued that men need to learn how to identify and express their emotions in a more healthy way. Now I’d like to talk a bit about what that can look like.
Many men struggle to even start understanding their emotions. They have spent so long ignoring them, or re-labeling them as anger, that it is near impossible to decipher what they are feeling at any given moment. I’d like to give a few tips from my own work with men that may be helpful.
The body: Emotions usually have a physical component; you can feel them. Anxiety can be experienced as a quickened heartbeat, a knot in the chest, sweaty hands. Sadness can feel like a tightness in your chest, a heaviness to your whole body, exhaustion. All emotions have some physical component. It can help, as a first step, to begin to pay attention to the physical signals. When you are experiencing an emotion and you don’t know what it is, take a moment to take inventory of what is happening in your body. This may help you identify what emotion you are feeling. The complicating factor here is that everyone is different. There are common experiences in regards to the physical components of emotions, but no everyone experiences emotions the same way. You may feel a knot in your stomach when you’re anxious, and your spouse might sweat. You need to become aware of your own body’s responses.
The mind: Emotions are a response to a thought about or our interpretation of an event or circumstance. A person can interpret an event many different ways, and each different ways could have a different emotion attached to it. For example, if someone cuts you off in traffic you could have a couple of different interpretations. The first is that you could think “what a jerk, that person is such an incompetent driver” (likely the thought would involve more colorful language!). This thought would likely be accompanied by anger. Another way to interpret the event could be “That was close! I guess that person really needed to get over, I’m glad we didn’t get into an accident.” This would most likely be met with an emotional response of relief. So you can see how the same event could produce different emotional responses based on the way you interpret the event. Another way to help identify the emotions is to recognize the thoughts you are having about an event. If you can identify your thoughts, you may be able to figure out what emotion is connected with that thought.
There are more ways of learning to identify your emotions, but these are the 2 easiest ways that I know and use with clients. Using these techniques, you can hopefully get more in touch with yourself and the emotions that you experience throughout the day. It will not be easy it first. You will likely struggle to figure out what it means that your stomach is upset, or that you think someone is following you, but eventually you will learn to identify the emotions you are feeling. Eventually it will take little to no effort to know what you are feeling, and then you can go about dealing with those emotions in more healthy, productive ways.
I’ll continue talking about this in my next blog post, where I’ll describe healthy ways of expressing emotions.