Several years ago when I was newer to working with my therapist, she told me I had alexithymia, which is the clinical term for difficulty in properly identifying one’s emotions and those of others; it’s essentially emotional blindness. The primary reason I struggle to identify the feelings of another is because of my inability to read facial expressions. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve improved minimally, though still perceptibly, on this front through social skills training. While I absolutely struggle to distinguish the emotions another is experiencing, once I know how the other person is feeling, as I’ve mentioned, my own heart, mind, and physiological body flood with feelings that mimic their emotion in a deeply empathetic manner.
For emotional self-identification, the hours amassed in regular talk therapy over the past several years have ratcheted my skill level up several giant notches. Although this improvement has occurred gradually, the continued work has rewarded me with a steady upward climb. I’m more practiced at consciously consulting my emotional and physical feelings to try and understand and label how I feel. I can better turn the magnifying glass inward and piece together mental and bodily clues, although it often takes me much longer than your average person to accurately do this and my success rate still isn’t as high. Additionally, subtler emotions or gradual changes in them fail to meet the imaginary detection threshold level that seems to exist. My feelings need to be blatant and loud, as well as persistent for me to recognize and register them before they’ve changed.
Unfortunately, emotional regulation is one of my lagging skills. I’d classify myself as a fairly moody person, often vacillating quickly between emotions and not settling on a given mood for any significant length of time. This is not only problematic for developing detection skills because their timeliness must be so finally fine-tuned, but also simply as a personal characteristic, it’s not ideal in oneself and in his or her relationships. Like winds that constantly change and seem to blow from every which way, it’s hard to direct my sails appropriately to steer my ship in an efficient and safe manner. If I’m suddenly frustrated but fail to notice, I may continue full steam ahead in the direction of the frustration, burying myself deeper into the problem instead of trying to reroute and circumnavigate those choppy seas. This happens to me all the time and I suffer the self-inflicted consequences. For example, often when I try to print from home, there’s some sort of glitch. The ink might be out, the wireless connectivity faltering, or any other number of issues. Regardless, I click print and something goes awry. I’ll be thrilled upon completion of whatever project I’ve been working on, and filled with feelings of excitement, satisfaction, and pride, but as soon as I hit print, instead of my document being produced seamlessly, I receive an error message, hear the dreaded sounds of the printer biting and crumpling paper, or fail to receive any sort of output, my good mood evaporates. As I struggle to troubleshoot unsuccessfully, my frustration level skyrockets. At this point, I’ve learned that printing problems cause me an embarrassingly exaggerated frustration response, so now I either avoid printing at home or stop fighting the battle early on if problematic after an attempt or two. I’ve progressed to this modified plan after noticing the pattern and making this informed revision to my prior handling plan wherein I’d fight the issue until either I fixed it, completely broke the printer, or melted into a pile of tears and shout, completely emotionally distraught. I felt that once I had invested any bit of time and effort trying to print, I needed to fully finish the project right there and then lest the small investment in time already expended go to fruitless waste. I’d keep sailing my ship right into the headwind even as my little dingy bucked and bowed at the hands of the surely storm. While this is a silly and simple example and one I’ve now mastered (usually) by learning the trigger, I have countless of other situations where I’m oblivious to the emotion or it’s problematic route, so I keep pressing forward and exacerbate the problem, as mentioned, especially if these feelings shift with any rapidity.
In order for me to identify my feelings correctly, they also need to be rather focused, with clearly defined borders (or signals) so that I can correctly distinguish one feeling over another (mad versus frustrated versus excited, etc.). Some emotions I have yet to adequately detect. For example, I rarely identify anger or feeling mad; instead I inaccurately lump these in with “anxious” or “depressed.” There are many such emotions in these grayer zones that my current self-screening tools are ill-equipped to identify. Over time and with continued work, I hope to convert some of these elusive feelings into my arsenal of capabilities. I’ve made good progress so far, and I’m determined to remain a dedicated student of myself for life.
All of this is important because identifying emotions and distinguishing between bodily sensations and emotional feelings helps one communicate, understand his or her needs or desires, identify issues or triggers, and improve things so that life is better. This skill, which may people take for granted after it’s developed during childhood (normally), essentially provides a road map to oneself so that plans and routes can be devised to fringe about the desired results (good feelings or positive emotions). Without this skill, navigating is aimless and many mistakes are repeated over and over. Alexithymia is not a problem that all autistic people face; it’s rather common, though a disproportionately high percentage of people on the spectrum do struggle with this issue to some degree. Fortunately, this does seem to be a modifiable trait, a deficit that can be at least partially rectified. I’m attacking both prongs simultaneously: learning to recognize an emotion in another person and turning the mirror on myself and reading my own feelings. It’s surprisingly gratifying to make gains in either, and I feel like the skills are transferrable between the two domains; as one improves, so does the other.