Updated: May 5
Alexithymia almost literally means no words for emotions (I’m saying “almost” because I added the preposition for to make a phrase). When we (young therapists) learn about this concept in school, it’s taught as a plague upon the boys and men of the U.S.—that they are taught from infancy to swallow their feelings and do what they need to do. This can lead to an inability to recognize and name their own emotional states as well as recognizing and being able to empathize emotions in others.
Throughout my work, I have found that regardless of gender assigned at birth or gender identity, most of the people I have talked with (especially those who struggle with moderate anxiety) exhibit features of this emotional deficit. And, FYI, I’m not excluded from this group.
When we talk about a situation that is troubling us, we typically describe it as “frustrating.” This has appeared to be the all encompassing emotional label. What does frustrating mean?
Frustrating can mean something is difficult.
It can mean that something is scary.
It can mean, “I don’t want to do it, but I have to.”
It can mean, “I don’t think I’m good enough for this thing or this person, but I’m up against it every day.”
Frustrating can mean that something is disappointing.
It can mean, “I should be better than this.”
It can mean that there’s shame being carried around and that the situation is making us confront it.
Why are we using this word to describe pain? ‘Frustrating’ certainly does not give emotional/physical pain the proper weight of the emotion. Often, I discuss the ways in which our parents loved us. They loved us so much that they want to take away our pain. They tell us, “it’s ok.” They tell us, “you can keep going, you’re strong.” But, they miss part of this emotional equation.
Safety is an important component for understanding and growth. When we are young and being comforted with “it’s ok,” we receive cognitive (thoughts) information that we are safe. As we get older, we think we are safe but our feelings are so used to being invalidated that they struggle to even be acknowledged. We feel unsettled. We feel frustrated because there is dissonance between what we think and what we feel. What we think is that everything is ok, but the evidence all around us is that everything is very much not ‘ok.’
If there’s one thing that we know, it’s that we can’t control others, or often, our environment, but we can control ourselves. The subtext here is that we have to simply adapt to a situation we can’t control. We’re frustrated with our surroundings and now we’re frustrated with ourselves because we’re not adapting. All of this creates anxiety.
The West sees a problem and wants to fix it ASAP. The message from society and the message from our kind parents is make it better now. If we can’t make it better now, then we live with it with the assumption that it isn’t really a problem. We push down our feelings. They change shape in our nervous system and become panic attacks and migraines and back pain and GI problems.
Emotions exist in our body and the tough ones need more than a bandaid.
Why is everything so frustrating? Part of it is that we don’t know any other words for our experience. I like to send my clients an emotion wheel to help boost their emotional vocabulary. I used to think that children know their core emotions and learn the more intricate ones and that adults need to do the opposite. What I’m learning is that most of us with high functioning anxiety/depression are new to all of this.
Another part of this frustration situation is that we don’t have the time to slow down. Sometimes there are no words for emotions. That’s why they’re feelings. They may be beyond words. This concept is even more difficult for us to sit with and acknowledge. This is why many therapeutic interventions are physical.
We learn that we don’t need to sit in discomfort, so when something uncomfortable inevitably happens again and again, we assume there’s something wrong with us, or the world which creates a great deal of anxiety (which is also a catch-all word we’ve collectively adopted). It takes a lot of self-compassion to be able to slow down to the point that we can recognize what we’re feeling. It means acknowledging that we are safe even though we’re not making it better— more than frustrating. Terrifying. And it’s terrifying because we don’t have a secure base that teaches us about this kind of safety— both on a societal level and an individual level.
I could go on as to why everything is so frustrating. Stay tuned for more discussion around this concept. Contact me if you’d like to discuss further.