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Just Like Waves: The Inability To Discern and Express How I Feel

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

There are times that I feel like I’m a ship lost at sea, and the waves that take me farther from the shore are my emotions. Sometimes, I can’t recognise my emotions, even when they feel all too familiar. Then there are times when I recognise them, but I can’t discern why I’m feeling them. By definition, this cycle is called Alexithymia, in which people are unable to identify and/or describe one’s own emotions.

It’s also said that people who experience Alexithymia have difficulty recognizing the emotions/feelings of other people, and that empathy for others might be lacking. This is where we must remember that not everybody shares the same experience. While I find it hard to recognise my own emotions and to understand why I’m feeling a certain way, I can still have empathy for other people. Yes, there are times when I can’t tell what a person is feeling unless they express it, but once I’m aware of that, I become empathic – sometimes hyper empathic, and overwhelmed with emotions, although I then struggle to understand why I’m feeling those emotions so strongly, when they are the expression of somebody else.

I rely on reading body language and facial expressions. While working with non-verbal adults who were autistic and/or had learning disabilities, we (myself and the company I worked for) heavily relied on reading and recognising non-verbal communication, which is probably another reason why my own experiences as an autistic person went unnoticed, because I became so good at reading non-verbal communication that it disguised the challenges that I face with verbal communication.

I have such early memories of experiencing this challenge with my emotions. I can recall being excited about going to the Wacky Warehouse as a child (if you live in the UK and you’re not Gen Z then you’ll know), and I didn’t know how to express the excitement that I was feeling, and I would become upset by that. I was pretty much my own party pooper!

There weren’t just a few occasions when I experienced this. No, this has been a recurring experience in my life. It’s the Janice to my Chandler (Friends reference, that I hope you get). It just keeps happening.

It's not always exhausting for me. I do have days where I’ll either feel what seems like a foreign emotion stirring inside me, or I’ll recognise an emotion that I can name but what feels like an intruder because it doesn’t match the situation or my mood, and I can let it rest there as if nothing will come of it. However, when it’s not that easy, it is exhausting, and I spend so long pondering on why it’s there and what it wants (Janice enters Central Perk, Friends reference again). During those times, it can really bring me down.

When I’m in waiting mode, or processing something, or recharging my social battery and having quiet time, I will become very quiet, and it will look like I’m zoned out. I can appear very aloof and distant. When I’m asked how I’m feeling by the people who are present, I will often respond with the angsty words “I don’t know”, and I really don’t know. This can escalate into falling outs and miscommunication, because it can appear that I’m putting up a wall and shutting myself away from the world. Yet, the honest truth is that I just don’t know how I’m feeling. Sometimes, giving me time and space will allow me to recognise my emotions and feelings, and other times that’s not the case. There will be something stirring inside of me that I just can’t pick up on.

Our emotions are very powerful, whether we recognise them or not, they can greatly affect our mood and how other people perceive us (lest we forget that they can also affect how we perceive other people, when we can’t recognise their emotions or become overwhelmed with them when our empathy reaches out to them). There are likely to be many reasons why we face these challenges, there’s not just one answer for all, and having an open mind that there are answers out there or inside of us, is very healthy for us as we sail the sea and ride the waves of our emotions.

A message for people who can’t resonate with this blog post, but who experience challenges with people in their life who are going through this, whether it’s because of Alexithymia or simply because life is like a rollercoaster of emotions and it’s hard to seek that stillness sometimes:

We’re not always being moody, distant, aloof or whatever else you may have described people as. Just let us know that it’s okay to not recognise how we’re feeling at the moment and that if we don’t want to ponder on it, that it’s okay and you know that we have good intentions, despite how quiet and dreamy we may appear. You might want us to apologise if it feels like we’re not giving you the time of day and drifting away from you, but we won’t know what you want us to apologise for when we don’t intend to create an atmosphere. We’re just dealing with an (almost) everyday occurrence!

Out of all the emotions that make themselves known within me, and out of all the ones that don’t and that I just have to sit with until they leave or become known, love is the only one that lights up inside me and doesn’t need discerning. I recognise it when I see animals, when I see my family, when I listen to music, when I’m out in nature and when I’m looking into the eyes of my soulmate.

When all else seems so unknown, love is clarity.

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