Alexithymia and Society: by Steve Hein (2005)

At several pages on this page I talk about nature vs. nurture, and I encourage us to try to figure out which is more responsible for some thing like alexithymia. And I suggested that we might want to look at the whole of society to see why so many people have trouble talking about their feelings. I will add that is not just people who are somehow “officially” called alexithymics, but I’d say there are a whole lot of people who have this difficulty.

My explanation for this is that the society we have created simply does not place a high value on feelings. Instead, we seem to value nearly everything else. Money, appearances, material things, grades, test scores are a few examples.

It has become painfully obvious to me that children and teenager’s feelings are not valued in the typical school around the world. And I have personally been inside schools in many countries. At present, it is more important for children and teens to obey the teacher than to even take time to listen to their own feelings. Students are not asked how they feel about decisions. They are not asked how they feel about what is happening inside the classroom walls. They are not asked how they about one teacher vs. another. As I said in my 1995 book, they are taught the names of plants and insects, not to mention a lot of dead people, but not the names of their own feelings. And teachers are not in the habit of expressing their feelings with feeling words.

Nor are feelings valued at work. Dan Goleman has been making a lot of money talking about emotional intelligence in the workplace, but he does not even include emotional literacy in his “corporate definition” of emotional intelligence. Even the researchers Mayer, Salovey and Caruso have not placed a very high value on expressing feelings with feeling words. They talk a lot about using emotions and managing them, but they tend to skip over actually talking about them.

Another problem is that most of us live in places where it is not safe to show your feelings. It is not safe to be emotionally honest. Children and teens learn it is safer to lie about their feelings.

My basic hypothesis is that our society is so dysfunctional and we are in so much pain most of the time that we could not handle it if we stopped to either really feel our pain or really talk about it. There is just too much of it. If we made time to really talk about things like the death and bloodshed in Iraq, Israel, Palestine; the treatment of the POW’s; the fact that students are killing other students in schools in a country that likes to think it is a model for the rest of the world; the fact that teens are cutting, burning and killing themselves….

If we really faced all of this, could we handle it?

I say that people know they can’t handle their real feelings. So they learn not to talk about them. Adults don’t talk about them, so how could we expect children or teens to learn to?

To have a less, “alexithymic” world, then, will require significant changes, and will surely have fairly dramatic impact on the future of human relationships. I suggest that the time to begin is now, and that the benefits will be worth the difficulties during the transition. I also suggest the place to start is in the schools. More specifically, teach children and teens the names of their feelings, in specific, their negative feelings, since those are the ones that tell us something needs to be changed. Then I suggest we listen ask the students how they feel, and then really listen. And then start to make changes to take their feelings into account.

This is how I see us changing society. If we do this, I predict there will be a noticeable decline in what is called alexithymia.

by Steve Hein (2005)


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