Before I go on, I have to say this: the people who follow this blog, in addition to possessing keen intelligence and thoughtful natures, are some of the best sports in the world.
So what is alexithymia?
It's considered both an "affect-deficit disorder" AND a continuous personality trait (like introversion-extroversion, we ALL fall somewhere along a continuum).
Basically, it's a disturbance in emotion processing that includes:
- difficulties identifying and verbalizing feelings
- a tendency to focus on somatic (bodily) sensations that go along with emotional arousal
- limited imagination, with a focus on the practical and concrete
Keeping in mind that this is a continuum, you might either recognize yourself or someone you know in that description. I know I did.
Note: Alexithymia is NOT a DSM-IV disorder. However, it does tend to co-occur with psychiatric disorders. It shows a lot of overlap with autism spectrum disorders like Asperger's disorder. It also occurs in large percentages of individuals diagnosed with depression, PTSD, panic disorder, eating disorders, and substance abuse.
Now, as I expected, most of you reported very low levels of this trait. For those of you who scored high: DO NOT PANIC. Remember this was a quick-and-dirty measure, that there is a continuum, that less than 10% of folks have actual alexithymia, and that many folks who do are highly successful individuals (I know some of them personally).
As writers, you can see how alexithymic tendencies might make the job hard. We're supposed to have loose, flexible, and vibrant imaginations. We're supposed to be sharp-eyed observers of the human condition--and able to render that condition in naked, unflinching emotional detail using only words. We're supposed to use language so skillfully that it evokes emotions in other people.
Understanding the underpinnings of human emotion, both the animal impulses and the feelings driven by our thoughts and interpretations, is probably important for most writers. Based on what I've read (which includes novels and blogs), many writers have an instinctual understanding of these things.
HOWEVER, here's what I've been thinking: a little alexithymia in our characters might not be so bad.
In fact, it might be essential.
So you're an intuitive, feelings-oriented writer? Great! But ... you know what's not so compelling? A character who knows exactly what she's feeling and why, all the time. A character who just tells the reader (or her co-protagonist) flat out: I feel guilty, and here's why. I'm sad because blah blah blah. I'm elated, all due to XYZ!
Where's the fun in that?
This is where alexithymic tendencies come in handy. Those statements above? ALL TELLING NO SHOWING. The opposite of what we're supposed to be doing.
We're supposed to be showing the reader what that character is going through, demonstrating the effect a situation has on him/her--and doing it so well that the reader feels present in the situation. You don't get that kind of effect by having the character understand every twinge of emotion and interpret it perfectly. You get it by painting a picture, one that goes far beyond simple emotion words. You get it by letting the character be confused and distressed, and by not allowing him/her to have it all figured out. By trusting yourself and your reader enough not to over-explain.
Examples of (just a few of the many) authors who have done this very well: Courtney Summers (Cracked Up To Be), Barry Lyga (Boy Toy), Heidi Ayarbe (Compulsion). If you've read any of those books, you know what I'm talking about. They are RAW. Brimming with emotion, in some cases to the point where it actually makes the reader uncomfortable. But in each of them, the protagonist is sincerely mixed up as to what is driving his or her feelings, including what exactly those feelings are.
Their characters have alexithymic tendencies. And ... that's a good thing.
Does this help you understand alexithymia? Can you think of any books that include characters with alexithymic tendencies? Do you notice the difference between characters who do and those who don't? Which do you tend to write? And, if you took the Online Alexithymia Questionnaire, did your score correspond to the type of characters you gravitate to or tend to write?