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  • Writer's pictureChrysanthi Sophia Karampetsi

We, the emotional illiterates...

“We're emotional illiterates. And not only you and I-practically everybody, that's the depressing thing. We're taught everything about the body and about agriculture and about the square root of pi, or, but not a word about the soul. We're abysmally ignorant, about both ourselves and others. There's a lot of loose talk nowadays to the effect that children should be brought up to know all about brotherhood and understanding and coexistence and equality and everything else that's all the rage just now. But it doesn't dawn on anyone that we must first learn something about ourselves and our own feelings. Our own fear and loneliness and anger. We're left without a chance, ignorant and remorseful among the ruins of our ambitions. How can you understand other people if you don't know anything about yourself?”

How do you feel? If someone asks you, will you be able to describe which emotion are you feeling? Sometimes we find it hard to name our internal experiences, sometimes even we are feeling more than one emotion at the same time. Different people can express their emotional states in diverse ways, while others who are not used to taking about the way they feel may have trouble finding the words reflecting their feelings. We are constantly experiencing new things which means our emotions are rarely static, which complicates the process to identify what is going on with our emotions.

Everyone has experienced from time to time how hard it can be to put one's feelings into words. Yet, for some individuals, this task can be especially daunting. Answering the question of how you are feeling can be even more challenging if you deal with what is known as alexithymia, an aspect of a person’s functioning that makes it tough to recognize and name emotions. This inability to accurately articulate and interpret emotions can be emotionally exhausting because when it’s not happening automatic, you have to really manually kind of process and try to interpret the information. However, not everyone with alexithymia has the same experiences. Some have gaps and distortions in the typical emotional repertoire. Some realize they’re feeling an emotion, but don’t know which, while others confuse signs of certain emotions for something else. Although people with alexithymia struggle to understand emotions, that doesn’t mean they don’t care about other people. Alexithymia and emotional empathy are two separate things. For the most part, individuals with alexithymia can recognize that others are in a negative state, and this makes them distressed. It just prevents the person from feeling pain as intensely and being able to name what they are feeling. Alexithymia makes it hard to know what you are feeling or even if you are having a feeling. It makes it difficult to tell whether the sensation they’re having is physical or emotional.

Emotions are not hardwired in our brains and although we might have the same neural networks, the way we will make sense of sensations is dependent on experience and the culture we are raised. Whenever we feel a certain emotion a whole system is activated that includes the thoughts and images that enter our mind, the memories, the aspects of ourselves, the world around us, the bodily and mental sensations we experience the physical changes and the things we feel like doing. We may feel emotions from a situation, an experience, or from memories. All these different dimensions interact in complex ways. Changing one aspect of this system can make changing other parts easier. Taken that into consideration, we can actually learn the repertoire of "appropriate" feeling responses and increase the range of words to use to express ourselves better and navigate our emotions. We can build up an understanding of the separate emotions we have, what they mean and what action should be taken over time with the right practice and support. One major source of learning for example, comes from reading books. Authors are compelled to find other words to describe emotions and feelings in their novels. Affiliating with a character in a book can often help us deal with our own experiences and emotions. Research has shown that reading can help us better understand, engage in expressive language and develop linguistic skills to describe a story and personal narratives. Role- playing can also be a great way to practicing, identifying and expressing emotions. Through role-playing activities you can learn how you feel deep down inside, how others see you and how they feel, how to focus on your thoughts and connect them more fully with your words, how to more successfully navigate complex interactions, and so on. In general, expressive arts can be helpful to cope with alexithymia and emotions. Acting, dancing and music are all different forms of the expressive arts which can help us express ourselves beyond words.

Each person experiences emotions in a different way. They are very particular and exclusive subjective entities. Continually reflecting on what we feel and what’s behind our moods directly impacts our well-being. Sometimes even although aware of our internal state we might face situations and react in ways that surprise us. Being conscious of our emotions helps us to adapt to challenges in life, to our surroundings. Understanding our repressed emotions can be the most powerful weapon to help us understand our behavior. Emotions are very important to our daily functioning because they help guide our decisions, help us connect with other people and keep us out of harm’s way. In addition, the ability to accurately recognize and name emotions in the midst of a struggle is a key ingredient to being able to process difficult situations productively and bounce back more quickly.

When you know exactly what you're feeling, you have the right information for figuring out how to make yourself feel better. There are not negative or positive emotions, they are all necessary and valuable. Our emotions provide us with information about ourselves and the things going on around us.

“There is this urge inside me to pour out words I cannot speak on feelings I have never known”

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