The first time I read about alexithymia — difficulty in experiencing, expressing, and describing emotional responses — I laughed. Now they have a diagnosis for being a normal man. Then I thought about how true that diagnosis would be for me.
If you know me, you know that I started my journey shut down in every possible way. At least I was consistent. Growing up in a family where emotional expression was nonexistent, I had no idea there was such a thing as emotional expression. It is hard to say whether my Asperger’s Syndrome was a consequence of my upbring or an addition to being emotionless.
Along with ADHD, I have two clinical diagnoses that describe behaviors that most of us had or still have relative to being disconnected emotionally. Being so tense that you are unable to sit still and being so tense that you cannot express yourself often go together. Our bodies become tenser and tenser because all that we feel lacks safe ways and places to be experienced or expressed. Our bodies convert that emotional angst into physical tension. That tension makes us want to move to either release it or to distract ourselves from the more uncomfortable emotional tension.
Medicine and psychology continue to seek new names for our natural reactions to stress and emotional repression. Rather than understanding and connecting with us, we are dismissed with labels and drugs to manage our physical and emotional behaviors.
Many men have come to our groups and programs over the years frustrated and in despair because after all the tests, drugs, and treatments, they are still in pain and alone. The hope for these men, if only unconsciously, is that being with other men may allow them to be themselves, and with that, maybe they can relax and heal.
I was one of those men. I released a lot of physical and emotional tension from my previous healing paths, allowing me to feel more than most men, as well as the impact that my rigidity had on others. That awareness drove me to start my first group in 1995.
Realizing that I was not an abnormality but the norm was the first step to feeling safe to open up and release. Collectively, over the years, we became more relaxed and connected to others.
After I experienced the world of emotional expression first through the women I dated, then in my groups, I enjoyed living. I realized one of my blocks to expressing myself was not knowing that it was acceptable to express emotions, let alone see anyone demonstrate it. I had to risk the shame of not doing it right to do that. What was remarkable was that most of the men in my groups were taking similar risks; we were all in it together.
I would share – certain that I would be criticized — only to discover that I was honored for my courage and vulnerability.
Share a block you have about expressing to a friend. It may be a belief, a history of shaming, or rejection for failing at it. Then, if you had alexithymia, what would be a significant symptom? Or, what would others — such as your partner – name as your primary symptom?
Dive into the trauma or vulnerable feelings behind the behavior of not expressing. Do not go the route of telling stories or explaining them. Go the route of revealing the anger, fear, sadness, and shame about being locked up.
As you hear another man share, feel how his words are true for you. Where do you feel those emotions in your body? If you want, affirm his experience by sharing the impact his words have on you.
The goal here is to open up to what we often do not feel and rarely share. It may be easier to pick a particular incident that happened as a child that represents your childhood. For example, that time your father told you not to cry when someone called you a name. It might be the time you made a conscious decision not to feel or express. Often, it was several unconscious decisions to shut down because that was the only thing we could do.
If you are lucky to be in an EVRYMAN Group, you can make a different choice. Do that with your group.
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