Do You Have Alexithymia?

Alexithymia: Difficulty in experiencing, expressing and describing emotions.

Identifying & Naming Exercise

Every day I hear from folks who have just realized that they grew up with Childhood Emotional Neglect (CEN). Often they say, “Finally I understand what’s wrong with me!” Many describe a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.

It is a wonderful thing to finally understand yourself in a new and useful way. Unfortunately, however, it is not enough. Step 1 is seeing and understanding the problem. Step 2 is healing the problem. 

If you grew up with parents who did not respond enough to your emotional needs (CEN), then as an adult you are probably faced with the particular set of challenges that are unique to CEN. Children who grow up receiving the message that their emotions are not valid naturally adapt by pushing their emotions down and away, so that they won’t burden their parents with their feelings and emotional needs. If you push your emotions away as a child, you will, as an adult, lack access to them. This is why one of the most universal struggles for the CEN adult is alexithymia.

Fortunately, alexithymia is a problem that can be fixed. Emotional awareness and knowledge can be learned. In fact there is a clear and direct process to learn it. Many people have had success doing it on their own, and many with a therapist’s help.

Here is a six-step exercise that, if done regularly, will gradually get you back in touch with your feelings, which is a major part of healing from CEN.

If you take even just five minutes for this exercise three times a day (or as often as you can manage), you are forcing your brain to perform activities that are novel. You are forging new neural networks which get stronger and perform better each time you do it, even when you are not successful in identifying or naming a feeling.

The Identifying and Naming Exercise

Step 1: Sit in a room alone with no distractions. Close your eyes. Picture a blank screen that takes over your mind, banishing all thoughts. Focus all of your attention on the screen, turning your attention inward.

Step 2: Ask yourself the question:

What am I feeling right now?

Step 3: Focus in on your internal experience. Be aware of any thoughts that might pop into your head, and erase them quickly. Keep your focus on:

“What am I feeling right now?

Step 4: Try to identify feeling words to express it. You may need more than one word. Consult a list of feeling words if you need it.

Step 5: If you’re having difficulty identifying any feelings, it is okay. Coming up with a word is less important than going through the process of trying to tune in. As long as you keep doing the exercise as often as possible, you will start to make progress. Be persistent and do not give up!

Step 6: If you do find a feeling word that seems like it may be accurate, you are ready to move on to the next step, which is trying to figure out why you are feeling that.

So now ask yourself:

Why would I be feeling ____ right now?”

Determining what you are feeling and why can be very difficult for many people, but it is especially so for those with Emotional Neglect. This exercise may seem simple, but it is not easy. Emotionally Neglected people often have great difficulty sitting with themselves, and that is a requirement for this exercise to work. If it seems very hard when you first attempt it, or even impossible, please keep trying.

As you gradually become more able to sit with yourself, focus inward, and tune into your feelings, you will also eventually start to be more aware of your emotions naturally, as they come up in your life.  You will find yourself changing: feeling more meaning in your life, more connected to others, more purpose and direction, and more trust in yourself.

Yes, in a few minutes per day, you can overcome alexithymia. In a few minutes a day, you can change your life.

To learn more about Childhood Emotional Neglect, see my first book Running on Empty. 


Click Here to Leave a Comment Below
Madison - July 6, 2018 Reply

I have not started this process yet (I will start after commenting), but I wanted to say thank you for posting this. I have a great life yet I sometimes struggle to enjoy it, and I honestly feel that reading this unlocked something within me. I have been taking medication for depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, with very little results. I want to improve myself mentally, without medication. I want to learn to be better and I think this will help. Thank you so much

Jon - February 16, 2017 Reply

But what happens when you do the exercise, ask yourself the question, and the answer is, “Nothing at all.” Whenever I try to focus on mindfulness, meditate, etc., all I feel is nothingness. Blankness. I just picture the blank screen — nothing ever appears on it. The only emotions I seem to be able to feel are fear, anger, and hate. What does that mean?

Jay - August 17, 2014 Reply

Thank you for writing more about CEN – there seems to be so much information and advice out there on child abuse or violence (which is great) but so little on CEN, though it can have such significant challenging effects on some of our lives in adulthood.
One thing though that is a challenge with the exercise that you recommend – as someone who experienced CEN and also who is highly sensitive and hence find myself having to override my needs continuously in our society, it seems pointless to even try to feel what the specific emotion of the moment may be, since what does it matter if one is then simply going to have to override it anyway in order to function in this society?
I would really like to hear advice on this and also how to ask a therapist whether they think you might have CEN, without sounding like a complaining over-dramatizing client.

    Jonice Webb - August 17, 2014 Reply

    Jay, watch for future articles on what to do with feelings once you’re able to get in touch with them and identify them. You are right; that’s only the first step. To answer your therapy question, I suggest that you take a copy of Running on Empty to your therapist and ask him/her to look at it and go through with you. Most therapists will understand the concept and its importance and will be able to work with you on it. No good therapist will think you are complaining and over-dramatizing! I also wrote a blog post about finding a good therapist to help with CEN and you can see it here: All the best!

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