Alexithymic describes someone who can’t talk about emotions. They also have trouble knowing when they or others are experiencing an emotion, and trouble distinguishing which emotion it is, if they do notice one. It is not a considered a clinical condition, but it can produce clinical conditions, like somatization, where people develop various body conditions instead of feeling emotions. It becomes a problem when somatizers insist on one medical test or procedure after another for a problem that will never yield to biological intervention. I read one estimate that 20% of money spent on medical services is for these kinds of concerns. (!)

There are social consequences, too, of course. If you can’t recognize that you’re in the grip of an emotion, you can be hard to understand and hard to deal with. It’s also hard for an alexithymic person to relate to others who are having emotions–it’s more difficult to take their perspectives and to have empathy.

It’s not a black-or-white condition, of course. Everyone is somewhere on the spectrum of emotional fluency. It’s not an intractable state, either. You can learn emotional fluency, and most people do, to some extent. It’s part self-awareness, part self-acceptance, and part vocabulary. It’s something you continue learning throughout life, given a supportive environment. Parents can stifle the learning curve in their children by how and when they give them attention. Somatizing children, for example, can come from parents who give them attention for physical pain but not emotional pain. Another problematic parenting technique, called “mystification” by psychologists, works to slow the emotional learning curve; when a child is angry, for example, a parent might say something like, “You’re not angry,” or “You shouldn’t be angry.” That kind of thing goes a long way to confuse people about emotions.