The concept of alexithymia was coined in the early 1970s by psychiatrist Peter Emanuel Sifneos, professor emeritus at Harvard University. This concept refers to the difficulty or inability of the person to connect with the emotion that he is experiencing, which means that he is not aware of it or can regulate it effectively. The alexithymic person has a poor emotional vocabulary, which makes it difficult for him to put words to what he feels: affections, emotions, feelings and moods. If we focus on the etymology of alexithymia we will see that “to” means “without”, “lexis” is “word” and “thymos” is “affection”. Therefore, literally, “speechless for affections.” Consequently, we could say that children are born with profound alexithymia, which prevents them from focusing and naming what they feel, but it would be very unfair if we say that babies suffer from alexithymia, since we have not yet given them the opportunity to overcome it.
The newborn has a tremendously immature and vulnerable brain, to which we must add that it has a large number of instincts, emotions and needs that it cannot satisfy on its own, requiring an adult to take care of it. This is where mentalization comes into play, a concept that the British psychologist Peter Fonagy talks about a lot, and which refers to the fact that mothers and fathers name what their children feel. Mentalization will be what will solve the natural alexithymia with which we come into this world. Naming what they feel from a very young age is what will allow them to go from chaos to order or, what is the same, from unconscious emotions to the ability to take charge of them responsibly.
Therefore, mentalization develops hand in hand with the emotional intelligence of the adult and is the best resource to get away from the blinding and incapacitating alexithymia. Unfortunately, not everyone has been lucky enough to have emotionally intelligent parents, which perpetuates lifelong difficulty verbalizing affective states. This impediment to being aware of what one feels, naming it, allowing it and being able to regulate it in order to once again achieve the desired balance affects all areas of life: school, work, social, family, sexual, etc.
All this leads us to the importance of validating the different emotions that children feel, regardless of their valence and intensity. In certain families, depending on the sex of the minor, certain emotions will be validated and others will be repressed. For example, girls are often allowed to feel and express sadness, while anger is prohibited. Instead, children are invited to express their anger, but, on the contrary, they are prevented from feeling and expressing their sadness, much less crying, because for many it is still synonymous with weakness.
There is no doubt that whoever thinks and educates in this way is far from being emotionally intelligent and it is likely that they may have a certain degree of alexithymia, perpetuating these socio-emotional difficulties to their offspring. Getting to have a minimal development of emotional intelligence is not easy and requires a lot of time and a large dose of patience on the part of the adults who surround the child, but there is no doubt that it is one of the best investments we can make and a great inheritance. forever.
Teaching children and adolescents to go through the different stages of emotional intelligence is a long and expensive path: knowing what an emotion is, recognizing it, naming it or labeling it, validating it in all cases, regardless of whether it is unpleasant to us, being aware of her (thanks to the mentalization work of our parents and teachers) and, lastly, having strategies to self-regulate affections. The opposite would be to remain in alexithymia throughout life, without the ability to name and feel what we feel. A real shame, because it prevents us from connecting with one of the most representative characteristics of our species: the ability to get emotional.
Many of our children are daily installed in what the neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux called tonsillar hijacking, a situation where the minor is constantly besieged by his emotions and impulses, without the ability to manage them. Once again, the remedy for amygdala hijacking is none other than developing emotional intelligence in our children. Therefore, what I propose here is to alphabetize the emotions of the little ones in order to overcome the illiteracy with which they come into this world. The objective would be, thanks to the validation and accompaniment of adults, to help children and adolescents to move from alexithymia to emotional literacy. This can only be achieved with adults (mothers, fathers, teachers, counselors, professionals…) involved and sensitized to the benefits of emotional intelligence.
Everything we feel (emotions, instincts, needs, impulses, sensations, reflexes, etc.) must be listened to, validated, and organized by a sensitive, respectful, and responsive adult. We are beings who feel from the womb, but we do not have the innate ability to identify, name or be aware of our affections, much less to manage these emotions well enough. Long live emotional intelligence!
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