This recent misuse of the alexithymia concept by Harvard University Professor Dr. Ron Levant shows how easily the alexithymia construct can be misunderstood as a stoic resistance, repression, or denial of emotions. Levant devised the phrase "normative male alexithymia" to describe how North American males suffer to some degree from cultural conditioning which causes men to repress their vulnerable and caring emotions causing them to become underdeveloped in emotional expressiveness. He says, "Many men were raised (and continue to be raised) to function in a world that no longer exists. To be good men, they were told, they must become reliable providers, emotionally stoic, logical, solution oriented, and aggressive." [Levant. Men and Emotions (1997) p.3]
Levant further states the problem this way: "I believe that a mild form of alexithymia is very wide-spread among adult men and that it results from the male emotional socialization ordeal, which requires boys to restrict the expression of their vulnerable and caring emotions and to be emotionally stoic." [Levant- A New Psychology of Men, (1995) p.239].
Levant states that according to his clinical observation this type of problem is so common for men in our culture that it may be called "normative". He claims; "One of the most far-reaching consequences of male gender-role socialization is the high incidence among men of... the inability to identify and describe one's feelings." [p.238] and "men are genuinely unaware of their emotions. Lacking this emotional awareness, when asked to identify their feelings, they tend to rely on their cognition to try to logically deduce how they should feel. They cannot do what is automatic for most women -simply sense inwardly, feel the feeling, and let the verbal description come to mind." [Levant- A New Psychology of Men, (1995) p.239].
In light of these claims we must ask is it really true that men have an "inability to identify their feelings"? or that they cannot sense inwardly and "feel feelings" as most women purportedly can? In one of only a few studies which found a higher prevalence of alexithymia amongst males, the following Finnish study found that men assessed with the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) scored higher than women on factor 2 (difficulty in describing feelings), but there was no gender difference in factor 1 scores (difficulty in identifying feelings). This is an important finding in regards of alexithymia because an inability to identify feelings constitutes the heart of the alexithymic deficit in emotional cognition, from which the secondary difficulty in describing feelings naturally arises. If the difficulty in describing feelings does not result from the prior inability to identify feelings, but rather from repression or cultural proscription to "keep your feelings inside" then we are dealing with a different phenomenon altogether from alexithymia proper. Men may have the words, but they keep them inside.
While Levant may be right in his claim that men are (generally) less skilled than women in their ability to describe feelings, he is demonstrably incorrect in claiming that men are less able to identify specific feeling states in self or others in the true clinical sense of alexithymia. Here it would seem that Levant has failed to discriminate between the separate factors of (1) identifying and (2) describing feelings. Almost all alexithymia studies reveal that males are equally able to identify feelings in self and others, but occasional studies show that males are less able (or willing) to provide lengthy descriptions of the feelings they have successfully identified. What this means is that like women men can equally identify feelings such as jealousy, hatred, anxiety, fear, sadness, love, joy, envy and the like but they may not indulge a longer verbal description, preferring instead to thoughtfully act to modulate the intensity of emotions. This action empathy is in no way inferior to verbal empathy, and either of these responses typically employed by males or females can successfully modulate emotional arousal to desired levels: i.e. a woman might 'talk' with her melancholic friend about what is worrying her in order to cheer her up; the man may invite the same melancholic friend to the movies; both responses -talking, or acting- serve to intelligently modulate emotions.
According to College of New Jersey psychologist Mark Kiselica, past president of the American Psychological Association's Society for the Psychological Study of Men and Masculinity, most men are not alexithymic: “it is not a 'norm'”. Kiselica reports that a literature review showed only a few studies found that males have slightly higher rates of developing the disorder, while the majority of studies found no differences between the genders, with overall about one in 10 people of either gender showing any significant level of alexithymia.
True, men have not been educated or encouraged to express their feelings verbally but they most certainly can, generally speaking, identify both their own feelings and those of others as well as do women. From earliest childhood most cultures encourage males to be emotionally stoic, a disposition which may, as Levant stresses, lend itself to pathologies of emotional expression. But to emphasize the potential pathologies of this disposition tells us only a small negative part of the story. The stoic disposition also includes time honored traits of forbearance, tolerance, and healthy emotional control in stressful situations. To champion emotional extroversion or cite verbal skill in expressing feelings does not guarantee healthy emotional interaction with others, as in the example of ‘con-artists’ or ‘manipulators’ who misuse the language of emotional expressiveness to exploit or domineer others.
Levant's conjectures reveal the twin errors of both genderising alexithymia, and confusing it with stoic repression of emotions. Perhaps Levant, "Inspired by feminist scholars" (New Psychology of Men,1995) deliberately characterized men as alexithymic for dramatic effect? Whatever the case his generalizations prove about as helpful to relationships between men and women as if we characterized all females as having 'Normative Female Hysteria' as did early psychoanalysts based on the fact that women tend to talk more about their emotions. Unfortunately to generalize typical female communication as "excessive," "destructive" and "hysterical" is about as helpful a generalization as declaring all male stoicism is "excessive," "destructive" "alexithymic". Such an approach will not prove attractive to males and may create the opposite effect of making them feel misunderstood and maligned, as were women under the assumption that all emotional expression amounted to hysteria.
In the final analysis this superficial conflation of alexithymia with maleness may reflect the influences of contemporary gender stereotyping more than it does the findings of rigorous scientific method. Whilst the conflation functions as a hyperbolic device, it also leaves us with the unfortunate consequence of confusing the accepted clinical meaning of alexithymia as proposed by all leading clinicians for the last 30 years. In light of these anomalies, and considering that Dr. Levant refers again and again to the stoic nature of the males in question, perhaps he would consider a late name change to 'Normative Male Stoicism'?
For the true definition of alexithymia, click on the links below:
Taylor: Construct basis
Matters of the Mind
Richard Petty MD.
Encyclopedia of Creativity
(For more on this subject see the book 'Emotionally Dumb: An Overview of Alexithymia' which includes sub-chapter on the subject of Normative Male Alexithymia.)
Emotionally Dumb: An Overview of Alexithymia by Jason Thompson (Kindle Edition - May 8, 2009) - Kindle Book