For when an emotion is not held aesthetically within its images… Then emotion runs rampant and we have to damp it down with drugs or exorcise it through therapies of release and expression. Instead, I am suggesting that restoration of the imagination is the fundamental cure of disordered emotion.1 –James Hillman
Alexithymia, a Greek term meaning literally ‘without words for feelings’ designates the inability to identify and describe one’s own, or others’ emotional states, and is synonymous with the concept of low emotional intelligence.2 The purpose of this study is to highlight the stunted imagination characteristic of this condition, and to speak for its restoration by appeal to the storytelling wise-guy Silenus.
Before exploring the role of imagination in alexithymia I need to clarify two words: emotion and feeling, which in everyday language tend to be used interchangeably.
.. .......Silenus Pouring Ritual Libation
Below I use these terms in their more strict psychiatric sense where emotion refers to physical arousal evidenced by such signs as smiling, crying, laughing, body tension, blushing, tight stomach, posturing, voice intonation, rapid breathing, elevated pulse etc., and where feeling refers to one’s mental recognition and understanding of manifestations of emotional arousal. Alexithymic individuals may display full-blown bodily emotions, but they are unable to identify these emotions nor understand their significance on a mental level. To put it another way, alexithymia involves an essential deficit in one’s ability to evaluate feelings, but not in the realm of emotional excitation which can often be present in excess.
Clinically alexithymia is defined by the following four factors:
(i) difficulty identifying feelings and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal
(ii) difficulty describing feelings to other people
(iii) constricted imaginal processes, as evidenced by a paucity of fantasies; and
(iv) a stimulus-bound, externally oriented cognitive style 3
The constricted imaginal processes of alexithymia refer to a lack of spontaneous imagining 4 and to affect laden images in particular 5 a lack posing enormous disadvantages for personal and interpersonal functioning when one considers that imagination is a meaning maker par-excellence in all human experience. In agreement with James Hillman 6 we can say that spontaneous fantasy images are ‘primary psychological data’ which present a mental image of physiological arousal; data which provides the necessary material for concluding and articulating specific feeling states. Stated alternatively by Antonio Damasio, an individual senses “a feeling” arising from the activation of emotion, “provided the resulting collection of neural patterns becomes images in the mind.” 7
Lacking these imaginal signifiers the alexithymic individual is left searching for the meaning of his emotional excitation in the face of numerous environmental and physiological stimuli. To give a hypothetical example:
Paul is driving to a party with his girlfriend and notices his heart is racing, and so asks himself, "Is my heart racing because I'm angry at the driver who just cut in front of me without using his indicator? Is my heart racing because I'm anxious about being in a crowded room of strangers at the party? Is my heart racing because I'm in love with my girlfriend and my heart is all a-flutter? Is my heart racing because I'm excited about the music and dancing that we are about to enjoy? Or is my heart racing because I forgot to take my blood-pressure medication before going out? (Etc.).
In this scenario there are five distinct possibilities, and it may prove impossible to tell which stimulus is responsible for his racing heart based on bodily signals or environmental clues alone. In this situation the popular therapeutic proscriptions for biofeedback tend to prove ineffective because the signals being fed back from Paul’s emotional body provide insufficient detail to allow a conclusive evaluation from the five equally plausible explanations. Paul simply cannot identify which emotion is responsible for his elevated heart-beat: anger, anxiety, love, excitement, or indeed high blood-pressure.
The precision of imaginal feedback on the other hand shows the specific face of emotion where (to continue with the above example) Paul’s rapid heart beat appears in conjunction with a spontaneously generated image of the other driver cutting in front of him without indicating and Paul –still in imagination- blasting his horn at the offending driver. The sudden inrush of the fantasy image allows him to identify therefore that the beating is of an ‘angry heart’. This is an example of autonomous psyche in its self-generative glory.
Cultivation of imaginal feedback consists in deliberate contemplation of spontaneously produced images with the aim of enriching conscious understanding of somatic arousal. Fantasy images can help one identify emotions as they happen, as in the above example of becoming aware of one’s beating heart (biofeedback) but being faced with five competing explanations regarding the emotion involved. In that instance the internal fantasy image of a careless driver cutting in without using his indicator provided Paul with the necessary data with which to identify the emotion being experienced. By accessing imaginal signifiers the absent emotional understanding can be unlocked for the alexithymic individual, allowing for verbal articulation and intelligent modulation of emotional states. This proposition finds agreement in the words of alexithymia expert Graeme Taylor who writes:
'...techniques that promote imaginal activity are likely to strengthen referential links between symbolic and subsymbolic elements within a patient’s emotional schemas (Bucci 2002). Increasing referential activity renders the patient more aware of feelings and therefore better able to reflect on and regulate states of emotional arousal.' 8
Archetypal Psychology, as elaborated by James Hillman 9 provides a sophisticated set of guidelines for evoking, and vivifying imagination in the therapeutic setting, a process having immediate value for enriching the impoverished imagination of alexithymic individuals. This method asks the therapist to be guided by questions such as; "How well has the image worked? Does the image release and refine further imagining? Does the therapist’s response 'stick to the image' as the task at hand, rather than associate or amplify into non-imagistic symbolisms, personal opinions, and interpretations?" 10 To these questions we can add another; ‘How well has the patient’s image worked to help identify an emotion?’ The therapist and patient must use these questions to guard against losing the nascent image through intellectual distractions. These guidelines hold the therapist to the task of ‘animating the image’, because according to the premises of archetypal psychology the image is the primary psychological datum, in which feelings are as complex as the image that contains them. 11 This approach necessitates that therapy "return personal feelings (anxiety, desire, confusion, boredom, misery) to the specific images which hold them. Therapy attempts to individualize the face of each emotion: the body of desire, the face of fear, the situation of despair. Feelings are imagined into their details. This move is similar to the Hulme’s imagist theory of poetry (1924), where any emotion not differentiated by a specific image is inchoate, common, and dumb...." 12
If we look to mythological language we might say that the emotional god Dionysus needs his tutor Silenus in order to make sense of the emotions at play or be left otherwise to suffer meaningless emotional eruptions within his body. Silenus teaches Dionysus the value of ecstasy, of how to name and frame a life of emotion without being torn to pieces by the unmodulated intensity of passion. In his volume on Dionysus Rafael Lopez-Pedraza concurs, ‘We can speculate that, without being tutored, a Dionysiac nature would remain “wild” and “mad” and unable to connect to any immediate sense of reality..... Silenus offers an archetypal image for a psychotherapist who can constellate and “teach” a Dionysiac psychology, one who can “read” and “differentiate” emotions.’ 13
Silenus is characterised as a wise teacher in the Symposium where Alcibiades suggests both he and Socrates look similar in their physical attributes and both contain images of fascinating beauty “on the inside”. The latter reference is to popular ancient statuettes of Silenus which opened at the front to show his insides full of small golden figurines of the gods, an internal richness which both he and Socrates are said to possess as teachers. What might the internal richness of Silenus’ teaching be? In the story of his encounter with King Midas we are given a leading clue;
One day, the debauched old satyr Silenus, Dionysus former pedagogue, happened to straggle from the main body of the riotous Dionysian army as it marched out of Thrace into Boeotia, and was found sleeping off his drunken fit in the rose gardens. The gardeners bound him with garlands of flowers and led him before Midas, to whom he told wonderful tales… Midas, enchanted by Silenus’s fictions, entertained him for five days and nights,and then ordered a guide to escort him to Dionysus’s headquarters. Dionysus, who had been anxious on Silenus’s account, sent to ask how Midas wished to be rewarded. 14
.Silenus takes Dionysus to school
Silenus’s teaching comes as creative storytelling and it is this that he offers Midas and others who seek his wisdom. He sings his stories, says Virgil, to a throng of revellers who dance in tune to the beat, stories not of feasting or jolly drunkenness but of pathos; Prometheus’ guilty theft, the mariner’s sad cries for a lost Hylas, Pasiphae’s morbid desire for the white bull, the unrequited loves for Atalanta, Scylla terrifying trembling sailors, and the bitter revenge of Philomena against abusive Tereus. 15 The benefit of such stories for bringing insight to the emotional excitations of the dionysia is invaluable, and for this it is no surprise to find Dionysus and his tutor portrayed as inseparable co-revellers. Indeed Silenus appears in iconography as a janus face with Dionysus, suggesting two faces of a single emotional process archetype. This is akin to Jung’s notion of an affect-image continuum by which he characterised archetypal images as portraits of emotions that allow the emotion to consciously “perceive itself”. 16 Using Jung’s metaphor of a spectrum of light to describe this process, where the infra-red end represents physical emotional arousal and the ultra-violet end represents psychic imagery, we might say that Dionysus and Silenus are the infra-red and ultra-violet of each emotional act.
Apollo, with whom Dionysus is often associated in the thinking of psychologists and philosophers, presents an antithesis: he holds a rational point of view which Lopez-Pedraza reminds is outside the body and therefore outside Dionysus’s archetypal boundaries. 17 On this basis it is little wonder Nietzsche went insane trying to reconcile the irreconcilable; emotion and intellect push apart like two poles of a magnet, or at least do not communicate in a shared language. Silenus and Dionysus on the contrary are one in their shared ‘irrationality’.
Without his other face Dionysus is vulnerable to dangers posed by the Titans and by Apollo, with the former goading to violent emotional excess and the latter to intellectual repression of emotional fantasy. Perhaps Apollo’s repressive influence works in favour of the Titanic excess by nullifying all emotion-containing imagination -binding Silenus- so the Titans can have their way?
Recommendations that may drive the alexithymic individual “mad” include naïve proscriptions for ‘expressing your emotions’ such as by therapies of dance, song, art, drama or primal-screaming. Without spontaneous Silenean imagination the emotions evoked can reach manic pitch in which the arts serve as Titanic invitations
- Bacchus-Silenus Roman head
that push the individual beyond his ability to cope. While it is true these mediums evoke or provoke emotional arousal within a limiting setting and therefore may be useful for people who already possess a degree of emotional awareness, the alexithymic individual tends to become confused, overwhelmed, distressed, anxious or traumatized by the excessive emotions released (which may already be present in maddening degree prior to the experiment). The individual may become humiliated by being subjected to an outside person’s experiment which has succeeded in little more than provoking an embarrassing excess of emotions without providing any new skills for identifying or modulating their intensity. The problem with such rituals is that they come from outside, the images are not generated within the individual psyche from whom the emotion is being extracted. Therein lies the proscription for how to conduct these practices with the person who has a deficit in emotional awareness; at some point in the process he needs to generate his own scenarios to dance to, or at least creatively distort those images given to him in order to consciously participate. We need those little golden images to appear from the inside to guide the process, and not be introduced or artificially planted from without. Soul cannot be made by an injection of strychnine.
Finally, the awakening of imaginal feedback can benefit by suggestions from Henry Krystal which take into account the alexithymic individual’s pseudophobia surrounding self-control of emotional life, and in particular of the use of imagination to this end. These are “powers” writes Krystal, “reserved for mother, doctor, God”… but most certainly not for oneself. 18 Before the work of accessing imagination can proceed, the therapist must relieve this pseudophobia so that the individual feels he has “permission” to allow spontaneous imagination and to make use of it in identifying and regulating emotion expression. Krystal writes, "Eventually, the benign mental representations become so secure that the direct use of a security blanket can be given up. Dreams, fantasy, and play can be used… so that self-caring can be carried out."19
image courtesy Fitzwilliam Museum
In summary, for the full circle of emotional process to take place imagination needs to reflect not just the scenario that provoked the emotion but also elaborate the emotion itself as a state of the subject. As in the example of ‘Paul’ above who is moved to anger by the image of a careless driver, imagination extrudes a further image of himself blasting a horn at the offending driver, effectively ‘putting himself in the picture’. This is identical to nocturnal dreams in which ‘I’ am portrayed in the dream and am behaving in a certain way in response to the situation presented. Only in this way is it possible to complete the circle of awareness and hence “make soul”. The boon is portrayed on an ancient Porto sarcophagus which depicts our storytelling Silenus offering a young male initiate a butterfly, the Greek word for which is “soul”. 20
1Emotion: A Comprehensive Phenomenology of Theories and their Meanings for Therapy, Northwestern U P, 1960
2Taylor, G.J., Bagby, R.M. and Parker, J.D.A. Disorders of Affect Regulation: Alexithymia in medical and psychiatric illness. Cambridge U P, 1997
4Thompson, J. "Alexithymia: An Imaginative Approach", Psychotherapy Australia Journal, vol 14, No 4, Journal Psychoz P, Aug., 2008 and Thompson, J. Emotionally Dumb: An Overview of Alexithymia, Soul Books, 2009
5Aleman, A. "Feelings you can't imagine: towards a cognitive neuroscience of alexithymia", Trends in Cognitive Sciences Volume 9, Issue 12, 2005, 553-555
6Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account. Spring Pub., 1983
7The Feeling of What Happens, Harcourt and Brace, 1999, p.79
8Taylor, G.J., & Taylor-Allan, H.L. (2007) "Applying emotional intelligence in understanding and treating physical and psychological disorders: What have we learned from alexithymia", Chapter 15 Educating People to be Emotionally Intelligent, by Eds. Reuven Bar-On, Kobus Maree, J. G. Maree, Maurice J. Elias. Praeger, 2007, p.218
9Archetypal Psychology: A Brief Account. Spring, 1983
13Lopez-Pedraza, R. Dionysus in Exile: On the Repression of the Body and Emotion, Chiron Publications, 2000, p.35
14Graves, R. The Greek Myths, complete edition. Penguin, 1992, p. 281
15Virgil: Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid. Translated by Fairclough, H. R., Loeb Classical Library, Volumes 63 & 64. Harvard University Press, 1916, p.35
16Jung, C. G., The Structure and Dynamics of The Psyche, CW6, Bollingen, Princeton University P.,1969, CW8. [Note: Although Jung refers in this volume to an archetype-instinct continuum, in his Definitions in CW 6 he makes clear that emotions are equally considered instinctive actions. See instinct on p.451]
18Krystal, H. Integration and Self-Healing: Affect, Trauma, Alexithymia. Hillsdale NJ: The Analytic Press,1988, p.317
20Miller, D. (1981) Christs: Meditations on Archetypal Images of Christ. The Seabury P, 1981, p.129