I am writing a novel and was wondering if there was a specific term for someone unable to express his own emotions or feelings. The catch here is, this doesn't mean he doesn't know what anger or love is for example, but just can't express it through his own body language.

The main idea is someone like a method actor for example might have so much experience taking on a certain role and become so good at adopting other personalities and portraying them, that he has forgotten how to be himself. While he might be a expert at taking on the role of a scared child for example, when confronted with something fear inducing out of character, he simply can't express it whether verbally or physically.

Another example might be someone unable to express happiness, but when given dolls or sock puppets, he can very easily show happiness and mood through the puppet/doll. The only issue is expressing this through his own body.

If any of you have seen the TV show Hereos, there is a character called Sylar who has the power to steal other peoples abilities. This is all fine and dandy, but once he steals the ability to shape shift, he starts to lose a sense of who he is. While he can transform and impersonate other people flawlessly, each time he does so he seemed to lose a sense of who he was originally. Essentially, he slowly starts to forget how to be himself. This seems to be the best example I can think of that I've seen on TV.

In essence, I'm looking for a better way to describe what I've listed above in a way other than just 'someone who has trouble expressing emotion'.

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    $\begingroup$ So...not alexithymia? If not (i.e., if I understand your "catch" correctly), are you sure this concept has any basis in reality? BTW, it seems you posted without finishing your last sentence... $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ Fixed my sentence, thanks for the heads up. Alexithymia seems similar to what I'm looking for, but people with alexithymia seem to have a complete inability to express emotion, while what I'm looking for is a way to describe people who have a hard time expressing it through themselves, but can through other means (pretending they are someone else, using toys). I'm sure I read about this a year or two ago, but can't find much info anymore. $\endgroup$
    – JimmyK
    Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 20:27
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting! I hope someone can help. I'm curious to know if the syndrome has a name too. I agree that alexithymia doesn't seem to fit, but I haven't been able to find anything suitable yet either. $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 11, 2014 at 20:58
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    $\begingroup$ The problem I see here is that apparently you try to find a scientific name for something that you (and other fiction writers) made up. To illustrate the problem with a more obvious example, what you ask is like: "What is the scientific name for a person whose eyes are on the palms of his hands, like the character Despero in the cartoon series Batman: The Brave and the Bold?" If you know of a real case, please give a source (e.g. a friend of yours). $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Mar 12, 2014 at 11:25
  • $\begingroup$ @what: I think there is a (somewhat less than scientific) name for that: tenome! Though that basically just translates to "eye of hand" or "hand's eye"... $\endgroup$ Commented May 3, 2014 at 18:30

3 Answers 3


It is alexithymia if you're looking for a diagnostic term. It is not a case of "you either have it or you don't—alexithymia is a continuum.

There even exists a scale, which is a professional scale so to get it you need to pay for it and be a researcher. It's called Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20).

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    $\begingroup$ Having looked it up, it may be worth noting that the TAS-20 uses cutoff scores. The TAS-20 uses cutoff scoring: equal to or less than 51 = non-alexithymia, equal to or greater than 61 = alexithymia. Scores of 52 to 60 = possible alexithymia. That being said, there is theoretical support for a latent dimensional theory of alexithymia, and there are other measures, as well as several other characteristics the OP hasn't mentioned here $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 10:32
  • $\begingroup$ This concept rather refers to the ability to identify and describe of one's own or others' emotions/affect than to express them, and it also involves a number of additional factors. $\endgroup$
    – huh
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 21:29

Perhaps you are looking for blunted affect?

Wikipedia's definition goes like this (article has been updated since):

Blunted affect is a clinical term to define a lack of emotional reactivity (affect display) in an individual. It manifests as a failure to express feelings either verbally or non-verbally, especially when talking about issues that would normally be expected to engage the emotions.

  • $\begingroup$ Even though the OP have in a comment qualified their question, this is a partial answer at least. However, flat affect, also mentioned in the WP article, is closer as it constitutes a complete lack of emotional expression. $\endgroup$
    – huh
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 21:21

If you are interested in this from the perspective of normal-range human functioning, then you could look at the literature on emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence is a broad construct. For example, an ability model breaks emotional intelligence up in terms of ability ion perceiving, using, understanding, and managing emotions. Thus, it does include the ability to express emotions.

Ultimately, there seem to be some issues of measurement related to emotional intelligence. There are typical self-report measures (e.g., self-ratings on questions like "I am good at managing my emotions") which typically correlate highly with traditional Big 5 models and related models of personality. Then there are "ability-based measures" such as the MSCEIT which involve IQ-style questions related to emotion (e.g., classifying emotions in facets, etc.). The ability measures often show some correlations with IQ measures and limited correlations with self-report measures.

Thus, it doesn't seem like most measures do a great job at measuring actual skills in emotional expression. My general impression is that there may be a greater need for more ecologically valid measures of emotional intelligence, particularly as it relates to emotional expression. For example, role play exercises, other reports, and so on.


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