When you’re autistic you get used to being let down, to having your hopes dashed. Read more
When you’re autistic you get used to being let down, to having your hopes dashed. Read more
I’ll admit I’m finding things difficult right now, what with stress, anxiety and a dash of depression throw in for good measure. And always there in the back of my mind, nagging at me like a hangnail, is the feeling that I’m letting people down.
It’s amazing how much difference a couple of days can make. On Sunday I was in such a dark place; my mind was in turmoil and I was suffering such fear that I could barely function.
I responded to a kind offer from friends to visit for a while, to get away – run away – to somewhere I could feel free of the pressure that was causing me such distress. By Monday evening I was over 100 miles away and beginning the process of recovery.
Unusually for me I wanted to talk, to share how I had been feeling: having an understanding audience is vital. And it can be cathartic to simply speak about your troubles. To put them into words, give them shape and gain a fresh perspective.
In this case talking about how I’d been feeling served to organize my feelings, put my thoughts into an order that allowed me to deal with them, to start to release the pain and fear. To take the first steps towards recovery.
My surroundings have been very conducive to that end: my friends have a comfortable house right near the coast in a quiet part of Dorset: peaceful, lovely scenery, plenty of fresh air and not many people around me. It has been as close to perfect as I could have wished for.
A number of people have contacted me, through email, SMS and social networks, to offer their support. It has been a revelation that I have so many people who care about me: I don’t have a lot of self-esteem and it can be hard to believe that anyone else would think much of me.
The friends I stayed with made me so welcome and didn’t put me under any pressure to explain what had happened or how I was feeling: they gave me the space I needed. I felt safe and was able to relax, and as I did so I started to talk. They listened and understood. They didn’t judge, didn’t tell me what I should do.
I left this morning feeling calm, and also a little embarrassed that I’m not able to thank them nearly enough for being there for me when I needed their support. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such kindness: I was close to tears — of happiness — as I drove away, and again now as I write this.
It is because of these friends, and others who have contacted me in one way or another over the past couple of days that I am starting to feel good about myself again. It feels as if the crisis is behind me and I’m moving on. I’ve got the time and support now to complete the healing process.
I mentioned in a previous post that I suffer from insecurity in relationships because I don’t know how the other person feels towards me. In terms of Attachment Theory this would be described as preoccupied or anxious-preoccupied attachment, characterized by worrying about what others think of you and a need for approval and validation.
In my case I am aware that I have a disposition towards clinginess: I can become dependent on the other person for validation of my self-esteem, sometimes to the point of obsession. Being aware of this does help to a degree because it means I can moderate my impulses. I don’t mean that I’d stalk somebody, following them around everywhere – nothing that scary – but I without that self-restraint I’d quite probably be getting to the point of harassing them with the frequency of contact. This is not good. Obviously it can destroy a relationship if one party is too clingy and constantly seeks reassurance of their worth – it can be very wearing for the other person involved.
The trouble is… even though I am aware of how I am, I still feel insecure; still feel a need for the approval of others. It’s such a good feeling when I receive attention from somebody I care about, and they appear, to me, to reciprocate the friendship. And then, after we go off our separate ways and carry on with our lives, my doubts start to creep in and the insecurity builds: am I reading too much into the relationship? Do they care or were they just being polite? Am I, in reality, just a pain in the ass to them? Are they secretly glad to get away from my clingy behavior? And so it goes on.
I catastrophize (thank you Musings) when I send a text and get no response. The reality is most likely that they are every bit as bad as me when it comes to checking for messages and then remembering to reply when I get the free time to do so, but in my mind I imagine that they are sick to death of being pestered by me, that I’ve offended them, or even that the relationship exists only in my mind. I worry that I am being too demanding for attention and driving them away.
All these negative fantasies are distressing, driving my anxiety and dominating my thoughts to the extent that I struggle to concentrate on anything else. Recently I have begun to work on handling this situation by focusing on the positive facts about the relationship: remembering occasions and incidents that provide evidence of reciprocation. I also regularly remind myself that this negative speculation is groundless, that I have no reason to harbor such doubts. And I also reflect on the fact that somebody as poor at reading others as I am can certainly not draw those worrying inferences with any confidence – I simply do not know for sure how the other person feels and so rather than assume the worst I try to keep a balanced view. It’s not cured my anxiety but it does help prevent the self-destructive downwards spiral.
Now, if I could just work on developing a healthier attachment style I’d be happy! Still, any progress is a help and at least I recognize that a problem exists which is the first step in fixing it.
People talk to me. I talk back. Sometimes I feel comfortable with it. But do they like me? I don’t know and there are times when that bothers me. Like many Aspies I have great difficulty reading people, recognizing and interpreting their body language. Together with the gaps in my understanding of social conventions this means I’ve got my work cut out trying to push the envelope of interaction.
There are a number of people I know socially; I talk with them sometimes and it all seems friendly enough. But that’s as far as it goes. I very rarely invite people to join me in some activity because I don’t know how they will react — I don’t mean whether they will say “yes” or “no” but whether they would feel I had crossed some boundary, broken some social rule.
From my observations of people it appears that it is common amongst friends to arrange to do things together, while people who are mere acquaintances don’t do this. I’ve never been able to grasp how one advances an interpersonal relationship beyond the initial stages. Sometimes it just seems to happen but I don’t understand the mechanics.
I suspect that conversation has a lot to do with the process. (Just my luck I guess – that’s not one of my strengths.) From what my wife and others have told me it appears that there are non-verbal signals that are used in conversations, perhaps below the level of conscious communication, that influence the other party. It might as well be telepathy as far as I’m concerned, but I’ve witnessed occasions where my wife has inferred accurate interpretations of people’s state of mind without even exchanging a word! It leaves me stunned, like seeing a great illusionist perform: I’m just left wondering “how did she do that?”.
Anyhow, I’m digressing a little. To get back to the main topic, I’ve developed a… theory, if you like. A working hypothesis, a conjecture, which is that these non-verbal signals are important in establishing and strengthening social bonds because they provide information about what the other person is thinking and feeling. I’m handicapped by an inability to recognize and interpret these signals, so all I have to go on is what the person says with a few tentative impressions based on tone of voice.
That’s all well and good but I’ve learned that you can’t always rely on taking what people say at face value. They might be teasing, they might be following social conventions (such as “being polite”, or, in other words, exhibiting socially-acceptable insincerity). I can’t tell so I behave with caution, treading warily up to the boundaries of what I know to be acceptable. My self-imposed boundaries, which are an amalgamation of the rules I’ve constructed to circumscribe my behavior.
There are different rules for different degrees of familiarity: I may act in certain ways with people I consider friends that I never would with people I do not know well. The difficult question for me is how do these other people feel about me? Do they consider me a friend at all, or am I just some guy they occasionally talk to in the pub? Am I being presumptuous by thinking that there is anything more to the relationship? And how do I find out?
This uncertainty underpins my insecurity about social relationships: I just do not know where I stand with people, I don’t know how they regard me. Perhaps I’m deluding myself and the people I think of as friends don’t reciprocate: perhaps they just tolerate my presence for some reason. How can I know?
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