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
Social media is both blessing and curse. Without it I’d have very little contact with people; I’d not have gotten to know some wonderful, supportive friends. I’d not have been contacted by my daughter. But unfortunately it can’t substitute for physical proximity, the joy of sharing some activity with another.
Sometimes when I’m feeling lonely, craving some human connection, I notice photos of people I know on Facebook out with their friends having a good time and it makes me melancholy, too aware of what I rarely experience. It’s not jealousy: I’m not envying their enjoyment. It just reminds me of the past.
There are only a couple of times in my life when I have had that kind of friendship. Hanging out together, going places and doing things–sometimes crazy things like running through Aldershot town center spraying silly string at each other, or driving halfway across the country just to see where a particular road would take us.
As I’ve written before friendship is something that I struggle with. I can talk to people and often enjoy socializing as long as the environment is something my senses can comfortably handle. But I’ve never understood how to progress from acquaintance to something more, to the point where I don’t feel the need to second-guess every interaction in case I say or do the wrong thing.
My experiences growing up taught me to be reserved and wary around others, to sit back and wait for them to initiate every interaction. Because when I tried I made mistake after mistake and suffered ridicule. I learned to hide how I felt in case it was used against me.
Another obstacle has always been the difficulty I have reading people. I never know how they feel about me which makes me tread carefully, unwilling to cause offense. By the time I feel I know someone well enough to feel confident opening up around them our relationship has settled into a routine casual acquaintance.
The number of people I’ve seen over the years, at university, in the workplace and in social settings, who have that magical self-confidence and the ability that allows them to rapidly construct friendships while I’m still stuck at the level of saying good morning and talking about the weather.
It can be painful sometimes when people I like move on and I regret that I never managed to build a degree of closeness with them, a platonic intimacy. When it hits me that I know so little about them. Ah, the mysterious arts of small talk and conversation about personal matters.
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?
Several times, especially in recent weeks, I have been put in an awkward, discomfiting position when out socially. One minute I will be feeling at ease among friends and then one person will start behaving badly – disparaging and insulting others, being antagonistic, even spiteful, and completely shattering my sense of calm.
This person absolutely refuses to accept that they might be in the wrong, instead reacting angrily to criticism and blaming anyone and everyone around them; the phrase “chip on the shoulder” comes readily to mind. I’m starting to wonder if there’s some psychological problem behind these personality traits – the Wikipedia entry for narcissistic personality disorder includes the following:
Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others. Yet, they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. It is this sadistic tendency that is characteristic of narcissism…
But this speculation does not address the issue at hand, namely that this person is causing an increasing amount of ill-feeling and upset. I know that I’m reaching the limit of my patience in dealing with this person’s demands and prima donna antics, and I’m far from the only one feeling this way.
I find that I am dealing with the stress caused by this person’s behavior by switching off from these interactions – I have become increasingly emotionally detached as a form of self-defense. While I still care, I am no longer willing to be subjected to this kind of bullying behavior.
Social situations are a minefield in which the slightest misstep can result in things blowing up in your face. I picture the situation as a narrow path – the “safe” area in terms of what I can say or do – with increasing danger of stepping on a mine – upsetting somebody – the farther I venture from the path.
Since I am risk-averse I do not often test the boundaries of what people find to be acceptable behavior – mapping out the danger area – and when I do, I tend to do so carefully and deliberately in the hope that any negative reaction will be small enough for me to handle.
I find it difficult because different people have wildly different standards of what they deem to be acceptable. Not only that, but the boundaries move depending on context. There is only a small patch of common ground on which the majority of people I encounter socially can agree.
My starting position with somebody I have not met before is to play it very safe – speak when spoken to, no slang or swearing, no physical contact. Over time I will observe how they act towards me and others, and slowly begin to introduce those behaviors that they demonstrate – the assumption here is that they are less likely to be offended by something that they do themselves.
This is not an infallible method. That’s people for you – they’re not always rational, logical or consistent. It can be a case of “do as I say, not as I do” – how confusing! But slowly, gingerly, I can explore the envelope and work out just how far I am able to take things with those I know reasonably well.
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