More often than I’d like, I make “errors” that remind me that I’m autistic and really struggle with certain parts of communication, like discerning the nuances in context, word choice and meaning, understanding my emotions, and making my thoughts come out clearly in the language I choose. I always have many simultaneous ideas in my head and I’m not always that good at conveying them the way I intend to. Unfortunately, this can cause me to unintentionally say something that comes across as rude or hurtful; although this almost always isn’t my goal, having good motives doesn’t discount the negative emotions someone else may feel because of what I said or how I said it. One of my primary motivations behind paying for social skills therapy and studying relationships and communication (via books, online videos, and asking questions) is so that I can prevent hurting people’s feelings and embarrassing myself and feeling guilty for upsetting someone. It doesn’t feel good to hurt someone’s feelings when you’re trying to compliment them or at least communicate neutrally. It’s also humiliating to feel so incompetent in my ability to translate the thoughts and emotions I feel to cohesive and comprehensible language to a recipient. I tend to be a bit more skillful in written expression since it affords me time to think and adjust my word choice and “tone,” but I still make plenty of big mistakes. (I put “tone” in quotes because although my spoken voice (and I guess written, based on what people have said) can take on different pitches and inflections (different tonal qualities), it’s often unintentional or unconscious. Tone may be read into how my words are delivered yet I’m oblivious to moderating it and what it implies. It’s like my voice box knows how to use tone but my brain doesn’t, and this can cause a mismatch in what people assume I’m conveying via my tone.
Yesterday, I was reminded of my issues with communicating and not understanding my emotions. Through the process of conflict resolution with the person I upset, I also realized some really ugly things about myself and insecurities that are really raw and real for me but fuel me to act impulsively in ways I’m ashamed of.
Although the colors this problem revealed in my personality and really ugly and the language misunderstanding itself is mortifying (such that I’d rather not expose these weaknesses and bare my naked soul), I think there’s enough language and relationship takeaway to glean that it warrants explanation, however embarrassing.
I’m a member of several online support groups for autistic women or autistic adults in general. Soon after I was diagnosed nearly two years ago, I joined a little tiny secret Facebook group for women with sensory processing disorder. In fact, when I joined, I think I was still in the autism diagnosis process, though I had been given the SPD diagnosis and had started occupational therapy. The creator of this group was a lovely woman about twenty years older than me who had SPD. She created this really safe and supportive space for the handful of us in this sidegroup (off the main group of adults with SPD) to share our trials and tribulations, vent, and help one another. I felt like she supported me unconditionally and adopted me as her mentee, pulling me out of my shell and validating my feelings. She’s often read my blog and repost the links on our Facebook group and in those early months of my official diagnosis, she was always there to pick me up and remind me that I was doing really well and would always be “enough” just as I was. It was the exact affirmation and unconditional support I needed. As I told her, it was like she was my SPD/ASD “mama,” guiding me and holding me in close when I wanted to retreat from the world or felt unworthy.
We’ve remained friends though that group has basically dissolved. In the past year, she received her own ASD diagnosis and has really blossomed into a major support and advocate for women on the spectrum. She now moderates a huge support group and provides sage wisdom, resources, personal stories, and support to hundreds of autistic women or those in the process of obtaining a diagnosis. She’s taken her own experience and used it to be a beacon of help and information to others; it’s admirable and awe-inspiring.
That said, I think part of me really misses our old little group and our private off-page personal conversations. She’s so busy now and the big group is way too intimidating and overstimulating for me (so many posts a day) that I’ve retreated and don’t feel comfortable on it. I wish we still had our personal relationship.
A couple of weeks ago, I stuck my shy little neck out and messaged her to say hi. Little did I know I was catching her on a bad day when she was feeling triggered by one of her insecurities. She’s super creative and ingenious, actually an artist by trade, but she feels none of her ideas are ever original. (I totally disagree because she’s full of amazing ideas that are unique and cool, but this is her cognitive reality.) When I reached out, she said she had just written a blog post with a new analogy to knock the spoon theory out of the water. She equated her feeling to being like a Jenga tower, which was something I had discussed in a blog post back in January that she shared in our group. I hold no claim to this “idea,” but I said something like “yes I love that analogy! I use it too because the spoon theory makes no sense.” As we continued talking about it, it came across that I was calling her out on not being original. I wasn’t trying to do that; I was aiming to demonstrate (as the adage goes: show, don’t tell) that I truly side with her and think it’s a better analogy and provide the evidence that I do much ascribe to this simile that I wrote a whole post back in January and sent the link. She said she had no idea I had written that or felt that way and she thought it was her novel idea. I didn’t know this was a triggering issue for her and something she’s upset about and I didn’t know she wanted to feel it was unique. I thought she wanted to feel understood and like I sided with her, which is why I sent the post with the comment like “you read my post back in January and commented how you loved the symbolism, silly.”
I didn’t mean to offend her, but as she astutely pointed out, calling someone “silly” can be derogatory and hurtful. I had NO idea. I always thought it was a term of playful endearment like “silly little love of mine who makes me laugh and feel good (in a good way).” I often think in terms of analogies and metaphors. When I use this term or hear someone use it in reference to me, I picture a mother cat lying down feeding her kittens and one little spunky one is playing and exploring and then he comes crashing in to the pack of kittens and the mama licks his little head to welcome him back. Anyway, I had no idea it’s such a derogatory and hurtful word. We ended up both feeling upset: she felt hurt that I used the word and attacked that her post wasn’t novel and I felt yelled at, chided, embarrassed, guilty, and dumb for hurting her and not knowing a mean word in the context I used it when I was just trying to connect and actually validate her feeling of being like a Jenga tower by showing her I can relate and feel that way too.
One thing I always seek is validation and feeling understood and not so weird and different. One of the biggest challenges I faced as the youngest and most difficult of three girls in my family is that I felt like a screw up and misunderstood. I had all sorts of behavioral challenges when I was a kid and was constantly getting yelled at and in trouble. My two older sisters were relatively perfect compared to me and I rarely, if ever, saw them get in trouble. I was so notoriously out-of-control and getting yelled at, spanked, or sent to my room for hyperactivity or misbehaviors. It felt like I was always expected to perform as well and maturely as they did even though I was younger and had emotional challenges (we thought it was just ADHD but it turns out now in hindsight that the undiagnosed sensory issues and autism were likely contributing; these are problems my sisters don’t have).
It wasn’t just behavioral expectations that felt unfair. For instance, we all took Japanese lessons together for years. Even though one of my sisters is nearly four years older than me and the other a good 18 months, I was graded the same way they were and was expected to take on the same level of difficulty. I always fell short and struggled with my quiz grades; I cried almost every lesson and as much as I love my sisters and don’t want to invoke any blame on them, they laughed at me a lot whenever I messed up. The whole thing about taking classes with them really damaged my self-esteem, plus they had started a year before me. The same principle held with piano lessons though music is a bit less objective than quiz grades. That said, our musical theory and ear training lessons were scored and I always did poorly. Around the home, because I was the only kid who’d they’d yell at and punish (because I DID misbehave and my sisters were near perfect), I internalized that I was less worthy of their love and truly less loved. I also grew to realize how different I was than everyone else in my family, namely my sisters, and it seemed that how I felt was “wrong” because, for example, when I’d voice sensory issues, I was told I was being “impossible” or “making stuff up” (bothersome noises, uncomfortable clothing, etc.). I really felt I was broken and was supposed to be exactly like my sisters. I really despised that feeling of “differentness” or being misunderstood, so when the woman I respect as a mentor said she felt like a precarious Jenga tower, I tried to nurture her the way I wish I had been nurtured as a child: listened to, understood, and allied (not so different since I felt that way too). Her needs and life experience are different than mine though so to be a good friend to her in that moment, I should have said it was a great idea. Being novel is important to her and I didn’t know that. I tried to give her the affirming hug I would have wanted (and do want now when I make some of my blog posts now, like, “you’re not that weird; that makes sense!); instead, I made her feel terribly and used a word that I meant as a term of endearment (“silly”), but that apparently has a disrespectful connotation.
The conversation ended with both parties feeling really low and hurt. I felt rejected because like I said, I had always seen her as a SPD/ASD “mama” who would support me and remind me I was enough just as I was unconditionally. When I committed an unintentional language and social mistake, she pulled away (rightfully so) and I felt like I WAS broken and wasn’t worthy¾that I just am too impaired to deserve her friendship, time, and love. I was the little battered kitten who ran up to the mama cat but then the mama cat said, “sorry little one, it’s just been one too many mistakes; I’m good with these other well-behaved kitties.” After all, like I mentioned, she has hundreds of other women now that she helps and buoys. Why should she waste time helping someone who hurts her?!
Weeks went by. I retreated into my shell and didn’t reach out to her nor post in the one big group she now moderates. I spent time in the other support groups instead. However, I still get notifications when she posts in the group so I was alerted to a back-and-forth conversation with another group member yesterday. This other member, who I don’t know, also called her “silly,” and she had “liked” the comment. Even though I read the thread, I didn’t see how this was any different of a context. As I said, I really struggle with nuances in language and understanding how context can change the connotation and meaning of a word; denotation may not change, but context can greatly affect connotation. Anyway, I impulsively added a comment that calling someone “silly” can be mean and hurtful. When I posted that, my conscious motive was that I was trying to share the knowledge that my mentor had shared with me. The woman commented that I was being passive-aggressive, which offended me, because at the time, I didn’t think I was. In reality, that was astute on her point because I guess I was, but I was unaware of it.
My “mama” reached out in messenger to work out the issue with me. She explained the differences in context and how in our previous “fight” about the Jenga tower, she might have overreacted a bit because I had triggered her insecurity about the uniqueness of the idea. We talked about our feelings and what we meant and about our insecurities. The conversation helped me have this painfully embarrassing epiphany about my desire to feel loved as is and validated. As I said to her:
You and [name of the other woman] helped me realize something: maybe it was passive aggressive but I didn’t consciously know it. Now that I’ve thought through our problem a few weeks ago and my comment on that post, I’ve realized something bad about myself. I was upset last time that I had triggered and upset you and was embarrassed that I didn’t know that word was mean. Plus, I felt like it was sort of my way of reaching out initially in that time after us not talking for a while because I missed you and I always feel super nervous and vulnerable when I reach out to someone I respect and love because I worry they don’t feel the same way about me since I haven’t heard from them. I always felt like I was not deserving of your love and help but like I said, you were like a “mama” to me in terms of being a mentor and a come as you are kind of unconditional acceptance. When our conversation quickly derailed that day due to me being dumb with word choice and not knowing I was triggering you with the Jenga idea thing, I manifested my own bad fear: I drove you away and felt the rejection I so was hoping to not feel. Then when I saw [name of other woman] use it and I thought it felt like the same context (now I see it wasn’t) but you not only didn’t “scold her” but liked the comment (again, totally in the right because the context WAS different) it triggered my insecurity that my real mom loved my sisters more; that they can do the same thing I did and be praised for it. I know now after your explanation how wrong this was, but there must have been a piece of me that was jealous and angry and that part acted impulsively to comment. I’m very embarrassed now that I realize that and I owe you a bigger apology.
I think it’s interesting that my brain knows how to be passive aggressive when I’m so self-unaware to even understand in that moment why I’m hurt it upset. I had very little idea that I felt this way about not being lovable enough as I was for my parents even I was young. I have a great relationship with both of them, but when I did my therapy session this morning, I realized I STILL feel threatened by the closeness and “perfectness” of my mom’s relationships with my other two sisters. They all essentially live together and I’m far away. Mom sees them both daily and we only see each other every few months. Moreover, I have SO many problems and mom is always still needing to help me, whereas my sisters are very successful, self-sufficient, and give her way more back. I am less deserving of love and more “broken” and different in a bad way.
The issue with my friend in the support groups helped me see how much I seek validation and acceptance and my primal insecure Amber lashes out when I don’t feel that way. It’s an ugly color of myself. I acted impulsively when I commented. I wasn’t aware that I was trying to be passive aggressive, I felt I was just trying to be genuinely helpful much in the same way that the other day on the same page, someone posted a term that has its roots in racism. A different member pointed that out so the poster could learn; she wasn’t trying to be mean. I thought I was fulfilling my duty of imparting the knowledge I was given when I used “silly.” Again, when I used it a few weeks ago, I didn’t know it was not a nice word to use. I meant it in the same context that Ben says it to me, almost like “sweetie.” Like if I say, did you miss me? He says, “of course I did, silly.” But now I think it all through and have been schooled in the negative connotation, I see that it’s not the best word to use and not that nice. I own my mistake and take full responsibility for hurting my friend’s feelings. When I unnecessarily inserted myself in the thread yesterday and commented that “silly” isn’t always a compliment, I acted impulsively (one of my weaknesses with ADHD) and didn’t flesh out my thoughts in my head well and did a terrible job translating them into language. If I truly felt it was my place to get involved (which in hindsight, I don’t), my wording should have been more thorough though, like “silly is sweet and cute in this context, but sometimes, the word can be disrespectful, and I’m still learning the difference.” I didn’t think it all through and I definitely struggle to read the nuances of the different contexts. I’m ashamed for my unkind actions. Fortunately, both women have forgiven me and my friend and I have cleared the hurt between us and understood one another better.
This morning, when she and I were talking through our conflict, she said one of the gifts I give her in her life is “the keeper of her memory,” which I think means I help her remember things. She’s a lot of wonderful things and imparts many benefits to me, but today, I see her as the critical connector. She not only helps all of us lonely, introverted, retreated autistic women connect to one another and the world, but she also helps us see connections in ourselves. She helped me identify my primal need to feel like I’m enough and to feel validated. She connected me to my true inner feelings, my subconscious, to which I felt oblivious but that was guiding my behavior and words. Perhaps she should have been a therapist…
It never feels good to realize you’re still making basic communication and language mistakes, especially ones that hurt others. I have never intended to hurt my friend; she’s a beautiful soul and sensitive like me. I respect how vulnerable she makes herself by being transparent and clear in her thoughts and feelings. I hope we move forward together with more successful communication, and I recognize the onus for that falls largely on my incompetent shoulders. It’s frustrating to feel myself failing at something I’m trying so hard to master. It helps me understand why I have so few friends; I’ve likely unintentionally and accidentally alienated everyone, which has left me as alone as I feel and deserving of it. Most of all, it’s painful to uncover my primal insecurities and wounds from childhood, formed when I was too young to understand love but that have been unaddressed and left to fester all these years. Logically, I know my parents probably love me just as much as my sisters, both now as an adult and as that young, rambunctious kid who kept messing up and made them want to pull their hair out. Still, I think part of me feels a need to prove I’m worthy of their love. It was just last week that I expressed how much I want them to be proud of me and see me as doing well and successful (which is why I shy away from accepting an offer of a visit when I’m really sick or depressed). I only want to show my good sides so that they aren’t given more “evidence” or reason to see I’m “less than” my sisters. While it’s likely I’m projecting this insecurity onto their perceptions of me and my value, it’s my current cognitive distortion. I was going to say I’m really dreading the fact that I have an in-person psychotherapy session with my therapist tomorrow (my monthly check-in), but it’s probably very important to get some professional help with this stuff. Some epiphanies are easier to handle than others; this one, falls in the latter category. It doesn’t feel good to harbor these worries and weaknesses. I’m feeling far from put together and “progressed” today. As much as I’ve grown and advanced in some ways, I’m still quite broken and impaired.