As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, it’s very difficult for me to take the perspective of other people. I feel as though I’m giving up too much control to the other person. I feel that the person may take advantage of me emotionally by either making fun of me or looking down on me.
But this past week, I made a breakthrough in this area.
I was getting ready to go deliver a very important speech to the community of a major psych hospital here in Philadelphia. I had trouble sleeping the night before (I eventually came down with the flu after the speech). But I think I was also troubled, because when I woke up in the morning I was overcome by an intense feeling of loneliness. Although this was my seventh speech at this hospital, and five out of the six talks had gone well, I had never felt this empty before.
I realized the reason for this feeling was that this presentation reminded me of the good old days when I used to give speeches or do public performances in high school. The difference here is that there was nobody around to support me. Part of that was my fault — I told very few people about the presentation, so how could they support me? But also in high school despite having undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome, I was a very social person and had many friends. So, naturally, when I was going to act in a show or skit, everybody knew about it, and I would get approval, support and feedback.
Unfortunately, when I went to college the support system that I cultivated in high school disappeared. The school was too large for me (35,000 students vs. 350 in my high school). I became disillusioned, angry, and lost. I then (consciously or unconsciously) took the attitude that I didn’t need anyone’s support and I was going to go it totally alone.
That defiant attitude caught up with me this week. I was ready to have support from others again, but was blocked about how to get it.
A part of me is a very angry person who sees giving the other person a chance as the ultimate capitulation. I was hurt years ago by somebody. That experience made me shut down and not want to trust a lot of people. (Interestingly, I am now friends with this person again, but the impact of that interaction was deep and severe.)
I welcome a lot of guidance so I immediately e-mailed my Asperger’s life coach and therapist and asked if we could do a session that day on love, companionship, and close relationships with other people. I wanted help figuring out what was blocking me from forming those kinds of relationships again. She agreed and I was on my way!
Through my therapy session I now know that I can begin to push past the anxiety and learn to practice social empathy and perspective in small steps and phases. How do I know this? Well in reality, I don’t. We don’t know anything for sure unless we try. But, I’ll tell you that in the four days since I began this experiment, I have already begun to feel less alone in the world. I feel connected because I’m constantly thinking about other people and how their day went or what we’re going to talk about when we meet. I may be physically alone at times but I’m still concerned about others.
For many years, I felt like someone who needed to be plugged into the world but whose cord had come out of the socket. Now I’m beginning to feel connected again.
One of the big sticking points in being connected to others was that by getting close to someone, I felt I would have to give up my independence and self-sufficiency, which are very important to me. Growing up I had felt like others would suck me up like a vacuum cleaner would a piece of dirt and I would disappear. I had no real boundaries with people. I was nice to them and they were nice to me but I didn’t know where I began and they ended. We were just one. Which isn’t bad if it’s a mutual agreement.
Ironically, when I got to college and got hurt by the impersonal atmosphere I experienced at the university, I learned to put boundaries down too quickly.
As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I suffer from “all-or-nothing” or “black-or-white” thinking, which means that things are either one way or the other with me — there are no grey areas. And while I have made great strides here, I still have a ways to go.
The effect of this type of thinking has hurt me because my boundaries have become too rigid and inflexible. Either I’m right or the other person is right in a social situation, instead of a blending of the two points of view.
And I need this blending (as do we all) in order to be social with others. I need to come to terms with the fact that I’m not the only person on this planet who has needs and desires and feelings. Other people do too!
This is a good thing to realize because we are all dependent on one another and interconnected in varying degrees. As one of my other therapists said, even the pants or shirts I wear were stitched together by someone who I didn’t know.
Unless you want to be a hermit in this world and socially isolated you’ve got to depend on others.
What I now also know is that with healthy boundaries, I can see the other person’s point of view but also still make my own decision about things. And that is very important to me. Just because a person wants me to go out of my way for them doesn’t mean I have to. I can take into account many areas of grey with them. Have they gone out of their way for me in the past? Even if they haven’t are they going through a difficult time that I can show them a break or give them a “social pass”?
Instead of the old black or white/all or nothing thinking, I can take into account the context of the situation. And that is very important for seeing people on their own terms. People, of course, come with histories and back-stories (to use dramatic terminology). Even a stranger who asks me for a dime on the sidewalk obviously comes with a history.
And what about the person who snaps at you for no good reason at all? I don’t have to diminish anymore how it makes me feel but I can also try and get a read that perhaps they were having a bad day and that was the reason for their rude behavior. It doesn’t excuse it. And I don’t have to like it, but I do have to accept it.
But acceptance — as I learned from my cognitive therapist — does not mean passivity. It means accepting things as they are in any given moment but also knowing that that moment is open to change. All of life is in a constant ever-changing flow around us.
Even though we’ve made mistakes in the past we can still learn and grow from them. We don’t have to continually blame ourselves for past so-called “failures.”
Something that has been a big help on my journey is the concept of mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the concept of being able to step back and look at your thoughts and feelings for what they are. It means not being reactive to your every whim and thought and getting angry in the process.
I practice mindfulness through meditation tapes prescribed by my cognitive therapist for at least fifteen minutes a day, every day of the week. I do what is called a body scan where I lay down on a mat with my shoes off and listen to a therapist’s voice that tells me to tune into different parts of my body. If it sounds very new age, it can be. But it has worked for me. I listen to the tape and the voice will say pay attention to your feet or your stomach or your scalp. This is done because the body and mind work hand-in-hand with our processing skills. This becomes crucial for somebody with Asperger’s, especially when you’re trying to read somebody else’s facial expression or body language. If the person seems angry or happy with you, your body subconsciously or consciously feels this. For many years I would just shut down and process everything through my mind. I would use what is known as problem-solving, which isn’t bad for practical solutions but terrible for emotional regulation and taking the perspective of others.
There is so much stimuli coming from another person — visual and auditory cues — that to just be in your head can lead to disaster.
Many years ago when I lived in Los Angeles and I was in the throws of major depression, I would tell myself to get angry with people and fight with them just to get the upper hand and feel powerful. In retrospect, it just led to loneliness and isolation. I have been doing that to lesser degrees ever since I began work with both my Cognitive Behavioral Therapist and my Asperger’s life coach and consultant.
For some reason this week everything converged on that speech that I was going to give. I believe I had made enough leeway and felt strong enough in my self-esteem (I listen to a kindness meditation every other day of the week too) that I am ready to trust people again and give them the benefit of the doubt. I know I am probably going to get hurt again but this time I’ll have the skills that I didn’t have thirty years ago when I really got emotionally beat up. There are many resources and better therapies that weren’t available back then.
I’ll also tell you that I’ll be fifty-four on December 24th and the last twenty five years have been hell. But today I went out for lunch with a friend in from Los Angeles and I had a good time. As I walked home from lunch, I realized that there have been many good times like this over the years. I just wasn’t fully present to totally appreciate them. I also realized that walking down the street among other people wasn’t so bad after all. Nobody accosted me (as my paranoid and obsessive mind has told me in the past that they would) and it was rather pleasant just to take a stroll down the street.
I attribute this ease to my therapy session on social perspective this week. I feel I was outside of my head enough to be fully present with others, even the strangers who were strolling past me.
Oh, by the way, the speech at the hospital went well.