Friday, 3 February 2017

Autistic Hyper-Empathy and Emotional Volatility

From time to time, I’ve seen posts or links about hyper-empathy in autistics. These discuss how, far from being totally cold and unempathetic as some ‘experts’ still confidently proclaim, many of us are in fact in possession of too much empathy, and, not knowing what to do with it or how to express it, end up freezing or fleeing. Not all of us are like this of course, but from anecdotal evidence it seems a good number are.

I believe I am one of those hyper-empathetic auties. And before anyone goes “wow, she thinks she’s something special”, I want to explain that it’s far being from all lovely and roses and indigo children spiritual and so on. What in fact happens is that I’m dragged in, and often down, by others’ feelings. I’m an ‘all or nothing’ sort of person anyway, I get over-involved, and it can, and has, many a time, simply been too much to cope with or sort out, at least on the spot.

Sometimes it’s not even what they feel, but what I would feel if I were in their place. Many other times though, it is what they are obviously feeling, I take it on board as if it were my own response, and then I’m overcome by it, not able to detach myself from the situation, often still processing it long after the other person has moved on.

Also add in a measure of alexithymia, whereby I often don’t know what my own REAL feelings are, and that when I do know, they can be, and often in the past were, all over the place anyway, but frequently didn’t ‘show’ on the outside, and people would judge me for that, and then I’d get more upset… The result was, well, I would (and sometimes still can) end up something of a mess, to put it mildly.

I realised a long time ago that I needed to do something about this ‘over-reacting’ (as others called it), that my emotions were out of control, and I’ve worked long and hard over the past 15-20 years to master them. Meditation, together with a quieter lifestyle, has been key to doing this. But it’s still a fragile thing, I can still be dragged off balance all too easily.

What this means in practise is that I am still vulnerable to emotionally volatile people. I can be caught up in their dramas or crises, and lose that balance. In the worst instances, I can even take on not just their emotions but their thoughts and opinions as well. And it can take me ages to disentangle myself and rediscover my true feelings/thoughts/etc afterwards. My last relationship was a prime example of that, but it can and has happened with non-romantic connections too.

Which, as someone with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, I really can’t afford to have happen. The stress of sleepless nights, digestive disturbances (I’m being polite here!) and the resulting exhaustion and debilitation is simply too much of a risk. Many years ago, I reached the stage of being almost bedridden with the CFS and it took me years to recover. There is NO WAY I’m risking going back to that state again. No way. EVER.

And once I realise what’s happening, the only real solution is to back away from such people as fast and as far as I can, even if I lose a lot else in doing so. I have broken ties and left behind friends. I have up and left groups, or moved house or localities even, if need be. I have undoubtedly come across as ‘cold’ or ‘uncaring’ or ‘snobbish’ or who knows what, to others who don’t understand. But I really don’t have a choice - not if I value my sanity or my health.

Please note that I am not putting down or being judgemental here of people like this. I don’t doubt others are able to keep their own calm, and deal with them just fine. I’m just not one of them. And my first responsibility must be to myself. That’s what CFS does for you – it makes you have to be ‘selfish’.

So if you see me seemingly being ‘cold’, or ‘standoffish’, or ‘unemotional’, or any of those things, know that this is not the case. I’m simply a hyper-empath with major physical health issues, trying my damnedest to stay emotionally and physically healthy. And I’m sure there are other autistics out there like me. So please, don’t make assumptions about what we’re feeling or thinking. You don’t know what’s going on underneath our ‘cold’ exteriors – or our ‘hysterical’ ones.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

The Formation of Factions

For some while now, I’ve been concerned about the number and frequency of quarrels happening in our autistic community, either between individuals or in various groups, and the resulting formation of ‘factions’.

Some of this in-fighting I attempted to address with my post last year on bullying. But lately I’ve found this goes even deeper and is even more prevalent than I thought.

Often, what I see is this. Person A says something to Person B, who then filters that through the prism of their own understanding – a filter that’s usually the result of various mistreatments they’ve suffered in the past. This filter tells them that Person A is being horrible to them in some way, or even bullying them. Maybe they are – and maybe they aren’t. It’s often hard for me to tell. (See my post on bullying, for more info on what actually is bullying, and what isn’t.) Anyway, Person A explodes, fires all sorts of angry statements at Person B, who then puts that through their own filter and reacts in kind.

One or both then go off to their friends, complaining bitterly about how they’ve been (mal)treated, garnering sympathy and a clique of supporters, few of whom, if any, bother to find out what the other side of the story is. Instead, almost instantly, factions line up. Rifts form, and then widen. Soon people on one side are arguing with, dumping, attacking, and generally hating on the other ‘side’.

And the original quarrel or misunderstanding? Soon forgotten, as the Other Person is demonised, painted as A Terrible Person, a Bully, a this or that, and on it goes. And because we are autistic, with all the perseveration and stubbornness and difficulty with forgiving that is intrinsic to our nature, it can be very hard for the individuals to get past it, and/or mend things.

Now I don’t have any magic bullet to resolve conflicts. And I fully admit that I too, at times, have joined these ‘factions’. I’m not perfect, and would never claim to be. I’ve also had my own disputes with people, and been badmouthed by them. I know how it hurts, especially when people are saying nasty things about you that you know aren’t true, but you can’t respond without making yourself look just as bad.

Lately however, I find myself pulling back from all of it, as it’s just too taxing (when you have CFS, stress is the last thing you need). So I’d like to share a few things that have helped me do that, and not get caught up in these things so badly.

If it’s someone else’s quarrel -

Firstly, take a deep breath, or several. Ask yourself if you really want to get caught up in their dramas. Try and stay calm.

Secondly, get to the root of the issue. Find out both sides of the story, if you can. Sometimes this isn’t always possible, but do try.

If you do feel the need to show support, then consider limiting your comments to the “I’m sorry you’re feeling so bad” type. In other words, don’t diss the other person.

Lastly, stay true to yourself. Don’t take on board other’s arguments or emotional states, no, not even to keep a friend. Figure out what YOUR true feelings are on the issue, or if you even have any, and stick to that.

If it’s your own quarrel

Once again, stay as calm as you can, or regain that calm as soon as possible. It’s often hard I know, especially if some issue has been triggered, but do try. Meditation helps me with this.

Secondly, DON’T go badmouthing them, whether you name them or not, on your own page or in big, public groups, etc. If you must bitch, do in private, via PM or in some small private group, if you have one. Try to be the ‘bigger person’.

Thirdly, if you really can’t sort things out with them, and that’s not always possible, then just avoid them. Don’t respond, don’t ‘bite’ when they attack you. If this means you have to leave a group, then do it. Even block them for a while maybe, till you both calm down. Step away, rather than start a war. It’s better for your sanity, trust me.

Doing these things have helped me to stay, or get, a lot calmer than I used to be. And in the process, I realised just how often I’ve gotten swallowed up by other people’s issues. I now try to just avoid the more contentious types. I actually hate arguments, I’d rather just walk away, literally or metaphorically. Not to mention it’s better for my psychological and physical health to do so.

Maybe you’re like me, and hate arguing too, or maybe you love it. Still, it’s worth taking that deep breath or ten, before getting caught up in these conflicts. They have been known to lead to all sorts of horrible things – from general badmouthing, people being kicked out of groups, ‘hate So-and-So’ campaigns, right through to death threats even. It’s pretty awful folks.

Ask yourself, is this really how we want our community to be?

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Another thing NTs get wrong - About that Eye Contact Thing

I wrote a post recently on ‘What NTs get wrong about autistics and social skills’. In that, I touched briefly on the matter of eye contact. I’d like to go into that issue a bit more.

The assumption often made is that we don’t make eye contact because we, quote, “aren’t interested in other people”. Unquote. This is based on NT behaviour of course – if they don’t like someone and want to ignore or slight them, they simply don’t look at them. But we’re not NT. We have different brains, we respond and react differently, view the world differently, and so our reasons for doing things are almost always different.

So… what are the real reasons for our lack of eye contact? From my own experience, and reading lots of what other autistics have to say, they seem to fall into several categories.

1) It’s Painful. This may be news to the average NT, but yes, that’s exactly what happens. It hurts us to make eye contact, even a glancing eye contact is like having pins stuck in your eyes. Longer contact can feel like a sword run through your vitals. It just HURTS, okay?

2) It’s Invasive. This is, I think, part of why Number 1. It feels like the other person is looking right into your soul, and can see all your thoughts and feelings. We do seem to have fewer emotional defences than NTs, and I’m wondering if there is some link between that and this feeling of being invaded.

3) It’s Irrelevant. Well, to many of us it is. Because we can’t ‘read’ (or learn to do so only later in life, and then imperfectly) the little ‘tells’ of body language, eye language, facial expressions, that let us know what someone is feeling or thinking, we simply don’t get that NTs consider eye contact important. Hence we just don’t bother with it – especially if Nos 1 and 2 happen to us if we do.

4) We Really Don’t Want To Engage Today. As we get older, we learn that making even fleeting eye contact means people think you’re willing to engage with them. And so, if we just don’t have the spoons, are close to meltdown, are too scared and/or don’t know how to interact with them, and a whole host of similar reasons, we just don’t. It doesn’t mean we dislike people in general, it just means RIGHT NOW, we can’t handle interaction.

5) We Really Do Dislike People. Sadly, because of the prolonged and horrible way they’ve been treated, some autistics do actually become totally turned off the rest of the human race. Despite how often we are victims of horrendous treatment, true misanthropists are actually rare, and the ones I’ve known tend to have at least a few (a partner, children, one faithful friend), who are exempt from that dislike. But I suppose there might be some who have no-one at all, and shun all contact. There are NTs like this too of course, and I emphasise that it’s connected to the treatment we’ve received, and NOT an intrinsic part of being autistic.

6) We’re Trying To Listen. Everyone has only so many units of ‘sensory attention’, let’s say 100. NTs can somehow ‘turn down’ surrounding sensory input, so they only need maybe 20 or 30 units for it, and can use the other 70 or 80 to both listen and look at someone. We can’t. We can’t block it all out, so it takes up maybe 95 or 99 of those units, and hence we have almost none left to pay attention to someone speaking. So we have to choose – look, or listen? We can’t do both. Add to that our lack of the ‘correct’ listening expressions, and it’s not hard to see why people think we’re “not paying attention”.

There may be other reasons we don’t make eye contact, but these are the ones I know of, the ones that seem to be most common.

So I ask any NT reading this to please not make judgements about us, when we don’t meet your eye. You don’t know what might be going on for that autistic, on any given day, and unless you know us really, really well, you probably don’t know what we might feel if you tried to force eye contact. Let us interact in the way we need to, not how you think we “should”.

And my fellow autistics – know that it’s okay not to make eye contact. Don’t let anyone force you into what you’re not comfortable with, or just don’t have the spoons for. You have the right to be yourself, and interact how you want to. You have the right to say ‘no’, in whatever form you choose.