Not such a lonely word

You’ve heard this before. Enjoy it, or skip it:

The reason why most of us struggle with being honest and open about our thoughts, feelings, and fears is because we’re afraid that saying/admitting those things will alienate us from others. We might offend them with an unwelcome opinion or display some defect that makes them reject us. Call it saving face or protecting your ego, or any number of things psychologists might be consulted about, but all social behavior (human and animal) comes down to a single goal: successfully transferring our genetic material into the next generation.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve had your tubes tied or you always, always use protection or if you’re gay, the only reason why sex even feels good is because it sometimes makes new people. Our feelings and desires are so powerful because that’s how Nature got us to do things long before our brains got so big. It is our base programming! The Meaning of Life is to make offspring. It’s no different for us than it is for dolphins, dogs, or daffodils.

While our oversized brains lead us to keep over-complicating things with layers of religion, laws, and customs, our “baser urges” just keep nudging us toward baby-making behaviors. Continuing the species is much too important to leave entirely to rational decision making. Too many of us might just decide not to make babies, and then where would we be? (Why do you think Ted Sturgeon decided that the emotionless Vulcans would have to go crazy before they could do it?)

The social network aspect of procreation arises from the fact that humans historically work together to ensure things like group safety and access to resources. If you lived in a tiny prehistoric village and you got a bad reputation, you’d probably have to move away to find a mate–if you could find anyone at all before something ate you. On the other hand, the more “likeable” you were, the better your chances of mating and of getting the help you needed for you and your offspring to live long and prosper. Cooperation means population, People!

So we’ve evolved to feel like failing to fit in is failure at Life, because it used to be literally true.  If you didn’t have friends, you died early and childless. Your genes went nowhere. Game Over for your gametes! It’s no wonder that, with such high stakes, we might end up feeling afraid to show any flaws at all!

I’ve read and watched the popular stuff online about vulnerability, and I think it  overcomplicates the concept. Vulnerable simply means able to be harmed or damaged. You’re not afraid to be vulnerable; you’re afraid of the unwanted/unwelcome/ “unacceptable” feelings you will have when someone judges you negatively. People don’t fear rejection any more than we fear death: what we fear is the pain and suffering that we expect to come with these things. Suffering is unavoidable. You will be hurt.

Since you can never be invulnerable, you are always vulnerable. It’s just a fact. Being vulnerable is not something to practice: it’s something to accept about yourself. The effort lies in trying to stop foolishly believing that you can put on special magic armor before talking to others. Do you wear gloves at the office to prevent paper cuts? Do you only cross streets via tunnels? No. You’re just careful, and you get on with living.

I find it incredibly ironic how so many neuroses seem quite reasonable . . . until you look at their effects. It makes perfect sense that, to avoid social rejection, you should maximize display of your “good” traits and minimize display of the “bad” ones.  That is until you confront it with a couple of facts. First, one of the things people value most in close relationships is the ability to tell a friend or lover the things you usually hide from others. The second is that sharing these kinds of personal things leads to better understanding and, often, closer bonds between people, even strangers. (Probably why this kind of sharing is prized in intimate relationships.)

So why wait? Why go through all the fakery and stress of showing “your best self” to people to win them over and then disclosing your flaws to them once you’re sure they already like you? How can you be sure they actually like you when you’ve only introduced them to a curated version? Is the risk truly less when you invite them into your home, or into your bed, before telling them that you hate your eyebrows or asscheeks or that you have an irrational fear of bald men in turtlenecks? Or–Oh God!,–that you need frequent reassurance in your intimate relationships?

There is always a point at which one of these things might be a “deal-breaker” for this person, whether you openly tell them or not. Hiding things always feels dangerous and increases anxiety. It can also lead to the false conclusion that hiding these things is the only reason why the relationship is still okay. What an unfair burden to put on yourself!

It turns out that when I’m feeling awkward, nervous, or anxious in a situation, and I simply tell the people around me (even strangers) how I’m feeling, the feelings deflate and fly away like a farting party balloon. [A party balloon making that farting noise as it deflates, NOT a balloon from a “farting party.”] But hiding them–especially when combined with a belief that I MUST hide them, or else!–is guaranteed to blow up that balloon to nearly bursting! When I tell someone I’m anxious, even if they’re not feeling it at that time or place, they know what it is like to feel anxious, and they sympathize with me.

Instead of disapproving of my “weakness,” they admire my “bravery” for sharing something that’s hard for most people to share. They end up liking me a little more, not because I showed them one of the chinks in my armor and dared them to strike it, but because I took it off, and said “I am like you. No one needs armor here, friend.” I’ve discovered that one of the most powerful sympathy-generating things someone can say is “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do in this situation.”

We’re all looking for chances to drop our armor and have our flaws accepted by other, deeply flawed people.

Be honest. Be brave. Be human!

—-{I have to put a footnote here. As I re-read that last bit, I had a full-body shudder and nearly cried. I am scared to publish and share this, just as I am scared to live by the advice I’ve just given you, but I have been doing it, despite the fear–and the more I do it, the less fearful I feel. Eventually, bravery will not be needed, because I’ll start forgetting to be afraid at all. Best of luck, everyone!}—-

 

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My Motor skills

Driving to work this morning and listening to NPR, I heard Terry Gross announce today’s show (April 21, 2016) would be about autism and some new autism research that has apparently enabled an autistic man to experience empathy for the first time in his life.  I got a bit misty-eyed as my heart leapt at the idea and immediately sank at the flood of poignant memories of all the times I have simply but profoundly misunderstood friends, family, and romantic partners.

I will listen to today’s Fresh Air, and I will probably write about these social interaction difficulties later, but I’m not prepared to do that now. Some of them are too recent and too tender.  Instead I’m going to write about motor planning issues, since I’ve just learned the term for a problem I’ve had all my life.

A big component of the difficulties faced by people with autism spectrum disorders—especially those whose difficulties are less conspicuous—is how to describe their inner experience to non-autistic people.  It’s very normal for people to look for commonalities with the people they’re talking to, but when a friend says “I’ve felt like that” or “That happens to everyone,” it only demonstrates to the autistic person how poor a job he did at explaining what those things are like for himself.

People with autism spectrum disorders often have difficulties with motor control and/or motor planning. The first has to do with actually getting your body to do what you are trying to do. The second has to do with breaking up a complex physical task or series of tasks into understandable and do-able parts.  Both kinds result from poor communication between the brain and the body.  These difficulties can be profound or subtle, and, interestingly, they are unrelated to the “severity” of an individual’s autism. In fact, non-autistic people can have the same impairments, or can develop them after traumatic injury.

Long before I knew I had autism*, I was aware of my deficits when it came to learning certain kinds of fine motor skills. It is really difficult for me to “pick things up” by just watching others and trying to mimic what they do, and trying to “feel my way through it” doesn’t seem to help at all, because I can’t really imagine what it feels like to do the motion correctly.  The more things I have to pay attention to—body parts involved, objects or people to monitor—the harder it is for me to do. I can become overwhelmed by such things.

It takes me a long time and a lot more practice for new skills to go from something requiring (a lot of) cognitive concentration to something that becomes “second nature.” People talk about “muscle memory” all the time. I don’t know the scientific term for it, but that’s the thing that allows me (or any of us) to write with a pen or touch-type without actually thinking about it.  And doing things without consciously thinking about all the little motions involved is what allows us to do them effectively—or, in some cases, safely.  Imagine driving on I-95 while concentrating on the position and sensation of every body part involved!

I learned to print before starting school by “drawing” letters on those big pads with dotted lines.  It took me a long time to realize that I could make shapes similar to those, but which were easier for my hands, and still communicate clearly. That’s what we all do, or everyone’s handwriting would be identical. Once writing became automatic for me, they decided I had to learn cursive, because it was faster/better, and suddenly I was back to drawing pictures of letters, and I was slow as fuck! And they graded us on handwriting, so I was blocked from getting straight As (which earned an extra token bonus at Chuck E Cheese!) for a year and a half!

Then 6th grade came around, and they told us we could write however we want, and I really couldn’t understand why we were taught cursive at all, or why we didn’t learn it from the very beginning!  I switched to using all capital letters, developing my own ways of connecting them, and getting really fast without becoming illegible.**  I’ve occasionally tried writing in cursive since then, and I really can’t.  I’m still stuck in the same place of needing to think too much to be able to do it.  This, at least, is something I think that everyone has experienced occasionally: trying to think about doing something you normally do automatically and discovering that you can’t do it.  If I think too much about how to type, my fingers go all fumbly.  I sometimes blank on a pin number, but then relax and just let my finger do what it is used to doing.

Once I’ve learned a physical thing, it’s also extremely hard for me to learn a new way to do it.  (Like with handwriting.) Our driver’s ed car in school was an automatic (of course). My father drove only stick-shift cars, and I quickly discovered that learning both was just too hard for me.  I just couldn’t keep track of all the things I had to do just to make the car go in addition to the “essentials” of driving. I still haven’t learned stick because I’m afraid it would mess up my ease with driving automatics. In a related issue, when I got my first car with key fob door locks, it took me months to get used to using a button instead of a key—and years later I still occasionally lock my car with the fob, and then try to unlock my house with the fob too!

So here I am at 40, and I have a very good sense of my strengths and my weaknesses.  Basketball and football: No. Frisbee: Yes, yes, yes! Running: Not anymore (I can’t stop myself from running at my high school pace and cramping up!).  Walking, cycling, hiking: Yes.  Wheelbarrowing, shoveling, sledgehammering: Yes.  Dancing: No, dammit!***.  Typing, writing, coloring: Yes.  Drawing: No.  Backflips: No. Cartwheels: Whee! Tree-climbing: Yuppers! Bowling, darts, archery, mini-golf: Yes. Video games: Usually yes.  Musical instruments and yoga: It’s a slow grind, but I’m trying!

I listed those last two together because they’re my current focus. I understand the benefits of both for physical and mental health and well-being, but it takes me a long time to learn the basics, and I’m quickly left behind by the “class.” I started going to Hatha classes again recently, because I want to be sure I’m learning the fundamental poses for my home practice, and I’ve started going to a Ukulele meetup group to try to learn the fingering for chords, but I feel like I need someone watching me the whole time to correct my technique. Whenever the yoga instructor starts “flow” poses, or the Uke group plays a simple song, there are just too many things for me to keep track of to keep up. I don’t have time to “feel” what I’m doing before I’m supposed to be doing something else. I know these things can come in time, or I wouldn’t be good at so many complicated things, but I can’t ask the group/class to slow down just for me, and I get nervous about practicing at home and ingraining bad techniques.

The last thing I have to say on this subject is that I often don’t understand what people mean when they describe what things should feel like. I haven’t the slightest idea what it means when the Yoga instructor says to “rotate my thighs,” and I can’t manage the pressure with which I press the strings onto the frets at the same time I’m trying to control which fingers are doing the pressing. Pencils and ballpoints hurt my hand after a while, because I press too hard.  I also don’t know how to “rate my pain” from 1 to 10 in the doctor’s office or how to label it as aching, sharp, or radiating.

There’s no real way to conclude this essay, because it’s informational. I hope it makes things a bit clearer for you who read it. I can’t tell you that this is what it’s like for even one other person with autism, but it’s what it’s like for me, and not being able to explain it has always felt isolating.

The urge to write this was almost irresistible. I couldn’t concentrate on much else until it was finished. My next post will probably be about a concept called “capture” described in Dr. David Kessler’s latest book: Capture, once I’ve finished it. (If you click on the link, you can read a lot of it online.)

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*I received my diagnosis two months after my 37th birthday. Before then, I thought I was just some special species of nerd.

**Oddly, I didn’t realize that I didn’t have to continue to painstakingly draw my signature in longhand until my early 20s. ???

***I like music and moving to it. I also like women, and I know how much most of them like dancing—and how naturally they seem to do it. It’s definitely an experience I want to share without looking like a caricature, but I just can’t keep track of so many ways in which to move so many parts at once!

Sanctuary

My emotional understanding of how life should work is wrong—more specifically it’s inside out.  I  believe that maintaining peace and orderliness around me is what I need to achieve peace and orderliness inside myself. 

Knowing that the opposite of this is true ought to be helpful, but knowing it and actively believing it seem to be separate.  There are things that people “know” intellectually, but, because the ideas go against their natural intuition, they operate as though they’re not true. Ideas like Fate and Luck just seem to live in us, despite rational examination, because they feel true.

I struggle with anxiety.  I feel anxious every time things change or feel like they’re about to change. It comes from fearing that any change will be for the worse. The worst, actually. I get  “The End is Nigh” ringing through my head kind of anxiety over changing jobs, ending relationships, or having to move.  Full-on death-fear.  These things, of course, do signify the death of one life and the beginning of another, but real death is nothing to fear, because, as Epicurus said, death is something we never experience. Unlike actual death, after one of these changes I have to learn to cope with a whole new reality.

My heart and my nerves are hyper-reactive to “danger,” and anything involving risk lights up my catastrophe centers like a shipwide collision alarm.  The physical symptoms come first, and they ruin my ability to evaluate the true risk involved. Everything feels dire.  I can’t calm down and assess the situation rationally, because klaxons are making my ears ring, and people (i.e., automatic irrational thoughts) are running around screaming “We’re all doomed!”

Nearly all of these alarms are false alarms, but I don’t have access to the Off switch.  The siren just blares ‘til it runs out of juice, and I’ve got adrenaline for days!  Try taking an algebra test while a fire alarm keeps randomly going off and the kid behind you won’t stop kicking your seat!  Everything is so much harder than it needs to be.  All I want to do is to get somewhere quiet to let the adrenaline burn off so I can think straight again.  Everyone needs some peace and quiet sometimes, but I need it more than most.

The place where I feel most peaceful has always been my room.  I’m one of those people who needs a refuge, and my room (or my whole apartment when I’ve lived alone) has always been a place where I feel like I have control over my environment.  I know where everything is, and almost nothing unexpected happens. If I do nothing in there, it feels like time is standing still, and the World with all its worrisome responsibilities barely exists. 

This is the part that’s inside out: the peace in my room gives me the illusion of control.  It feels like nothing can hurt me in there because all of the things that are outside of my control are also outside of my room, like they exist in a separate flow of time, like I can take as much time as I want to gather my resources and then come out again to deal with my problems when I am ready.  It’s amazing the irrational things you can believe if you don’t actively argue with yourself about them!

Let’s list a few!  Below the irrational beliefs, I’ve listed better ones in bold text.:

  • Feeling in control feels good because, “If I’m in charge, then I won’t let any bad things happen.”
    • First, you’re never truly in control, not of the future, and absolutely not of what other people will do or feel.
    • Second, if you think you’re in charge, then you’ll think you’re to blame, and you’ll feel like a failure when things go wrong.
  • Worrying feels good, because it feels like preparing for all contingencies.
    • Worrying simply feeds anxiety and keeps the stressful feelings going until whatever thing you’re waiting for happens.
    • You’re taking responsibility for things you can’t control, and making yourself feel unnecessarily bad and wasting your energy. 
  • Trying to solve problems that occurred in the past feels good because it feels like taking action.
    • You can’t take action in the past! …and you can’t know what would have happened if you’d done something different.
    • By all means, review your behavior and learn from your mistakes, but remember that you can’t change what has already happened.

I fall prey to all of these, but I’m especially guilty of the last one. I have the kind of mind that compels me to take things apart and put them back together, to tighten door hinges or unclog drains. I troubleshoot things almost automatically, and I want to understand how everything works, including people.  This leads me to try to “solve” interpersonal issues by trying to analyze what others were probably thinking and feeling so I can understand their motivations and identify any misunderstandings that may have occurred.

The worst part of this “past analysis” is that, if I don’t talk to the person, then my mind will blithely keep “problem-solving”—asking and answering, turning and flipping and replacing, like trying to put gears back into a clock—whether I have any useful information to work with or not.  I’m really not sure how to stop this, but it leads to the point of this whole essay: The only things you can control in Life are what you do before and how you react after something happens, including how you think and feel about it.

 You are not responsible for predicting the future.  You are not responsible for others’ feelings or thoughts.  You are not required to guess what another person’s thoughts or feelings are, but you are responsible for what happens when you act on what you believe is true. NEVER BE AFRAID TO ASK!

 You are responsible for your own feelings: you decide (whether by thinking or by habit) to become angry or sad or happy about something.  You are responsible for learning your own triggers and false beliefs.  If you have trouble managing your own feelings or unhelpful thinking habits, there are people and books and websites to help you gain better skills.  Just because you own the problem doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. 

The last thing I should say—even if it doesn’t really fit here—is that your feelings do not define reality. Just because you are frightened does not mean there is danger.

Put this in your head, your heart, your fingers, toes, and belly!

 

I discovered Holly McGarry through John Craigie‘s albums, on which she adds perfect backing vocals.  I find her voice etherial, drowsy, and slippery-sweet like caramel ripples through ice cream.  Small Town Kids relaxes parts of me I never notice are tense.  I love to just sit and not really pay attention and just let the parts I need sink in.  The feeling is reminiscent of floating in an inner tube.

I’ve discovered Efficacy!

I have recently read (most of—because the end was missing from the pdf) a paper by Albert Bandura on Self-Efficacy Beliefs and how they affect a person’s behavior.  Bandura appears to be the pioneer of such research; at least his name appears most often in the references to the documents I found online.

The simplest way to explain self-efficacy (SE) beliefs is that they are an individual’s judgment (which may or may not be accurate) in his ability to accomplish what he might do.  I said might do because a person’s SE beliefs regarding a particular task may lead him to choose not to do it at all, if he believes that he will not succeed in the task.  Everything surrounding SE beliefs is complicated by such things as how the individual measures “success,” whether he has realistic goals, realistic self-assessment, etc.

In further reading on the subject, I again encountered one of the differences between the high SE student and the low SE student.  The high SE student will attribute failure (or poor performance) in a task to insufficient effort, while the low SE student will attribute it to insufficient aptitude/ability.  “I should have tried/studied harder” vs. “I’m not good at this.”

It made me think again about a strategy I used in college that I’ve proudly described to friends as recently as last month: When I began a new class, I wouldn’t study for the first exam at all.  If I took the exam and received a C or better, I would never study for any exam in that class.  I was proud of this strategy, because I thought it was a clever way of avoiding the “unnecessary” stress and discomfort I experienced when studying (something I did not enjoy and perceived as a waste of time).

What I did not realize until now (that I have encountered SE theory) is that this was a terrible strategy in terms of building a sense of personal self-efficacy.  The reason for this is that this strategy bolstered my reliance on ability rather than effort as the necessary resource for completing tasks.  I have extraordinary intellectual ability, a major benefit of which is that I don’t often have to try very hard to understand things and so don’t have to expend much intellectual effort on things I don’t enjoy or that do not interest me.  What I thought I was doing in college (and I was to some degree) was reserving my time and attention for classes and projects that meant something to me, things that I enjoyed or that would make me feel pride to have done particularly well.  What I was also doing was risk-avoidance.

The possibility of failure frightens me (probably more than most, because I mistakenly interpret failure as proof of lack of ability—“I’m not good enough”).  Then how could I ever take an exam without studying?  The answer is simple: if I did poorly, I would always be able to work harder to improve my grade by the end of the semester; if I did satisfactorily, then I couldn’t fail!  Imagine the relief that belief provided to a very anxious individual.  Without anxiety over my performance, my grades typically improved.  With too much anxiety, my performance always suffers, even to the point of complete work stoppage.

Learning was what I wanted to do in college (and in life generally), and writing papers (and the occasional essay exam) was the way I thought I could best demonstrate what I had learned.  Paper writing is (usually) an enjoyable challenge for me and something that I see as a true measure of myself.  But it is because I identify with it that I often find myself too anxious to do it.  If things don’t come together easily for me, if I can’t picture the whole in my mind before I begin creating the pieces, then I begin to fear that I will fail in the task.  As anxiety increases, self-confidence decreases, and I grow more and more indecisive, eventually getting so upset that I have to avoid working on the paper altogether to allow myself some level of calm.  The anxiety, of course, doesn’t go away; it merely simmers, coming to a boil whenever I begin to think about the work again.  The only true relief comes when circumstances allow me to give up entirely and just let the thing go.  Not handing in work is obviously not the best way to maintain a high GPA, or long-term employment, for that matter.

As someone with Asperger’s, I need knowledge—I need the surety of facts to operate without anxiety.  Passing those exams without studying provided me with the relief from anxiety about those classes that I needed to be able to concentrate on the “important” ones.  There’s only so much pressure I can put on myself and still function.  “Easy” classes were my pressure relief valve.

I’m not saying that this was an entirely bad plan.  It allowed me to earn my degree, after all (and after about 13 years, off and on).  As a means of increasing my sense of self-efficacy, however, it was almost entirely detrimental.  The pattern of low or fragile SE beliefs leading to giving up is described in Bandura’s work.

This is a subject I’m going to return to again and again. Next time I want to write about low SE and depression.

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Here are some links to his work online.  You’ll find many more yourself, if you search for them:

PDFs

Self Efficacy Mechanism in Human Agency

Self Efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change

Google Book

Self Efficacy: the Excercise of Control

 

A Thousand Deaths . . .

I wrote this some time before spring, and I thought I had posted it, but somehow didn’t. So here it is.

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I had been meaning to write about cowardice (my own cowardice; don’t even think I’d try to pick on someone else!) for some time, and I formed many parts of that essay in my mind, but I just couldn’t manage to get the shaped bits of clay to stick together and form a whole dinosaur.  Then along comes a Star Trek episode that I, amazingly, never saw before in which they do a sort of It’s a Wonderful Life treatment on Captain Picard.

The thing about the Next Generation series is that many of the episodes were morality plays and social critiques.*  This one happened to be about—and forgive me that I can’t think of anything that isn’t a cliché or a self-help mantra—living life to the fullest!, being your best self!, taking the bull by the horns!, breaking a few eggs to make an omelet, etc.

You’ll actually need to watch this clip before you read on.  It’s under three minutes, and I appreciate that someone else decided that this exchange between Picard and Q was worth posting to Youtube.

I must repeat that I saw this for the first time in 2013.  I used to watch this show when I was in high school; I am now thirty-seven.  I don’t know that I would have become braver or more sure of myself by now if I’d seen it when I was younger, but at least I’d’ve had something to reflect upon.

Now I am Picard in the blue uniform, the guy who played it safe all his life, whose “life never came into focus,” who “drifted through much of his career with no plan or agenda.”

I’m Charlie Fucking Brown, folks.  My boss still asks me occasionally whether I’m happy with my job, probably because he can tell that I’m not—or he can tell that I can’t tell, which worries him.  But it’s not really the job that dissatisfies me; it’s me.  What I don’t like about it is that this is a job I settled for, not one I strove for.  It is a daily reminder that I still haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up.  It is a reminder that I’m afraid to try.

*Oh, right: the asterisk. I just wanted to point out that one of the benefits of science fiction as a genre is that, like satire, it allows the author to put himself at a distance from current circumstances.  You get to put your characters into a situation similar to current events but in a world strange enough that those at whom you’re pointing a finger can’t really say that it’s them.  It’s like putting an asprin in a spoon full of apple sauce; it makes it easier for folks to take your medicine.  It’s not all robots ‘n’ lasers.  I’ll be writing more on the value of sci-fi too.