#processing

THEORY OF MIND (or, Remember Other People Have Thoughts and Feelings Too), Part 3 of 3

06-26-2018 - Image.jpg

By Kate Bringe

“By not understanding that other people think differently than themselves, many autistic individuals may have problems relating socially and communicating to other people. That is, they may not be able to anticipate what others will say or do in various situations. In addition, they may have difficulty understanding that their peers or classmates even have thoughts and emotions, and may thus appear to be self-centered, eccentric, or uncaring.

Although this is an egocentric view of the world, there is nothing in the theory of mind to imply that autistic individuals feel superior to others.” *

 

In fifth grade I wanted to grow up to be a Vulcan. Unencumbered by emotion and impervious to the desire to fit in, I would instead rely on pure logic to govern my life. These awful things called “Feelings”? Didn’t need ‘em! Didn’t want them. I practiced raising one eyebrow and saying, “fascinating” when people told me things. I always stood, unsmiling, with my hands behind my back, which made for wonderful class photos. I’m pretty sure I drove my mother bonkers.

I was bullied all the way through school. I was consumed by anxiety and dread every school morning, knowing that I’d only make it through the day by sheer force of will. I remember the cruel words, the shoves, the hard-packed snowballs to the back of my head. I remember the looks, the laughter, and the acid vitriol from a girl who first pretended to be my friend for five months before viciously turning on me. I endured her poison from seventh grade through my first year of college.

That thing adults tell you about bullies? The one about ignoring them so they’ll stop? It doesn’t work. Once you’re their target, ignoring them only makes it worse. They want a reaction. They want the power to make you react. I continued to follow the advice of the adults and ignore it, being a model Vulcan, and the bullysphere grew larger. Other kids started to join in, emboldened by the Head Bully.

By my own logic, without the benefit of Theory of Mind, I must be doing something to cause the bullying. I began to believe them when they told me I was stupid, fat, and ugly. I wouldn’t lie to them, so they wouldn’t lie to me, right? Their words cut me to the bone, but Vulcans don’t have emotions, so I did what any Vulcan would do and showed no emotion. It made no difference.

I don’t understand bullying. I don’t understand why anyone would want to crush the light out of someone else. Hurting someone else does not take away the pain in your own heart. It is completely illogical.

By the time middle school rolled around, my efforts to become Vulcan had finally paid off. My daily interactions with other people were emotionless. My feelings were carefully boxed up and buried deeply within an internal “warehouse” of sorts. Each morning, I donned a metaphorical suit of armor before leaving the safety of my world. My warehouse of emotions was like the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, with boxes and boxes stretching on forever, only much tidier. My boxes were sorted neatly upon shelves. It’s a strange sensation, memories without feelings and feelings without memories. I could clearly remember the girl that pretended to be my friend. I remember the vicious delight in her blue eyes as she stood in the hallway and ground me under her heel with words carefully chosen to pierce my heart. I know she hurt me deeply, my joy at having a new friend shattered. Though I could see that moment clearly in my mind, I could feel nothing as I watched the memory play. The feelings would come later, when I was alone. Tears streaking down my face as I cried myself to sleep. Grief, loss, and anger at myself for being so stupid as to trust her, yet knowing I’d probably do it all again for the chance to make a new friend and feel like a regular kid. In that moment in the hallway, however, I simply stood there and took her abuse. Her words washed over me, but I gave no reaction. It was as if I didn’t care, my face carefully blank. She finished and awaited my reaction.

I raised one eyebrow at her and replied, “Fascinating”.

Her face flushed dark red. Before she could unleash a blistering retort, the class bell rang. I turned on my heel and strode off, seemingly impervious to her words. To the world, I looked completely uncaring. In reality, the feelings inside me were too huge to cope with. I didn’t even look at them. I stuffed them all into a box and locked the whole works in my warehouse.

The “feelings warehouse” is not a viable long-term solution. Feelings need to be worked through and understood. Other people’s points of view need to be talked about and put into terms we can understand. We need to experience, name, and work through emotions. Leaving them festering only hurts us.

I never understood what drove the bullies in my class. I still don’t. I’ve been told that putting other people down gives them a sense of power and control. How miserable must they have been? Probably as miserable as I was, but for different reasons. I don’t understand how hurting me would’ve made them feel better. I bear the scars of their misery, but I shouldn’t. No one deserves that kind of malevolence.

I never felt superior to other people. As a Vulcan-in-training, I acted superior to others because I was going to be a Vulcan. Cool logic and rationality are always superior to knee-jerk reactions and gut feelings, right? But acting superior and feeling superior are two very different things. Acting superior is armor against a world that is often baffling, painful, and frustrating. How could anyone feel superior when we endure bullying, discrimination, and repeatedly hearing the message that we need to be “cured”?

Our most vulnerable need us to guide them. We need our parents and family members to make a safe place for us to talk about what’s happening inside us. Emotions swirl so quickly that they’re here and gone before we can even identify what they are. We need someone we can trust to help us make sense of what we feel so we don’t need to put on armor and bury our feelings. We need acceptance for who we are right now and encouragement to become our best selves.

As I entered adulthood, I worked my way through the dreck in my warehouse. Left untouched in the dark, the boxes had started to seep. I slogged through them, pinning feelings to memories and working through them. Anger was named for what it really was: fear or disappointment. Getting to the core emotion makes it so much easier to deal with. It’s an ongoing process, this emotional integration I now have. Sometimes I need more processing time to really figure out what I’m feeling, and sometimes I don’t. I experience more stress than I used to, but I believe it’s for the better. I can only control myself and that’s all the control anyone really needs. I control how I react to situations. I control what feelings I choose to dwell on or not. It’s a conscious choice, action instead of reaction. I spent so long reacting that I never realized that I could choose to act instead. Once I embraced that, life became so much more manageable. It’s not perfect, because nothing ever is, but I’m more present in my life instead of lost in my own head. I’m not responsible for anyone but myself. I care about other people and want them to be happy, but I’m not ultimately responsible for their emotional well-being. I’m responsible for mine, and that is enough.

Live Long and Prosper.

 

*Quote from Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D.

- As always, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the experiences or opinions of others on the Autism Spectrum and/or Mind Shift.

 

 

 

 

THEORY OF MIND (or, Remember Other People Have Thoughts and Feelings Too), Part 2 of 3

06-12-2018 - Image.jpg

By Kate Bringe

 “Interestingly, people with autism have difficulty comprehending when others don't know something…” *

I am frequently baffled by how people can not know things. Don’t they want to know everything? How can they not hunger to learn? I want to know all the information, so I’m prepared. I do not want to wing it. I want to be able to make plans A through G for upcoming events. Not knowing all the available information for an event, like a holiday or trip, causes anxiety. I’m not trying to be nosy; I’m trying to compensate.

When I was around four years old, my great aunt and uncle gave me a teddy bear for Christmas. I already had a teddy bear though. His name was Teddy, and he wore blue overalls with red trim over his short, matted fur. I loved him very much. This new teddy bear was naked with long, silky fur. It was a nice bear, sure, but I already had Teddy. Why would they give me this bear when I had Teddy? I stood there, a four-year-old in her frilly Christmas dress, suddenly thrust into a conundrum for which I was unprepared.

In my mind, I’d just received this brand-new bear and maybe he was meant to replace my very best friend, Teddy. Fancy Bear’s fur was clean and fluffy; his eyes were large and shiny. Teddy, my beloved, had matted fur and smaller eyes. Would he feel dingy next to this glamourous new bear? Would he worry that I wouldn’t love him anymore? Would he be afraid of being shunted aside for this flashy upstart? What if he thought I thought he was trash now? Was my mom going to throw away my ratty, old bear? Teddy was my first and most cherished friend. This newcomer would never unseat him in my heart! My four-year-old mind couldn’t process all these feelings quickly enough. Given enough time, I may have figured out that these two bears could be friends, and everything would’ve been fine.

My gears were stuck, though. Thoughts and feelings were storming through me and everyone’s eyes were on me. I knew what response was expected of me but how could I accept this new bear when I didn’t know what was to become of Teddy? I couldn't lose my best friend. I had to protect him! I struggled for a few moments, trying to figure out what to do or say and finally looked up, right into my great aunt’s blue eyes, and blurted, “I already have a teddy!” I hurled the new bear back into the box for emphasis.

It goes without saying my mother was mortified. My great aunt was generous in heart, but she also had very rigid expectations of proper behavior and I’d totally blown it. In their minds, I was simply not being grateful for the lovely gift of a new teddy bear. My mother immediately apologized to everyone for my outburst and excused us from the room. She took me into the kitchen and spoke sternly to me about the importance of being grateful and how nice it was of Auntie B and Uncle E to buy me this lovely bear. She told me I should graciously accept the gift and thank them for it.

I was confused, heartbroken, and humiliated. Everyone knew I was being scolded. I hadn’t intended to offend anyone, but I couldn’t express what was going on inside me either. I didn’t have the vocabulary yet to convey my thoughts and feelings. Mom marched me back into the living room and everyone turned to look at me. I felt such a deep sense of shame, but I did what was required of me and thanked them for the bear. I was angry that no one understood how I felt. I was angry that I was unable to express myself. I was angry that they’d given me a bear when I already had one. I was afraid that I was going to lose Teddy. I was afraid to open any more gifts in case they were also things I already had. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I didn’t belong. It was the first time that I considered I might be different than everyone else. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I couldn’t trust my family. I had discovered that I was blindfolded and in the social equivalent of an undocumented minefield.

For the next 33 years, I would search the house for my gifts (or I’d open them with an Xacto knife once they were wrapped) so that I’d never be surprised again. I’d know what they were, and I’d have time to prepare myself to react in a socially appropriate manner. Even when the gifts were something I wasn’t thrilled about, I would be ready and able to graciously thank the giver and make a nice comment about the gift. If there were any last-minute gifts, I always smiled and kept my gaze on the packages as I opened them so that I wouldn’t inadvertently make any inappropriate faces. Again, I would say something nice about the gift and how thoughtful the giver was. My efforts paid off. I never received a gift-related reprimand again. Knowing what I was receiving alleviated the greatest amount of anxiety I felt each time Christmas, or my birthday, came around. There was always the social piece that I struggled with, but at least I never had to worry about what I might find inside one of those brightly wrapped boxes.

Time and experience have brought intellectual understanding. I understand that no one knew what I was thinking and feeling about Teddy and the new bear. Auntie B and Uncle E were not frequent visitors and probably thought a teddy bear would be a splendid surprise for a four-year-old. At the time, it never even occurred to me that they wouldn’t know I had a bear. The Teddy Bear Incident was never brought up again, so I kept all my confusion and anger inside. Years later, my mom and I talked about it and she was surprised that it had made such an impact on me. Apparently, no one else thought it that big of a deal since I was only four years old. She explained that Auntie B and Uncle E didn’t know I had Teddy and had picked out the bear on their own, which was a revelation to me. Even after all those years, it still hadn’t occurred to me that they hadn’t known about Teddy.

The feelings, though, have never gone away. That experience is seared into my emotional memory. It was the first of many scars and a defining moment in my life. What seemed like no big deal to the neurotypicals in my family was enormous to me.

Again, time and experience have brought me perspective and understanding. I’m autistic and the way I process events and emotions is different from the way my family processes them. I learned that as an adult. I sometimes wonder now how that Christmas would’ve been different if they’d known I had autism. Would they have been more patient with me, aware that I processed differently and needed more time to work out The Bear Situation? Would Auntie B and Uncle E consulted with my mom on a good gift idea? Would my family have helped me work through what was bothering me when I displayed distress? I’d like to think all of the above, because even though our family had a lot of rocky patches, I know they loved me, then and now.

Whatever became of the new bear? I don’t know. I have no memory of him beyond that night. Teddy, though, “greets” me every day from his place of honor on my bookshelves, still my first and oldest friend.

 

To be concluded in Part 3, arriving in two weeks.

*Quote from Stephen M. Edelson, Ph.D. 

- As always, the thoughts and opinions expressed in this post are my own and do not necessarily reflect the experiences or opinions of others on the Autism Spectrum and/or Mind Shift.