Emotional self-acceptance vs the expectations of others

*contains the occasional swear word, deal with it or cock off.

I know, I know, it’s been an age since I blogged. Life has been shit busy and I haven’t had the time or energy to write the things buzzing round my head. I feel like I’m finally coming up for air now, like maybe one day soon my brain will be able to run at full capacity again. I hope that over the coming months I’ll have the mental freedom to write more here.

Something that’s been on my mind quite a bit recently is the way I feel compared to the way others believe I should feel. Mixed in with this is the problem of not necessarily ‘making the right face’ at the right time – see here for the brilliant Sarah Hendrickx being very funny, including an anecdote about this difficulty:

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when it was my birthday. I don’t like birthdays much. In the days and weeks leading up to my birthday I was increasingly anxious that people would remember it and then proceed to ask me all sorts of difficult questions like how was I going to celebrate it. I had no idea how to answer such things, the honest answer of “I’m not celebrating, I’m having a typical day” (…now kindly fuck off and leave me alone) only provokes more unwanted attention. So I spent a lot of energy trying to come up with plausible ways to deflect such questions without causing offence.

The difficulty for me is that I have some idea of what people expect, I’ve lived long enough to know they expect these things but I feel like I can’t honestly fulfil their expectations. I’d rather not lie, particularly to people I like. The feeling that I was unable to meet these expectations added to my sense of “I must be in the wrong”. To some extent I seem to believe that if the majority of people believe I should act/think/feel a certain way then they must be right and therefore I am wrong. I have failed again to pass for neurotypical.

I had a similar experience yesterday. I received some good news, therefore by neurotypical logic I should be happy about that. Only it wasn’t really news for me. I’d been informed by people I trust that this would be the outcome if I met certain criteria. I met those criteria therefore the outcome was as predicted – so what? Surely it would only be a relief and joy if I were expecting the outcome to be negative and then was pleasantly surprised? I don’t really understand why others reacted with joy unless they were expecting me to fail?

I feel I need to separate out the overlaps of emotions here. It seems my pattern for any event which is big in my mind is to be anxious in the run up to it and depressed afterwards. I think the depression is partially to do with a sense of “now what?” after something that was a big deal has passed. I’d say that’s connected to difficulties with transitions as I have to then adjust my focus to a different goal. Also with any big deal there’s the exhaustion to take into account. Anything big involves an awful lot of anxiety, a lot of acting, a lot of painful self-analysis afterwards and considerable time to decompress and recover from. That process describes my experience of being autistic. So yesterday, having achieved this goal it’s no wonder that I was depressed afterwards.

This pattern is how I work. I’m not sure how much control I have over it, I may report back on this once I’ve done more CBT. In the meantime however it is just me, it is the way I am. The problem here is not necessarily that I’m depressed (I’m used to that!) but that I feel worse because I’m not meeting people’s expectations. My awareness of this perceived failing adds fuel to the fires of negativity – I can’t even be happy when I’m supposed to be happy…

Wait – supposed to be? Who the fuck has the right to tell me how to feel? And why would I listen to that? Emotion is personal and subjective. I don’t want to be conditioned to conform to societal norms. I have a right to feel any way my brain chooses, regardless of how that is seen by others. Again I’m trying to pass, I’m trying to be what others expect me to be. I’m reminded of the dichotomy around THAT dress, the key question for me is does it matter how you see it or how you expect me to see it? I understand that it makes sense for us to try to fit in with others socially. We all want to be accepted but I don’t feel like this is something I can achieve through pretending to be other than how I am because to try to do so only denies my reality. It pisses all over my feelings and tries to press them into a shape they are not designed for. My social experience is often like someone trying to squeeze into clothes several sizes too small. Why can’t people simply understand that my psychological anatomy is different to theirs?

To what extent does this reflect autistic experience as a whole? Trying to be what neurotypicals say we should be rather than accept who we are. I think this is another example of internalised ableism – see #autchat discussions on twitter for more on our experiences of this. (I promise I will get back to contributing to these one day soon).

The lesson I am learning – by no means am I there yet – is about self-acceptance. It’s been 3 months and 11 days since I was officially diagnosed as autistic so it’s still very early days for me, I am only at the start of this journey. I need to learn to accept that the way I feel has its own integral validity. I am allowed to feel that way regardless of others. I do not have to conform to expectations for fear of confusing people, being seen as odd or worse.

What can you do? I think the most helpful thing is if the people around me simply respect my right to feel how I feel, even when that’s a negative thing like depression, rather than telling me how I ‘should’ feel. I imagine this would be helpful in supporting many people whether they are autistic, have mental health difficulties or whatever their particular bag of unique features.

Be kind to yourselves folks.