Most aspies seem to really, really struggle with personal criticism. I’ve seen it mooted that this is because of our lack of Theory of Mind. I feel it’s more complex than that, and so I want to list here some possible reasons for why we react so badly to criticism.
1) Being Emotionally Hyper-Sensitive. It’s true that many of us, despite our lack of awareness of the non-verbal stuff, are actually acutely, and almost psychically, sensitive to emotional ‘vibes’ – and if hostility is coming our way, we can feel overwhelmed, bludgeoned, and extremely stressed by it.
2) Not Being Able To Predict It. Because we are so poor at that non-verbal stuff, and often ignorant of the more complex social nuances, we’re not able to see frustration or anger building up in others. So criticism seems to just ‘come out of nowhere’, throwing us off balance and uncertain of how to react to it. The overwhelming feeling is “what the hell did I do?” We can then spend hours, days or even years going over past interactions, analysing every word we said or didn’t say, every last little action – and still not get to the heart of it. This process can be extremely stressful, damaging to our self-esteem, and in the long run lead to withdrawal from further interaction with others, because we just don’t know when and where criticism is going to come from. The more indirect people are in their criticisms, and the more they prevaricate about speaking to us about what’s on their minds, the worse this problem is.
3) Not Knowing If The Criticism Is Valid. Because we’re such poor judges of others, we often don’t know how to evaluate their criticisms. Is the person is just having a bad day and lashing out? Are they just a nasty person in general? Is it simply a misunderstanding on their part of something you’ve said or done? Is it a lack of understanding of what having Aspergers means? Or has there been some real error on our part? How seriously should we take these criticisms? We just don’t know. Once again, the more indirect and vague the criticisms are, the worse this problem gets, and the more stress we experience (and the lower our self-esteem plummets), and usually there is no resolution for either side.
4) We Don’t Know How To Put It Right. If we’re not totally sure of the above, there’s no way we can know how to react. Should we just apologise, even if we aren’t sure what the problem really is, or don’t feel we did anything wrong? Should we try and explain ourselves? Stick up for ourselves? And if so, how? On the other hand, if there is something about ourselves that needs changing (eg the way we approach others), what do we change it to? And how? How can we be any different than what we are? We often just don’t know HOW to change, without specific guidance from others, that is usually not forthcoming. We’re expected to ‘just know’, and our lack of the correct behaviour presumed to be sheer arrogance or bloody-mindedness on our part. The hostility levels ramp up, and our distress increases with it.
There’s no easy way out of these situations. For myself, I finally came to realise the only way I can handle criticism is to –
a) make it plain that I don’t understand, and keep asking questions until I do (or people’s patience runs out!). It goes against the grain in some ways, to do this, and I know I risk being thought stupid, weird, rude, stubborn, rigid, crazy, or whatever, but I don’t care anymore, or at least not enough to stop. It’s necessary in order to preserve my own sanity.
b) at some point, when I’ve processed things as much as I can, and I start going round in mental circles, I have to ‘draw a line’ under it all, let go of it, and move on. It’s not easy, but I’ve accepted that many people will never understand (or even want to understand in many cases) where I’m ‘coming from’, may not like, tolerate or want to know me. So be it. I prefer to get along with people whenever possible, but you can’t win them all. Many times, I just have to accept less-than-perfect resolutions to any difficulties with others. It stinks, but it’s the way the world works. NTs don’t necessarily all get along perfectly, or handle criticism well either.
I’d be interested to know how other aspies/auties handle criticism, and what does - or doesn’t - work for them.