A few months back, I accidentally jammed my fingers in a sliding door at home. As I bent over in pain, I suddenly realised that I did not want anyone there, to ‘comfort’ me. By this I mean that when I am physically hurting, my skin becomes acutely painful, I can’t bear to be touched or ‘fussed over’, or have someone put an arm round me, etc, it only magnifies my pain. But it’s also other people’s emotional reactions I find difficult – the “oh, what’s wrong, how can I help, tell me where it hurts,” sort of thing. I know they mean well, I know it’s ‘empathy’, it’s just that when I am in pain, maybe crying, I don’t have words, and don’t want to find them. Even attempting to do so actually takes me away from the pain, I move from ‘right-brain-reaction’ to ‘left-brain-explaining’, and thus the connection to my own emotional reactions to pain (or to anything), established only with difficulty in the first place and often faulty, is lost, and those emotions go deep into some inaccessible place, perhaps never to be retrieved. (Plus, I then often come across as very ‘rational’ and ‘detached’ in describing the pain, which leads some to believe I’m not hurting at all.)
But since that injury, I’ve also come to recognise that something similar goes on with many of my emotional pains. By this I mean my deepest feelings, or my ‘intense’ or ‘over-the-top’ emotional reactions, often (though not always) the stuff that can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns if I’m not careful, and which I’ve only just learnt not to be ashamed of. Over the last few years, I have been able to share a great deal of my thoughts and feelings with other autistics that I’d previously kept buried, out of that shame. But still there’s a lot of other feelings and emotions I don’t share. It’s as if I have this deep reserve of ‘stuff’ I’ve always kept pretty much private, and which I probably always will keep mostly private. And I suspect, from reading between the lines, that many other autistics have a similar cache of deep feelings they don’t share either, or not much, sometimes not even with their closest autistic friends or their partners (or perhaps only them).
So I started thinking about why that’s so, what stops us from sharing. And it seems to me that there are four main factors.
(1) Alexithymia – the difficulty we have with recognising, dealing with and expressing those emotions. We don’t know what we feel, or we can’t find the words for what we feel, or we find them far too late.
(2) The bad reaction we get when we do express them. You know what I mean – the puzzled frown, the blank ‘what-planet-do-you-come-from’ stare, the getting told “You’re so weird” or “You can’t possibly feel that, no-one feels that way, it’s not normal, what is wrong with you?”, the laughter or snide comments, the sneer as they turn away and proceed to ignore you, perhaps even using what you’ve said against you at some later point… If we get this every time we try to share our deepest selves, it’s not going to encourage us to try.
(3) The afore-mentioned shame, often as a result of (2). We become ashamed of our ways of reacting to the world, of how we see things and handle things, of our emotions, and of our very selves. I’ve written on this autistic shame before, suffice to say here that it encourages us to conceal our deeper emotions and feelings.
(4) But beyond all that, I feel there is a deeper reason why we don’t share, one not talked about much even amongst autistics, which is simply that sharing emotional stuff doesn’t come naturally to us. Think about it. We are the toddlers who, when we spot something interesting, don’t go “Wooka dat, Mumma! Ooh!” We’re the children who aren’t out in the middle of the playground yelling “Look at me, everybody! I can stand on my head!” Instead, we are drifting around the edges of that playground, barely noticing the other kids. We’re the teenagers becoming more aware of others but also finding them and their emotional demands confusing, and barely beginning to understand what ‘having a friend’ entails. We’re the adults who often find counselling or psychotherapy unhelpful, and I don’t think it’s only because the therapists often aren’t knowledgeable about autism, or that we just haven’t found the ‘right’ methods. We can learn to connect with our emotions, yes, and learn to talk about them, but it doesn’t seem to really come naturally to us. We have to work on it.
I feel this could be another area where we differ from NTs, and where we are perhaps doing ourselves a disservice in attempting to be like them. For NTs, ‘sharing’ their deeper selves and ‘connecting’ with others is essential for their emotional health, and it doesn’t occur to them that we might not find it so essential. In fact the reverse may be true - it’s been my experience that many times, I don’t feel better for having talked about my emotions, or revealed them to others. Sometimes that’s because their reactions are negative. But also it was because it just didn’t make me feel any better. It just didn’t (and often still doesn’t) ‘feel right’ to talk about such deeply personal stuff.
Yes, sometimes, it can be helpful to talk about our emotions with others, especially if they are on the spectrum too. Often through that we come to realise something isn’t really such a big deal after all, or not something to be ashamed of, or fretted and worried over for hours or days or even weeks like a dog with a bone, as we so often do. And so there’s this release, this catharsis, that can and frequently does happen, especially when we first ‘come out’ as autistic, and find the autistic community, and feel accepted by them. But I sense there is also a deep reserve within many, perhaps even most, autistics, even the ones that seem most ‘outgoing’ and ‘sociable’, that means we have a lot of stuff we keep to ourselves.
And to me, this seems perfectly okay. In many circumstances – eg when confronted with those who can’t or won’t understand us – it’s actually a damn good idea to ‘keep stum’. But even when that isn’t the case, we still have the right to choose, and if it doesn’t ‘feel right’ to reveal certain ‘stuff’, then I don’t see why we should. How much of our ‘stuff’ we do share, and when, etc, is naturally going to differ from one individual to another, and one situation to another. All I am saying is that if we keep certain things to ourselves, it’s not a Terrible Thing, and we’re not Terrible People for doing it. (Or not doing it, as the case may be. Maybe I’m wrong, and there are tons of autistics out there who happily Reveal All?)
My point is - go with what feels right for you. We have the right to do whatever ensures we feel emotionally secure, without apology or feeling ashamed of it, or of ourselves.