Monday 20 October 2014

On Making Mistakes

I've been thinking lately about how we aspies absolutely hate to make mistakes. It can be anything from a social blunder to driving down the wrong street to making a slip-up at work - the type of the mistake doesn't seem to matter as much as that we've made an error at all. It triggers our anxiety and autistic shame, and we can get very upset, even have meltdowns, or angst for hours, days or even weeks over something that an NT either wouldn't fret over, or wouldn't do so for long. We just can't seem to let mistakes go.

I have struggled with this issue myself for most of my life, and have won only a partial victory over it, and so when I see other aspies/auties doing it, eg in my Facebook autistic groups, I feel a strong empathy for their pain and confusion. So I'm going to try to analyse why we react so badly to making mistakes. Bear in mind this is not a definitive or 'final' list, more of an attempt to open discussion, sort of like lancing open an infected wound so that it can begin to heal.

So here's why I think we react so badly. I've listed them separately, but of course they are often entangled and influencing each other hugely.

1) Fear. We have usually learnt to fear other's (often forceful) negative reactions to our mistakes - their criticism, disapproval, anger, hostility, jeering, or even outright abuse. So when we make a mistake, we cringe in shame and perfectly understandable dread. It's possible that this could even be the biggest reason for our dislike of mistakes, or at least the one that first makes us aware of them.

2) Orderliness. We live in a confusing, overwhelming, constantly changing world, and so we need to create our own order, those routines and habits that help us manage our lives. A mistake (eg forgetting to set an alarm clock) can disrupt this order, make us feel like everything's falling apart, and send us into a tailspin as a consequence.

3) Perfectionism. Any perfect pattern or order, whether we create it or not, is soothing to our often jangled nervous system. We like to have things fixed in place, and an error disturbs that perfection. We get upset when others disturb the perfection we've created, but perhaps we get even more disturbed when we do it, because we feel we should "know better". We can hold ourselves to even higher standards than we do others.

4) Low self-esteem. This is common amongst autistics, caused by a lifetime of criticism and other bad experiences. We often have to "try twice as hard to feel half as good", and so any mistake, however small, can cause us to beat ourselves up emotionally as a result. It's sad, but true, that sometimes we even self-criticise worse than others have done to us.

5) Catastrophising. You all know what I mean by catastrophising, I'm sure - that horrible negative spiral of thoughts we can get into, where we make 'one little mistake', and before we know it, we're imagining our whole world unravelling, our lives ruined... And afterwards, when we realise that our worst-case-scenario thinking was totally unfounded, it makes us feel (yet more) stupid and ashamed. I'm really not sure if catastrophising is a cause or a consequence of our loathing of making mistakes, maybe both, but I do think that a fear of triggering it would make us hate mistakes even more.

6) Perseveration. We have a tendency to go over and over events endlessly and at times obsessively in our minds, unable to let them go, and when we do that about our mistakes, it almost always leads to that catastrophising. And reinforces the low self-esteem, the self-bashing, the desire for perfection, etc, etc...

So what can we do about it? How do we stop doing this to ourselves? Perhaps we might never be able to entirely stop, but we don't have to suffer in silence forever either. I can only offer a few points that have helped me, I'm sure others will have other methods, this is, as I said, hopefully the beginning of discussion, not the end.

a) Accept that we can't prevent ALL mistakes. We are human, and therefore will blunder sometimes. Socially, we will blunder more than most. It's important to remember NTs make mistakes too - and because their memories don't seem to sear into their consciousness the way ours do, they also forget (and forgive) much quicker than we do, ie make a mistake one week and they'll have forgotten about it by the next.

b) Share with other autistics. Sharing with NTs usually only gets us more upset, because we end up feeling stupid and ashamed for feeling that way in the first place. But other autistics understand where we're coming from, and can offer solid advice and support. I've often felt much better after sharing with other aspies, and I've noticed other aspies seem to as well.

c) Get support in learning what we CAN prevent. What support you have will of course vary, but use every means possible, including any supportive NTs, to 'fill in the blanks' of your knowledge of the world. You'll be less likely to make mistakes if you're less ignorant of a whole bunch of stuff, including social rules and what's considered 'proper workplace behaviour'.

d) Stop with the negative self-messages. Stop the spiral of angst and self-hatred, preferably before it gets properly started. Meditation has helped me a lot over the years to get out of the "Oh God I'm so stupid" thinking and into a more rational space, a lot faster and quicker. For some, medication may be necessary to cope with their anxieties, but it's important to remember all medications have side-effects, and sometimes become less effective over time.

e) Have a Plan B. This is essential for when we make mistakes in our daily routines or travel. If we miss the bus to work for instance, perhaps we could catch another, or a train, or get someone to drive us... there's always another way to get our routines back on track. So always have a Plan B - and if need be, Plans C, D, E and F as well!

f) Dump your toxic connections. Wherever possible, dump those negative people, especially the downright abusive types and the just-don't-understand-or-want-to-understand-autism types. Yes, even if they are family. When you're trying to repair your self-esteem, you don't need anyone tearing you down again. Be ruthless. Press the dump button on them.

g) Above all - forgive yourself for making mistakes. I know this is easier to say than do, but if we can perseverate over our mistakes, then we can turn that to perseverating over not perseverating! We need to stop beating ourselves up for our mistakes - they usually aren't worth it, and we deserve better than all that angst. You're worth that, each and every one of you.