Reading People (Or Not)

Sometimes I just have to let things go. I find myself going over and over something I’ve said, second-guessing my own reactions and wondering if I’ve inadvertently said something wrong, pissed someone off, hurt someone’s feelings…but I’m not going to figure that out by rehashing it over and over. Either they’re going to tell me so, or not.

The trouble is, people often don’t tell me one way or the other, and therein lies the problem. I can’t help it if people don’t tell the truth about their own reactions, and I can’t be expected to just know. It’s been pretty well established that people with vastly different ways of thinking and experiencing the world have trouble seeing each others’ perspective—we think differently, so…we think differently. Damian Milton calls it the “double empathy problem,” and points out that it’s not a one-sided autistic “deficit,” but rather a mutual disconnect in our understanding of each other.

And I definitely know that my reactions to things have been misunderstood with great frequency throughout my life. I’ve been called selfish while I was actually bending over backward to make someone else more comfortable, and I’ve been called thoughtless when I was actually consumed with concern for someone else. That’s one of the reasons I worry so much about people’s reactions when I say something that might make them uncomfortable, or need to ask for something to change. I have no idea if they’re understanding me, or if they’re reading something into my words that isn’t there.

One problem is that I can’t really trust how I read people, so before I say something that might potentially be taken negatively, I have to prepare for all sorts of reactions. I kind of have to assume the worst, to be honest, just so I don’t get blindsided if and when they jump down my throat. (In my defense, I have also correctly predicted reactions that were all out of proportion to the situation, even when others told me that I was worrying too much, and of course that person won’t react that way. But those were situations where the person in question had previously overreacted and taken things personally, so I had already seen that pattern play out. It’s interaction with less-familiar people that sends me into a tailspin of self-doubt.)

My therapist noted this week that I seem to have problems “owning” my negative reactions to things, and she’s right. It came up toward the end of our session, so we haven’t had a lot of time yet to pick that apart, but a great deal of it is due to all of the above: expressing a negative reaction to things, even a mild one, has so often been punished that I do so only warily. Either it’s misinterpreted as a personal attack, or taken as me asking for special treatment instead of “sucking it up” and getting on with things. And so I’ve learned to be extremely diplomatic in my approach…but I still end up with no idea what the response will be, even when I think I’m being completely reasonable.

At least I can usually recognize what is reasonable and what isn’t, both in terms of my request or statement and in terms of the other person’s reaction. And I get righteously indignant when people react unreasonably. But that still leaves me feeling bruised and vulnerable, and wanting to crawl back into my shell and not engage in situations where I might need to speak up. Because that’s the tension I feel all the time: I can’t not speak up when something is unreasonably uncomfortable or unfair, but I hate speaking up to point those things out.

But you know? The times that I have spoken up, usually about things that other people were silently putting up with, I have always had at least one other person—and usually more—tell me that they appreciated that I said something, because it bothered them, too. I just wish they would take the initiative once in a while, because it sucks always being the one to reach a breaking point first. But I suppose our social and sensory sensitivities make that almost inevitable, like being the canary in the coal mine. The situation is toxic for everyone, but autistic folks are going to feel it first.

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12 thoughts on “Reading People (Or Not)

  1. Oh, wow, THIS:

    “Because that’s the tension I feel all the time: I can’t not speak up when something is unreasonably uncomfortable or unfair, but I hate speaking up to point those things out”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The thing is, once the stress of not speaking out finally gets to me, I come off way over the top confrontational when I do speak up. Not so much aggressive as nervously trying to drown the other person in a tsunami of facts and justifications.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Oh yeah, definitely been there, too. And sometimes I *am* somewhat aggressive because I feel like the badness of the situation was obvious to everyone and should have already been addressed. Then (especially if it’s a sensory thing) I often find out that no one else had noticed…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes! I love the mining-canary metaphor. Well done expressing this hidden frustration. I suspect it controls the pace of my socializing. I usually need recovery time before stepping back on the minefield, hopeful, anxious and wary. Some misunderstandings require far longer recovery time, too. And recovery only begins after obsessing over things I can’t possibly know ends. I’m renaming my social aspirations Aspie Crack, because dammit, I always end up going back for more, eventually. 💜

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Reblogged this on Laina's Collection – sharing Aspergian/autistic writing and commented:
    This is an excellently written description of what I’ve experienced as well! A very relatable post for me. I can’t read people very well, which results in a lot of confusion and misunderstanding and occasionally, disaster via some faux pas that I realize only way too late that I’ve unknowingly committed lol. I can completely identify with the vulnerable feeling, too. This is a great read!

    Liked by 2 people

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