Planning, Anticipation, and Uncertainty

One of my biggest strengths is the way I anticipate and plan; I automatically work out the logistics of getting things done, and I usually find ways to make the doing more efficient as well. This has helped me in both my work life and my personal life. But one of my biggest sources of anxiety is also the way I anticipate and plan, because it means I am always thinking ahead to how things might be, but I can never be absolutely sure that that’s the way they will be.

For example, I have a couple of busy days coming up next week, when I have a series of orientations for new graduate students to go to, and I have already started working out the best plan for how to get where I need to go. I’ve looked up the times and locations I need to know (but I’ll be looking in more detail at the campus map the day before, to make sure I know how to get there), and made inquiries about whether my parking permit will be active or not yet (it won’t; sigh). I’ve added in a couple of to-dos that I should be able to handle in between meetings and other events, and made sure I know where I need to go for those, as well.

And all of this will be immensely helpful—but it’s also a lot of mental energy that I’m expending ahead of time, which may or may not reduce the mental energy I’ll need to actually navigate those two days. After all, I still don’t know how busy the campus will be, or where exactly I’ll be able to park. I don’t know exactly what all of the venues look like, or with whom I’ll be interacting, so those are things I’m going to have to incorporate on the fly. Anticipating does feel like it’s helpful, and I’m always happy that I’ve gotten myself organized ahead of time. But it’s also kind of draining. It’s like my brain is always going, always mapping things out; as soon as any new element enters the picture, I’m adding it to the map, rearranging if I need to.

This is why it can be so very stressful when a) something gets added or changed at the last minute, b) something takes much longer than expected, or c) something does not go at all as I had planned. The way I manage long, busy days is usually by rehearsing them in my head ahead of time; then at least I feel like I’ve practiced and therefore know that I can get through it all. When reality does not go according to that mapped-out rehearsal in my head (which it has an annoying habit of doing on a frustratingly frequent basis), I can implode.

Not all the time, though, and I’m a lot better about adapting than I used to be. And the good thing is that my brain just keeps on mapping, so after the initial breakdown, I am able to bounce back pretty quickly with a re-route. I suppose I just need to work on building more flexibility into the map in the first place, so it doesn’t feel like a total collapse when something doesn’t work out.

Archery and Anxiety

I have recently taken up archery, something I remember loving as a child and wanting to get back to for a long time. It’s been long enough, though, that it’s basically a new pursuit, which means there is a learning curve. And if you’ve ever tried archery, especially without much detailed instruction, you know that often that learning curve slides right into the intersection of bowstring with forearm.

In my case, it didn’t take long. Just a few days after we started, the string caught me right on the inside of the elbow, just at the top edge of my leather arm guard. (So I was trying to be careful, but…ow.) And then it hit me again, in almost the exact same place. And let me tell you, that tender spot inside the elbow is also one place that happens to bruise spectacularly when it gets hit by the bowstring. It’s a week later now, and it’s still a vivid purple and yellow.

This was motivation, however. With proper form, this kind of impact doesn’t happen, so I quickly learned what I was doing wrong, and how to improve my arm position and alignment. Other problems arose, however, when I tried to put this new understanding into practice.

I couldn’t help but flinch a little. Instead of releasing the arrow smoothly, with all of my focus on the target, part of my mind was worried about my arm, and my draw became more tentative. It wasn’t enough to send the arrow too wide, but it was enough to interfere. And, of course, it took a lot of the enjoyment out of practice and made me less enthusiastic about doing it.

It occurred to me later that this isn’t too different from social anxiety, at least how it often manifests for me. After suffering enough repeated social “failures,” I flinch away from engaging again; I anticipate that it’s going to hurt. So I often avoid social contact, and even when I try, I hold back. I don’t put all of myself into it. But of course, this makes me all the more likely to fail—people can tell that I’m not fully engaged, and maybe that makes me seem uninterested, inauthentic, or even dishonest. The arrow of my intention misses the mark.

It’s hard to get out of that cycle. As I continued to practice my archery, however, I found I was able to regain some confidence as my form improved. But first I had to just accept that each attempt might hurt. If I was doing things right, they wouldn’t—but I wouldn’t be doing things right if I let my fear distract me and keep me from fully committing to each shot. Instead I had to release the fear before I released the arrow.

I don’t hit my arm very often anymore, and I haven’t hit it so painfully again. But I also bought a different arm guard that protects me a little better and gives me more peace of mind as I’m learning. This lets me focus on really improving my form without getting stung by every single mistake.

It would be nice if I could wear some kind of similar gear to protect against social “stings,” but I think a good parallel is being willing to be vulnerable when connecting with other people, but also being aware that some pain can be guarded against. Sometimes that means learning to keep appropriate boundaries, because not all things are safe to reveal to all people. Sometimes it means avoiding people who hurt you through no fault of your own; unlike bowstring slap, social harm isn’t necessarily self-inflicted, and sometimes it’s not your form that is out of line.

But sometimes it’s enough just to notice that I’m preemptively flinching. Then I can take a look at what’s going on and figure out if it’s really warranted. Take this blog post, for example: I wrote the initial draft yesterday, and ever since I’ve been second-guessing whether I really want to put it out there. It’s not like it’s super-personal, but it’s a little personal, and I find myself wondering if I’m exposing myself to criticism by publishing it. (Actually, I wonder that with practically every blog post.) But it doesn’t do me any good to hold back, and if I flinched and second-guessed everything I would never get anything done.

So, with that, I release the arrow.

On Masking

I’ve been thinking about the concept of autistic masking, sometimes also called camouflaging. This is the act of concealing or suppressing one’s autistic traits in order to appear “normal.” Masking may include the suppression of “stimming” movements or sounds, putting up with sensory inputs that are painful, forcing oneself to make eye contact, or following previously-practiced social scripts in order to blend in and appear non-autistic.

Such masking takes a toll on multiple levels. As Laura Hull and her co-authors found in “Putting On My Best Normal,” camouflaging is frequently experienced as mentally and physically exhausting, due to the constant vigilance required. Masking one’s autistic traits can also lead to a lack of support (or a lack of diagnosis altogether) because one’s struggles aren’t evident. Lastly, it can make one feel inauthentic, even to the point of losing touch with one’s own identity. And if you can never truly be yourself, all the connections you make with other people feel false as well.

Now, most people wear masks at least some of the time. Sociologist Erving Goffman wrote a foundational book about this back in 1956, called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. In it, he discusses the self as a performance: we try to manage the impressions others have of us by presenting ourselves in a certain light, hoping this will lead them to treat us the way we want to be treated. To do this, we choose what information to present about ourselves, and what to conceal.

This “impression management” is, essentially, masking: we reveal and conceal different parts of ourselves in order to be accepted and seen in the best possible light. Consider, too, how we present different aspects of ourselves in different contexts; the self we present in the workplace or classroom is not the same self we show to our friends at a party. (Theoretically, at least, if you go to parties.)

So, to some degree, masking is a universal phenomenon, and it can be a valuable social skill to have. Then why is autistic masking so often draining and even damaging? I believe the key lies in that opening phrase: to some degree.

Autism is such a pervasive difference in our “wiring” that masking it is a constant effort; it’s not like simply not mentioning some embarrassing incident, or making sure you don’t have spinach in your teeth. It’s more like trying to maintain strict control over every natural instinct you have in terms of how your body wants to move, how you express yourself, and how your mind works. So in trying to appear “normal,” autistics may need to mask a lot more than someone just trying to present themselves “at their best.” So of course it ends up being much more draining.

It’s also important to note that many aspects of masking can cause stress directly. Making eye contact is very uncomfortable, even painful, for many autistic people, but many of us do it to meet social expectations, or to make others more comfortable. Stimming movements such as rocking, finger-flicking, or tapping are often a way of relieving stress and/or burning off energy that has nowhere else to go, so restricting those behaviors then causes stress to increase in an already-uncomfortable social situation. Similarly, forcing oneself to put up with—or even pretend to enjoy—a sensory situation that is causing distress (but which no one else seems to mind) will increase stress as well, and can easily lead to a meltdown or shutdown later.

There is also a difference between voluntary masking and coerced masking. When someone is making a choice about how to present themselves in order to appear at their best, this is a voluntary decision. Sure, it’s stressful to put on your best social presentation during, say, a job interview, but that’s a choice you make to give a good first impression. When, however, you have been told over and over (explicitly or implicitly) that who you are is not acceptable, and yet you still wish to be accepted, your subsequent masking of those unacceptable traits is essentially coerced. In other words, when not masking is met with ridicule, bullying, and ostracism, you end up masking out of fear. So of course this will have negative effects.

This kind of coerced masking can even be completely unconscious, as it was for me before I learned about autism. I simply grew up absorbing the norms other people expected me to follow, even though they were often painful to follow (and when I was younger I probably didn’t follow them very well). Eventually this caused some serious burnout, because the exhaustion and constant vigilance mentioned above were just as real even though I didn’t know I was masking anything. Scratch that: I knew I was masking something, I just didn’t know it was autism. Ultimately, I was simply masking myself.

It’s really hard to get out of the habit of masking, though. For one thing, it does get to be a habit, especially after decades of doing it. For another, it’s sometimes hard to know the difference between the well-adjusted sort of social presentation that everyone does in order to keep good boundaries and maintain professionalism, and the self-negating camouflaging that capitulates to social norms that see autistic traits as inherently deficient. It’s a tricky position to be in, especially when you also want to be able to navigate the non-autistic world while still being true to yourself. And I don’t have a ready answer for how to do that; it’s still a work in progress.

Anxiety in Context

As part of my human services class, I wrote about the differences between an approach that attempts to help a person by understanding their problems in the context of their environment, versus one that focuses on something like childhood trauma as the root of their trouble. I used an example from my own life to illustrate the point I wanted to make, and given the content of that example, I thought the essay could pull double duty as my blog post for this week. 🙂

By focusing on the individual in context, we can take into account environmental factors that may be influencing a person’s internal state and related behavior. This approach locates the source of problems as being in the relationship between the individual and her environment. Potential solutions, therefore, will take into account environmental changes as well as personal changes, perhaps even extending up into changes in law or cultural expectations.

In contrast, a focus on personal history, such as childhood trauma, locates the source of problems as being within the individual herself, and seeks to address them on that level. Potential solutions will then revolve around personal changes within the individual herself, and not larger structural changes in society. It could be argued that considering the role of childhood trauma is taking the individual’s environment into account, but it is the environment of the past, and specific to that person’s history.

When I first started therapy, I was primarily seeking help with anxiety. Part of this manifested as high levels of social anxiety when interacting with other people. We discussed childhood experiences for quite some time, and I could definitely relate incidents of childhood bullying, betrayal, and ostracism to the anxiety I continued to feel in groups of people, or when meeting someone new for the first time. This located the problem within me, in my particular history and its reverberations.

Years later, however, I gained a different understanding of my social anxiety when I learned that I am autistic. Instead of this social anxiety arising specifically from past experiences, I saw it as arising from a life spent in a world that expected me to think and behave like everyone else, all while not knowing that I was autistic. In a way, this may still sound as if I am locating the problem within myself, specifically in my autism, but in truth the problem comes from the interaction between me and an environment that does not expect or understand neurodivergence.

This has become clearer to me as I gain more experience interacting with other autistic people. When my ways of thinking and acting are understood and accepted, I do not feel the same social anxiety that I do in other contexts. In other words, my social anxiety is a product of me being in a particular environment; if my environment changes to one with different social expectations, the anxiety goes away. Even just knowing that the problem is a transactional one makes a difference on those occasions where I can’t change the environment. Understanding where I might have difficulty allows me to change my approach, and also helps avoid excessive self-blame if things still go awry. I can see my anxiety as a bad environmental fit, rather than entirely a personal failing.

Changing My Routine

I’m enjoying a little time off at the moment; I’m in between school semesters, and my primary job hasn’t had any projects for me for the past couple of weeks. That means I’m going to have a light paycheck or two, but it’s been really refreshing to have time to read things outside of coursework, and to work on projects that have allowed me to really dive deep in a way I haven’t been able to for a while. It’s been good.

I am also trying to use this time to change up my daily routine, specifically how I structure my mornings and evenings. I tend to find this really difficult; I realize it’s hard for most people to change their habits, but on top of that, I don’t really have a set daily routine. So it’s not just a matter of changing what I do at various times, it’s getting myself to maintain a routine in the first place.

That feels ironic to me, because so much has been said about the fondness we autistic people have for our routines, and how little we like it when things change. In some ways I’m no different, but at the same time I like to have flexibility in my schedule as well. Some days I have more energy, or more creativity, or more ability to focus, and I’d prefer to be able to take advantage of those days in a way that makes sense, instead of having to do the same exact thing every day.

So while I do prefer “sameness” when it comes to doing the things I do (e.g., I like to do them in the same way, and I dislike being blocked from doing them that way, or stopped from doing them at all when I had planned to), that doesn’t always translate into routine. Unless I have some external pressure, like a fixed starting time for my work day, I just don’t maintain a daily routine.

To some degree, I really can’t; the fact that my job doesn’t always provide consistent work means that I don’t have the same schedule from day to day. My class schedule is not the same every day, either—and on days when I have class and work, I have to arrange my schedule differently in order to fit everything in. Add to this the aforementioned preference for paying attention to my varying energy/creativity/focus levels, and I much prefer to vary things as necessary.

I do like some degree of predictability, though, at least on a week-by-week basis. I hate last-minute scheduling that adds something new on the same day, and if I have to reschedule something I would rather push it out to the next week than try to fit it into a week I already have laid out in my head. Because I do — I can see the “fixed points” of the coming week laid out ahead of me like an obstacle course. That gives me some idea of how to fit other work in around them, and some sense of which will be my busy days. When I wake up in the morning, too, I automatically start reviewing those fixed obligations, to get a feel for how I need to time everything else, like work and study and meals and dog walking. Adding in another commitment, even (ugh) a phone call, can throw that timing right off, and everything needs to be reshuffled.

I think most people don’t realize how much effort it takes to do all that reshuffling in my head when the “fixed points” get moved. They probably see me as inflexible when really I’m just overwhelmed because I know how much energy it takes — and that’s extra energy on top of what I need to actually do the things on my schedule. So as soon as I hear about last-minute schedule changes, I’m already spinning out all of the contingencies that ripple out from that change, all the things that need to be rearranged from the carefully-timed plan. It usually all works out (I try not to schedule myself too tightly) but until I’ve got a new plan, I’m anxious. And the less time I’m given to fit in the new thing, the more anxious I get.

Unfortunately, I don’t often get the level of predictability I would prefer, and that is one thing I would really like to change about my work situation. But since I do have this downtime now, I am hoping that I can set up some morning and evening habits that will start to feel established before my obstacle course of a schedule gets filled up again.

Three Things On My Mind

I started three separate topics for a blog post this week, thinking I could use one or all of them, but frankly none of them is really coming together. For each one, I started to expand upon my observations and draw conclusions…but then things just fizzled and I couldn’t find the point. So here’s just a glimpse into some of the things swirling in my brain at the moment:

1. I’m done with my school semester! I’m very proud of the work that I did in both of my classes, and I’m looking forward to my spring courses, but I also need a break. Luckily, I have a little over a month off — which of course I have already started filling with work on personal projects. I tend to be reluctant to talk about things still in the works, but those are proving very exciting to me, and I’m looking forward to having some time to dive into them.

2. Gift shopping sucks. I spend so much time trying to find something the other person would like, when their interests and tastes are so much different from mine (and screw you, Theory of Mind theorists who say autistic people can’t understand this) that it stresses me out that I might get it wrong. In fact, I get jarring flashbacks to times I was criticized (sometimes quite harshly) for not spending enough, or not choosing the right thing, or some other gift-giving failure. I recognize that this was entirely not ok, but that doesn’t make it easy to shake off. So gift shopping sucks…but at least it’s done for this year.

3. I’ve made some new friends this year, and reconnected with an old friend I hadn’t spoken with in a long time — but I’m wary. So many times I have thought I found a friend who really “got” me, when in reality, I got them. At first that can feel like the same thing, but in the end it’s not. Ultimately, it takes some time to let things build and figure out whether there is some mutual understanding building, or if it’s more uneven. But that’s what makes me wary.

So yeah, just a few things pulling my thoughts about (and of course there are more, in all sorts of directions). But overall I am heading into my long weekend feeling ready for a rest — which for me includes lots of reading, writing, programming, and crafting, now that I have a little “down time.” Hah!

Running Just Below the Line

I have felt on the verge of a meltdown for the past several days. Stress built up steadily for all of last week, and being out of town for the weekend meant that I was not able to maintain my usual routine that brings me into the next week more refreshed. Being aware of this has allowed me to avert some of the negative effects this might have caused, but I still feel like I am running just below the red line. So I started thinking about meltdowns, including the word’s origins in the management of nuclear reactors.

Nuclear reactors run on heat; they essentially use atomic fission as a fancy way to boil water. But too much heat can become dangerous, so there are mechanisms in place to keep the temperature under control. The main one is to circulate water through the system to keep things cooled down to a manageable level. This needs to be done on a continuous basis; even if active fission is not currently happening, the system still needs to be cooled. Things in there are just hot, and it takes a lot of effort to keep that heat balanced and contained.

I often feel like I run hot inside. If operations are proceeding on their usual routine, it’s manageable — I might not even feel it if I’m doing a good job of balancing out stressors with some nice, cooling downtime. Working on projects I’m interested in also feels cooling, even though it can involve a sense of passionate intensity; it’s a different kind of heat, I guess. But I need to have that balance.

If the water circulation in a reactor is stopped, the heat from the fuel rods will boil away any existing water until they are no longer immersed in coolant. At this point, they can literally start to melt, creating a pool of very hot, highly radioactive material on the floor below. If this is left alone, it can get so hot that it melts through the surrounding containers, spreading radioactive contaminants into the outside world.

When I don’t get my cooling time, I can feel things start to come apart. My chest tightens, and I start to feel tension around my eyes. I feel stifled, bottled up, in need of something to release the pressure. At this point, every new frustration, no matter how small, ratchets up the heat a little bit more. And if it’s a big frustration? Now we’re in trouble.

But notice that a meltdown is not an explosion. It is a melt. It is damage sustained by the reactor due to its own heat. That damage can spread outside if its containment becomes broken enough, of course, and that is always the main focus of public concern. But it starts in the core. Whatever else happens, the first casualty is the reactor itself.

My meltdowns don’t hurt other people. Perhaps they’re more like partial meltdowns, when the fuel rods have started to melt, but are able to be cooled before they burn through containment. I cry, I scream, I find other ways to dissipate the heat. So after an initial show of concern, all seems under control, and the public breathes a sigh of relief.

The reactor core, though? Still damaged. Still unbalanced. And still in need of cooling for a good long time.