One of the attributes that I have always despised the most is that of my vulnerability. Sometimes I feel like I’m standing naked in the open, everything exposed for the world to see–and sneer and jeer at.
Not pleasant. Not comfortable.
It’s been more than 10 months since I snuggled into my spot on the autism spectrum, but although my sense of validation and my self-confidence have shot through the roof, the vulnerability hasn’t budged. Not that I magically expected it to, but maybe a part of me was wishing upon a star, holding out for the impossible.
The Asperger’s/autism realization, though, has brought me a streak of light, of peace. Although nothing has changed (why would it? I’m still me 🙂 ), I’ve been able to decode my life and answer those enigmatic conundrums. I believe that half the battle (any battle) is knowing why. Why are we the way we are? Why am I the way I am?
…and other clichéd questions.
I’ve realized that my Asperger’s/autism status contributes to my vulnerability.
There are a few reasons, I think.
First, I’m hopelessly introverted. Although the typical definition of introversion is that to be around other people saps your energy. (By contrast, being extroverted generally means that you gain energy around other people.)
In my unscientific Twitter poll from several months ago, I found that 98% of the respondents reported being somewhere in the Introverted category. That doesn’t surprise me. The numbers resonate.
Although being introverted doesn’t automatically lead to feeling vulnerable, it’s a start. If you’re introverted, and being around people steals your energy, then you’re likely to have a limited circle of friends. This puts more weight (adds more significance) on each friend you do have.
For example, if you only have, say, four friends, and you inadvertently piss one off, you’ve irritated 25% of your friends. Only 3 people are still content. On the other hand, if you’re an extrovert with, say, 20 friends, and you make one of them mad, you’ve only irritated 5% of your friends, leaving 95% or 19 people unaffected.
Math is usually fun, but maybe not in this case. Applied in this way, it can be a little depressing.
For those of us with fewer friends, it becomes a case of quality over quantity. We put a little more stock in each person. For us, friends are scarce and rare, and one can’t be easily replaced with others. This often makes us more vulnerable.
Another factor at the Asperger’s/autism + vulnerability intersection is my natural tendency to interpret what other people say very literally. This means that I often end up wondering if I’ve just been criticized, nitpicked at, or played with in good fun.
If I can’t tell if someone is joking or being sarcastic or not, I become confused. If I don’t know what they’re trying to say, I might become frustrated. I’m trying to decipher their intent. I’m getting ready to get hurt.
Because getting hurt is a strong theme in my history, and history has a way of repeating itself, especially when I can’t change the most of the way I am.
Confusion in itself begets vulnerability. If you’re confused, you don’t know which way to turn. If you can’t see a potential bullet flying at you, you don’t know whether to dodge it or not; you don’t know which way to move. Until you can see it and you know which way to react, you’re vulnerable; the bullet is more likely to hit you.
If someone pokes good-natured fun at me, but I interpret what they’ve said as a criticism, I will likely feel hurt. I will feel like I’m in their spotlight, their crosshairs. That’s not a comfortable feeling. It puts me on edge. Again, I’m vulnerable.
Another Asperger’s/autism spectrum-generated quality that comes into play for me is extra-sensitivity. Many Aspie/autistic people report being extra-sensitive in some (or multiple) way(s). There are a few lucky-ducks who can say, “meh” and let other peoples’ comments and vibes roll off. I envy the impervious type of Aspie/autistic person; I wish I was the same way, but alas, I drew the “extra-sensitive” card.
Being sensitive has its advantages; other people perceive you as more personable, and you bust the stereotype that people on the spectrum are cold, distant, unfeeling sociopaths. (This is–adamantly–not to say that my fellow spectrummites who can let comments roll off are cold, distant, or unfeeling in any way; I know better; I’m just busting neurotypical stereotypes here. I didn’t make them. 🙂 )
Being sensitive also allows you to feel, with a sixth sense, the world going on around you. You can sense danger before it’s too late. You can pick up on someone’s “vibe” a little faster. It might be comparatively easier to choose friends wisely.
But being sensitive comes with some heavy fine print. Sensitivity is usually indiscriminate, meaning that we can’t pick and choose which signals we’re going to pick up on and which ones we’re going to filter out and ignore. This leaves us to be sitting ducks for practically anything coming down our neurological pike. And again: we become vulnerable.
Sensitivity also extends into the emotional realm, manifesting as emotional sensitivity. This often means that we can get hurt easily.
Another Aspie/autistic attribute that makes me vulnerable is my delayed processing, especially verbal. This rears its Medusa head particularly in the professional realm, in the thankfully-uncommon event that I’m accused of something. These accusations are never serious (again, thankfully); they might be benign–the most common one I endure is that I “cost too much” or some other similar bullshit. (And I give myself permission to say that it’s bullshit because I’ve worked really hard and gone to great lengths, even self-sacrifice and damn near an unintentional/unconscious vow of poverty in order to serve people in the absolute best way possible.)
This can also rear its head in my personal life at times, typically within the context of an argument (again, I’m grateful that this is relatively uncommon), and again, manifesting as an accusation of some type. My opponent (usually my partner or one of my parents) may accuse me of slacking off, getting too uptight, being unreasonable, being controlling, or engaging in an activity “too” repeatedly.
When I’m accused in these ways, my viscera recoil and my defenses kick up. You can almost see the clenched fists position themselves in front of my face, ready to do battle. Except that I don’t actually do that. I might be harboring an inside desire to do more than I can outwardly, but of course, I’m not going to physically fight with my family or my professional contacts. Instead, I have to act very personable (especially in the professional theater) and very accommodating. I don’t want any complaints lodged against me. I don’t want bad word of mouth.
And of course, I don’t want to hurt anyone, especially if there’s the slightest chance that I could be in the wrong. I don’t want any rumors circulating about me in either sector of my life. And I definitely don’t want to prove them right! Especially if the very criticism they’re making involves my “unreasonableness”, “uptightness”, “anger issues”, or whatever other negative trait they’re perceiving and accusing me of.
When I’m accused in these ways and I become defensive, I also feel the stress hormones flood through me. These hormones have a way of stealing my words away from me. They also hijack my ability to think rationally, think critically, and make wise decisions. Their accusations often shock me. My intentions were completely misinterpreted, despite my meticulous attempts to do everything right.
When you already feel that you put more effort into each and every aspect of a (personal or professional) relationship than practically anyone else you know, and it comes back to bite you in the ass, then what? What is one to do? How can one possibly improve? What’s left to try?
And if you can’t process what they’re saying and find your own words to fight back with, what hope is there? At the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much.
When you can’t fight back (or you don’t feel like you can, for whatever reason), or you’re under immense stress and you lose your words, this can result in feeling vulnerable. After all, you’re being attacked. Having to play defense is not a position of strength.
If you’re constantly using your resources to fend off an assault, you can’t get your own swing in edgewise. If you’re having to spend your breath saying, “no–listen. It’s not like that”, then you’re using all your resources to refute them, and you can’t make any definitive statements of your own. If you’re trying to find the words to do that in the first place, and you can’t quite seem to get them out, that thickens the situation further.
And if they’re lobbing criticism at you, chances are, they’re open to listening to you. They’ve decided you’re wrong; they’ve got their mind made up. Anything you say to the contrary probably won’t be heard. Which is the worst case scenario if you can’t even quite conjure up the perfect comeback.
And yet another Aspie/autistic trait of mine that contributes to this milieu is alexithymia, or the difficulty with identifying and/or expressing one’s emotions and/or thoughts (or the inability to do so altogether).
Interestingly enough, up until eight or nine months ago, I had absolutely no clue that I experienced any alexithymia. (How’s that for irony? I didn’t have a clue that I didn’t have a clue.) In fact, I thought I was pretty good at expressing myself. I certainly talk enough; one would think that somewhere in my monologues, I would’ve been able to convey my thoughts and emotions pretty effectively. I thought I had it down pat. I thought I had true insight. I thought I knew myself well.
But apparently, I think and feel more than I was previously aware of. Apparently, my brain is a constant wave after wave at high tide of swirling thoughts, emotions, ideas, and… god(dess) knows what else.
When you can’t always express yourself fully, the vulnerability risk mounts even higher. If you’re not sure what you’re feeling or thinking in the first place, or if you’re like me and there was more going on underneath/inside than you realized, and it suddenly comes to the surface, it can be tough to find the words to describe. When you can’t find your words, you can’t be heard. And when your emotions and thoughts are an enigma to you, remaining hidden under debris, they can exert greater control. Which leaves you out of control, or at least in less control.
Both of these elements (not being heard and lacking control/self-knowledge) can lead to one’s being vulnerable. Because if you’re not in control, something else has control over you. And if you can’t express yourself to another person and be heard by them, that leaves space for the other person to form their own impressions and attitudes. It leaves a gaping hole that invites them to become dominant in the conversation (whether that’s their intent or not).
And that leaves us…vulnerable.
There are probably strategies we can take. Some are probably more desirable and/or effective than others.
Personally, I went through a phase where I was somewhat of a “tough girl”. I didn’t become a bad-ass who dabbled in risky habits, nor did I beat anybody up for their lunch money or attack them over the slightest infraction or anything. But I can say that during my darkest moments, I momentarily daydreamed some fairly violent fantasies toward a few specific people who were particularly skilled at making my life hell at the time. I wasn’t the one perpetuating the violence, however; in my daydreams, I let nature take its course and fantasized about them coming down with anthrax (the chosen disease in the medical thriller I was reading before bed at the time). That’s grisly and cruel, I know, but my brain was in a very dark place 20 years ago. Of course, I’ve since moved on from that.
Self-esteem has become another asset and strength for me, but this one is tricky, and it’s slow in coming. It takes its sweet time to cultivate, and even when you think you’ve gained more of it, it might dip slightly or even evaporate altogether on a given day, just when you need it most. I experience self-esteem as feeling comfortable and solid with myself. To put this to the real test, for me, is to try to make a statement about me that is wrong. If I can refute it while remaining calm, then I’ve “passed” that trial. But it’s a day-by-day, case-by-case phenomenon. I describe making progress in this area as having more “solid” days than “flimsier” days. Others may describe it differently.
Another strategy I’ve cultivated is to be willing to let go of toxic people in my life. This goes for significant others, professional colleagues and clientele, employers/jobs (when possible), even certain friends. Some people simply don’t deserve to be in our lives. Maybe they’re attention-seeking or full of drama. Maybe they’re narcissistic and prone to gaslighting. Maybe they’re just users, using you for whatever they think they can get from you. Maybe they’re the “poor me”/”woe is me”-type martyrs who moan endlessly about their own self-created situation and they’re married to their problems, with no interest in actually solving them (or at least improving their situation). Maybe they bring out the worst in you, drain you, or suck your energy away; maybe you end up feeling worn out, depressed, empty, unfulfilled after hanging out with them. Maybe they leave you feeling inadequate or otherwise negative toward yourself. Maybe they’re fair-weather friends who ditch you just when you need them most. I’ve decided that I don’t have any time or room in my life for people like that, and I’ve given myself permission to peacefully (or not) kick them to the curb.
I don’t really have any other solutions than those. I wish I did. It’s a tough situation, which I think has a lot to do with the fact that so many factors are involved, and these factors are not going away any time soon. They’re with me for life.
I just hope that maybe someone else can identify, so that we all feel less alone. Maybe we can gain some strength in our numbers instead 🙂
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(Image Credit: Maria Jose)