Autism, irony, and the Self-Esteem Movement

This is something that has always bothered me, even as a then-unknown autistic person.  The difference between then and now, besides age (and hopefully, wisdom), is that now I have become more conscious of the dichotomy–conscious enough to put it into words.

The dichotomy, as is true for all dichotomies, consists of two elements.

The first element is the “I’m OK, You’re OK” sentiment that sprouted in the late 1970s and proliferated in elementary schools across the US (and heavens knows where else).  This sentiment essentially touted that each person is “just fine” “exactly the way they are”.

That still might seem a little abstract, so I’ll provide an example that I found in a fantastic book about Generation X, titled “13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who were later credited with their own eponymous generational theory.

The example is this: a cartoon of a little boy, kneeling on the floor of a classroom during art class, with a big sheet of paper laying flat on the floor in front of him, and various writing and drawing materials scattered around the paper.  The little boy is unmoving, defiant, and almost proud of not having drawn anything, as his teacher gushes over his “piece”, saying something like, “that’s wonderful, Johnny!  Not drawing anything at all makes a profound statement.”  (OK, I’m pretty sure I butchered that, at least in terms of wording, but the underlying message is the same.)  😉

This illustrates the Self-Esteem Movement in action, applied to the classroom.  It’s just one example, of which there are countless numbers and mind-boggling variety.  The message sent to the boy is this: whether he drew anything or not, or whether he put forth any effort or not, he received equal praise, encouragement, and reward.

This might sound warm and fuzzy.  I mean, what’s not to like about teaching students the empowering concept of self-acceptance and self-esteem, especially early on?

There’s just one snag (the second of the two Dichotomy Elements I mentioned): this movement has been around for 40 years and today’s people, aged 18 and up, are no better off than previous generations.  There is no actual Magical Self-Esteem Fairy.

This seems especially true for me, an autistic person.  And I’m sure that I’m not alone in the autistic community in this regard, either.

There are reasons for that.  Some of those reasons revolve around the fact that self-esteem induced without having been earned (through achievement, effort, action, contribution) results in an empty, almost guilty conscience, in a way.  The “you’re great just because you’re you” message does bring about smiles and warm fuzzy feelings.  However, it also often brings about a bewildered “what’s all the fuss about?  I didn’t really do anything to deserve this gushing” that lurks just below the threshold of consciousness, remaining largely unrealized but vaguely sensed.

And, other reasons for the failure of the Self-Esteem Movement to be successful for me as someone on the autism spectrum involve the fact that it smacks of bullshit.

It didn’t take me too long to get the (nagging) feeling that the Self-Esteem Movement was bullshit, either.

Because the “I’m OK, You’re OK”, “you’re fine just the way you are”, rang hollow, empty, and gilded.  Kind of like an item made of rusty iron painted over with a thin layer of platinum gold paint, while unscrupulous dealers trying to sell said item, describing it as “platinum gold” and asking a platinum gold-appropriate price.  And my Logic Antennae and accompanying bullshit-o-meter had x-ray vision; I could see the rusty iron core.

In plain terms: one minute, my elementary school teachers were telling me we were wonderful just the way we were, and everything we did (or didn’t do) was profound, powerful, brilliant, and so on.  And the next minute, those same teachers would scold and chastise me for…being different, acting independently, thinking unusually, blazing my own trail (usually by acting according to my nature and not necessarily by any specific intent to be a trailblazer).

The last thing I want to do is throw good teachers under the bus.  It’s just that where I spent my earliest  school years, the lion’s share of those teachers were anything but amazing.  (Fortunately, I would encounter amazing teachers later, which probably saved my ass.)

When you’re autistic, you usually almost can’t help but be different.  That’s a dripping whopper of an understatement, and it’s hardly news.  The autistic difference permeates everything I do, say, think, believe, and so on.  It’s pervasive, and it would be impossible to separate my autism from everything else that I am and everything else about me.  There is not one aspect of my life that is not touched in some way by autism.

That’s not a bad thing; it is, however, difficult for people like my parents and my teachers.  They had a tough road ahead, nevermind that my road was probably twister and riddled with more potholes.

My early school years, and the major players therein, sent me message after message that I was not so “OK just the way I am” after all.  The canned phrases came across as mere, cheap lip-service.  The same (mediocre to poor) teachers who reassured everybody that they were “just fine the way they were” still expected everybody to conform to a single educational mould, which did not foster creativity or allow much for individuality, and scorned those who were truly different.

Well hell.  I didn’t think that the Self-Esteem Movement came with fine print–you know, something like “you’re awesome just the way you are…except if you’re autistic.  Then you have to act like everybody else who is awesome just the way they are.”

See what I mean?  Bullshit.  Irony.  Hypocrisy.

Truthfully, I’m not nearly as bitter as all of this sounds.  Getting over it, however, is not a single event; it’s not as easy as flipping a switch.  We’re talking about a lot of contradictory messages and a lot of misunderstandings that caused a lot of alienation and trauma and loneliness and a whole slew of other unpleasant concepts, during formative years, times in which I needed exactly the opposite.  I didn’t necessarily need to be told that everything I did was blue-ribbon material, but I did need to be treated as though I was OK the way I was, especially since they were making a big show of saying those words.  I needed to be included in that conversation, and instead I felt like an ostracized footnote, like the exclusions and other fine print in dubious advertising.

I do feel like I’m making progress, though.  I can tell that I am because truthfully, I was a lot more angered by this last year, when my self-discovery and accompanying validation and vindication were still fresh and every fiber of my core wanted to holler “see??  I told you so!” and at that point, I didn’t even care if it would have been poor taste to gloat or even rub it in someone’s face.

The milemarkers of my twisty, potholed road signal my moving past the bitterness, moving past the temptation to gloat, sealing up the trauma and loneliness and moving all of the junk into cold storage, status: inactive.  And I am passing those milemarkers, with each day and each step I take.

Since I did experience these situations and their surrounding issues, though, but didn’t write about all of them at the time during which they surfaced, and since I’m pretty sure I’m not alone, I feel I should make up for the lost time and write about them anyway, even if it’s (way) after the fact.  Because there might be someone who needs this at some point.

To any and all of those people who experienced the same thing I did…

You may not have heard it from the very people who should have said it to you, so for whatever it may be worth, I’ll say it to you now:

You are OK just the way you are.  Whatever is your niche, your purpose, your function, etc, whatever are your efforts, your dreams, your wishes–they are awesome.  Whatever are your quirks, your oddities, your differences, and so on, they are just fine.  They aren’t character flaws or anything you should try to change, especially for the sake of anyone else, at a sacrifice to yourself.  Screw that.

Yes, you should keep striving to learn, help people, be kind, and so on.  Yes, you should keep striving for improvement, self-evolution, self-transformation, enlightenment, awareness, acceptance, tolerance, and whatnot.

But we’re all works in progress.  Nobody here has yet erased all their karma, freed all their demons, cleaned all the skeletons out of their closets.  Some are probably pretty close, others have a lot further to go.  It’s nobody else’s business where you are on your path, your journey, your life.  It’s yours, not theirs.  At the end of the day, when it comes to the deepest questions, you should only have to answer to yourself.

You are OK the way you are, where you’re at right now.  It’s nobody else’s place to tell you differently.

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43 Comments

  1. theres a looooooooot of bullshit in the world; youve laser-targeted a big chunk of it, irks me as well.

    the term that applies here is doublethink: its not just a contradiction, its not just a mystical union of opposite components, its people simultaneously forcing one tired cliche down your throat while also excluding you from its benefits. everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others… if anyone tells you to “believe in yourself” do what i do– just tell them to “go **** a ****.” 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Ha-HA, you nailed it! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. Double Think and New Speak are insidious and major enemies to society in general, especially to freedom and progress 💙. (For the cheap seats, I’m sort of a fan of Orwell’s work, and I think it’s quite relevant, even today 😁).

      Conspiracy-esque sentiments aside, I think that society is full of contradictions and hypocrisy in general, other major chunks being realms like advertising/marketing, politics, and NT-based unwritten social rules 💜. Saying one thing out of one side of their faces while saying the opposite out of the other.

      “It’s people simultaneously forcing one tired cliché down your throat while also excluding you from its benefits. Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others”

      Golden!!! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. I could *not* have said that better myself 😁👍🏼

      So good to see you again! 💗💗. I’ve been thinking about you lots lately 🌺🌺

      Liked by 5 people

    1. You read my mind! I love my Tshirt that says, “Be yourself. Unless you can be a unicorn. Then be a unicorn.” It’s my counter-mantra to “Be yourself, (unless you’re weird, then be like everyone else.) I’m calling myself a unicorn (to free myself of any expectation, since I’m winging it 24/7.)

      Liked by 3 people

  2. Ah, yes. The whole jazz about “be yourself!”, followed inevitably by the “no, not like that!” 🙄 Never, ever did I believe the malarkey-infested doublespeak fed about self-esteem because it clearly showed that those around me did not really esteem the real me. Sure, I made the grades most times and I was soooo careful never made waves, so teachers *did* like that aspect, but, on the flip side, I was “too quiet”, “unsocial”, “too shy”, “awkward”, etc. to be anything truly special or valuable to them. And of course, at home, I could rarely ever please. But all that is old news. 🙂 I think there is honestly something strangely empowering about cutting through the bull once and for all, in giving yourself permission to be who you are not because of some tired cliche but because you know you really *are* ok. Thank you for this, soul sis. 😘😘😘 ( And count me among the Orwell fans. Been re-exploring his work recently, as a matter of fact. ☺)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Awww, thank you so much for your compliments, my lovely! 😘😘😘. Yes, this! Everything you said is *so* true 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. Especially the “be yourself! No, not like that!!” Omg yes.

      And cutting through the BS is soooo liberating! It’s almost zen-like – discarding unwanted junk and not carrying it around anymore. It’s heavy, after all! 😉🌺. It simplifies life and minimizes the related pain and stress. I love it 😁

      Thank you so much for your comment, girl 😘😘💖🌟💖

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This brought back a lot for me. Mother deemed herself a self employed counsellor at one point, supposedly helping people (the bitter irony of one of the most screwed up people I’ve ever met proclaiming to help people!) and was very much into that 70s/80s self help bullshit, as you rightly call it. I heard this crap nonstop for many years from her, warm fuzzies and cold pricklies and other Transactional Analysis etc. nonsense, all whilst the same person was using psychopathic methods to try and destroy my confidence and sense of self. Its why I have zero faith in any of this kind of thing, CBT etc. It sets off my bullshit alarms big time because its all surface speak, it doesnt really acknowledge as you say, our differences, particularly neurodiverse differences and issues, or individual personalities. It’s all about getting people to parrot fashion the same model happy talk. I know I have my serious issues to overcome, to try and repair the serious damage inflicted on me, but I really dont think any of this will ever help with that. Only acceptance for who I am, having people love and care for ME, not the person they think or society thinks I should be, will help me rebuild the confidence and faith in myself. Sadly such people seem impossible to find for me, bar one (but then he’s also Aspie). But it is acceptance that is the key, not regurgitated and often debunked theories, memes and mantras.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Amen! 👏👏👏. Oh wow, I’m so sorry that you had to endure all that 🌺💞. You’re totally spot-on – it’s all surface shit. I really admire your strength and I love your strategy – surrounding yourself with people who care about you and love you for who you are, accepting yourself for who you are, and healing and rebuilding your confidence from within 💙. Talk is cheap anyway – actions and loyalty are everything 👍👍💗💓

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, what a post. This is really observant and succinct.
    I’ve always thought this “you’re fine just how you are” doctrine is bullshit, but I’ve never been able to put my finger on why, because I believe it myself. Totally internal contradiction. But you’ve just made it clear to me. It’s because, as you say, the follow up “help” can be totally at odds with it. If you firmly believe that people are fine how they are (and I’ll say it again, I agree with that sentiment), then there should be no reason whatsoever for self help books/courses, life coaching or anything else of that ilk.
    (Before I dig a hole and offend someone, I’m talking about these things in the context of that sweeping generalisation of an everybody-is-fine stance. Whilst I think it’s a good philosophy, clearly different people need different types of help for certain things – don’t we all know it! – and I’m getting only at the hypocritical touchy feely approach that immediately condradicts itself, as Laina points out).
    I wonder, is this whole loosely enacted and unconsidered approach to people’s self worth one of the reasons why we now have such a vacuous and try-hard bullshit society? Because you’re fine as you are, but look, you’re even more fine if you’re like him/her? Everyone is pushed to either such extreme individualism that they exhibit fake extroversion to become that noticed role model, or they do nothing but follow those said role models. Classic doublespeak as these both seem acceptable, yet in reality they are both as far as you can get from the intended “be yourself”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re absolutely right 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. Yep, for the record, I also genuinely believe that we’re each ok the way we are 😊💗. I only wish that those who tout that the loudest (i.e., schools, etc) genuinely believed it too! 🌺. Agreed, too, that society is full of bullshit 👍🏼👍🏼. Hypocrisy, double-think/speak, some of the less logical social rules, scandals, head games, coercion, etc 💙
      I do think that self-help books, coaching, etc, *could* be helpful, for those experiencing issues, going through tough times, wanting to better themselves (without being harsh on oneself), etc. But yeah, I think some stuff has gone too far 💜

      Thank you *so* much for reading and adding your voice! I really enjoy your perspective and I really appreciate your encouraging words 💗💗

      Like

  5. “But we’re all works in progress. Nobody here has yet erased all their karma, freed all their demons, cleaned all the skeletons out of their closets. Some are probably pretty close, others have a lot further to go. It’s nobody else’s business where you are on your path, your journey, your life. It’s yours, not theirs. At the end of the day, when it comes to the deepest questions, you should only have to answer to yourself.”

    One of my favorite passages from this BLOG, and it rings true for me. My pappy always taught my sister and me, we have our paths — ignore all the stuff people will say about you — just make sure you always do things right; and, you will be fine with God.

    /s/ Alfonso Faustino

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Wow, it must have been so hard being told in school you’re amazing at one thing and then scolded for being different doing another thing. How confusing that must have been! I’m glad you found good teachers later on, and perhaps that reflects how the education system has (hopefully) changed for the better. Your writing is impressive, I must say! I’m including this piece in my Friday roundup. It deserves more eyes on it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. There seems to have been something of a backlash against self-esteem recently, some of it justified, some not in my opinion. It all depends on how you go about this self-esteem thing. “You are okay exactly as you are” – yes, people should be able to feel that there’s nothing wrong with them, however, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for self-improvement. I’m a great believer in self-improvement! Yes, children should be praised for doing things their own way, or if they don’t actually achieve an awful lot, however, getting praised for putting in no effort whatsoever is wrong, too. I think this is what produced a lot of the backlash, the feeling that children were being packed in cotton wool and built up no resilience to deal with the real world because all they ever hear is praise and never any criticism.
    Anecdote: for two years I had a PE teacher who actually rewarded effort, even if you didn’t achieve the set goal. But if you put in the effort, if you tried and tried again, if you didn’t give up and maybe made some little progress, that earned you some points from him. Most other teachers had a simple table of measurements, standards you have to achieve to get a certain grade, and no taking into account, e.g. when doing the long jump, the difference between a 5’8″ girl whose hobbies are volleyball and gymnastics, and a 5’3″ girl whose hobbies are reading and playing the piano. Guess which one I was!
    I wish however that I had a lot more self-esteem. I wish I didn’t feel that failing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, that it’s part of the learning process, that making a mistake doesn’t mean I’m useless, worthless and everybody hates me. I wish I didn’t give up on learning something as soon as the going gets tough, because (I erroneously think) if I find it difficult it’s obviously not for me and I’ll never master it.
    As for “being myself”, I never figured out how to do that because I don’t know what “myself” is. If there is a core self that is purely me, I still haven’t found it. No, I’m always someone else, somewhere else – right now I’m walking in the gardens at Hampton Court, dressed in a black velvet doublet, having just been snarky to the Duke of Norfolk without him noticing. Ha!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Thanks for sharing your personal experiences and views on the “You’re okay” statement. You are okay. But there’s always room for growth. It’s great to hear it expressed this way.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Laina, I love this piece you wrote. I have been thinking a lot about the very same things you talk about in it. The example you gave about the boy not drawing anything and getting rewarded nonetheless: I did notice that with sports, as well. Here. In the U.S.A. First time about 10 years ago when my boss at the time shared with me how upset he was that his daughter’s soccer league did not keep score during matches. “What is the purpose? You are teaching all these children that losers and winners are just the same! So why bother? Even my 8-year old daughter realized it. She asked me that question: Why bother in trying to score a goal if nobody is going to keep score? What lesson are we teaching our children? That it is okay not to want to strive and be better?” I can still remember his words as if he just said them.

    I never faced what he or you described. I guess it’s because I come from a place where you have to teach children to survive. You cannot teach them how to survive if you teach them mediocrity and that it is okay not to try, just as much as to try. It is NOT okay. You need to make an effort.

    And then you touched how it is like for an Autistic person. I do not have to be Autistic to understand some of the things you are talking about. While I will never be able to see the world the way you or my daughter do, I can understand that you do see it differently than me. And it is very important for me to respect that. And who am I to say that my way is the right way? I was just saying something along those lines in my latest post in my other blog in here, littlemariablueeyedangel.wordpress.com/ when I was talking about the puzzle piece as a symbol for Autism. (Don’t get me started with that, by the way. I do not want to go into another rant about that puzzle piece symbol.)

    I keep on thinking that society needs to be educated about Autism. Let me put it this way: Nobody says anything when they see a blind people walking with a cane or a leader dog. Right? They just see a blind person who needs the cane or the dog to move around and be his or her eyes. I hope that one day, we will have a society that understands stimming, no making eye contact, not being able to verbalize, and other things are part of Autism and just let it be. The more I learn about Autism, the madder I get about trying to make an Autistic conform to what society believes to be acceptable. Nobody walks to that blind man or woman and tell them that it is unacceptable behaviour to walk around with a cane or a dog. Then why do we insist in forcing an Autistic person to stop stimming when they clearly need to do so? Why don’t we try to communicate with them to find out what is going on in their minds and hearts? Why do neurotypicals assume that an Autistic person is incapable of feelings or love because they do not want to be touched, for example? Do any of these so-called professionals (and mind neurotypicals who could never know how it is like because they are not Autistic) has ever stopped to consider that what an Autistic person does might be right for them just because they are Autistic and screw society standards?

    I have food allergies. Can you imagine if someone would force me to eat something that triggers my allergies? Then why do we treat Autistic people like something that has to be corrected, forced to adapt to what society considers acceptable?

    Let’s look at it using a different example. Cultures. There are hundreds, maybe thousands or more in this word. What one culture considers appropriate might be considered a criminal act by another. But who is the latter society to judge what the former does or does not do? Same with religion. It is an acceptable use to circumcise a Jewish boy in that faith. But a Catholic family is not required to have its son circumcised soon after birth. There are religions in India that consider cows to be sacred while in other countries they consider it one of the most delicious meats. I don’t think I need to go on. I made my point, I guess.

    And then society keeps on talking about children with Autism. Does society believe that those children are like Peter Pan? They will grow up one day to become Autistic adults. So then stop treating them like Peter Pans and treat them like human beings in their own rights and who will one day become adults. Don’t robe them of their future before they even start. And I have a strong feeling that we are already robbing them of a bright or at least decent future in many ways when we treat them as puzzles to be solved or never understood, or like they are defective. We may not tell them they are defective; however, what message are we conveying when we tell them that this or that thing they do is not accepted by today’s society and its norms and standards or that this or that other behavoiur has to be changed?

    I am not Autistic and I have been treated in some ways while growing up that have marked me for life, making me feel and believe inadequate; like something was broken in me and, as a result, it had to be hidden. A lot of those feelings had a lot to do with my decision to leave my country of origin to start with a clean slate in the U.S.A. But my daughter cannot hide her Autism. And I don’t believe she should. I do not want my daughter to end up like me, seeking acceptance in another place, another country, or another society.

    Maybe one day the world will accept and embrace Autism the same way we do with other things. I just hope that my daughter grows up to see that day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh wow!! Thank you so much for your incredible comment!! ❤ ❤ Yes, I agree with you completely! I remember when only the winning team got the trophy. It wasn't to make the other team feel bad for losing; it was to reward success! I think that the loss of reward for success is one of the elements that has driven the USA into mediocrity, pumped up only by the attitudes, priorities, and successes of previous generations. Your daughter has a keen insight that I admire! "What's the point?" is absolutely right! If everyone gets a trophy just for showing up, then suddenly the game becomes a lot less interesting and the spotlight for scouting out exceptional talent becomes much dimmer. In the worst case scenario, this has the potential to ruin lives, by destroying one's love for an activity and their skill in performing it. Not everybody performs equally in every area, and that's OK! Some people are naturally talented in some way, others have to work a little harder at it, and some will never be great at something. (For instance, I will never be awesome at sports lol. Or physics. It's just not happening! lol)

      I'm so, so glad your daughter has you for a mother; I think you two are very well-matched! I think that it is possible for her to have a wonderful life, happy and fulfilled. I think the world's attitudes toward Asperger's/autism are changing; it just takes a while, and this change is not occurring uniformly across the world; it's happening in pockets and spurts. But that's OK – that's how all great transformations come to pass; it's a fact of life, I guess, so there's little use in assigning "good" or "bad" feelings toward it. What we can all do is exactly what we're doing 🙂 🙂 Meeting each other, forming friendships, echoing each others' words, supporting each other, and amplifying each others' voices. The world changes by changing the opinions and perspectives of one person at a time. 🙂 (Hell, I didn't even know until 19 months ago that I was on the spectrum! And this blog hasn't yet hit its 18-month anniversary lol – my life barely even looks the same anymore! My activities have all been restructured – WordPress has become a huge center of it, and I've met so many awesome people, read so many beautiful posts, written a lot of posts, and gotten so much awesome feedback, that I know that collectively, we are making a splash!–a big one. And I think we're building up to a wave 😀 This is going to be challenging, but it's also going to be fun 😉

      Thank you again!! So very much ❤ ❤ ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Reblogged this @ https://littlemariablueeyedangel.wordpress.com/2017/10/19/autism-irony-and-the-self-esteem-movement-the-silent-wave/

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences on your blog, Laina. While I will never be able to see the world the way you, my daughter, and other Autistic people do, I feel that many of my questions are being answered when people like you share the things you share. I want to help my daughter reach her full potential. I think all mothers want that for our children. And while it can be a daunting task or we may not know where to start and we do our best, when you add the Autism ingredient in the mix, especially with a non-verbal child, you have to keep your antennas up as much as possible so you can help him or her not feel inadequate, get frustrated, and to bridge the gap in communication the best you can.

    For all of that, I thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

        1. Hehe I’d say you are 💗. The fact that you’re taking this in stride and accepting your daughter for who she is and reaching out to us autistic people instead of hanging out with Autism $peaks – you’re doing awesome in my book 😘😘👍🏼❤️

          Like

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