In my previous post, Sensory Sunday #6, I asked the question, “What’s one thing about your sensory experience that you wish you would have known sooner?”, and offered a brief personal response.
In answering this for myself, I explored the idea of developing self-judgment. I think it’s a highly relevant subject for autistic people to learn more about, so I hope this post proves to be useful.
I wish I had known sooner in my life that I experience meltdowns and sensory overload. I mean, I remember as a teenager I experienced both regularly, but I didn’t know what they were. I didn’t even know that I am autistic. It may not even have registered as a concept until later in my teens. All I knew was that while others more or less coped with their sensory reality, I was often agitated. Both because of sensory overload and because of challenges in executive functions. Had I known why I was agitated and how to diminish it, I likely wouldn’t have judged myself for it. I would have been able to deal with it, and avoid meltdowns if possible.
My parents considered I was autistic when I was a toddler. I believe they told a medical professional, who didn’t take it seriously, and so my parents dismissed the idea and never brought it up to me. I was 19 when I found out about Asperger syndrome from a website that featured a long list of symptoms, and to my astonishment almost every item on the list applied to me. I told my parents that I thought I have Asperger syndrome, and they said, “Yeah, we did consider that when you were young.” I wish you would have talked to me about this!
When I was a teenager, my mother kept telling me that I was a difficult teenager. And I’m sure I was, but it made me feel like I was wrong. I couldn’t attribute these difficulties to autism, meltdowns, or sensory overwhelm. What I could attribute it to, was myself.
It made me grow to dislike emotions, because whereas I considered myself to be quite rational generally, I learned that my emotions just get me in trouble.
But as it turns out, it’s not emotions specifically that got me in trouble, but the overwhelm that comes with overidentifying with the emotions as I experience overwhelm. It’s a combination of difficulty in processing all information, and an inability to properly regulate. In other words, I was experiencing meltdowns.
It’s not that I don’t take responsibility for my behavior as a teenager—I really do. But being autistic and hormonal, I was very reactive to environmental influences in ways I was not able to manage. I wasn’t being purposefully difficult—I just needed help. But every time my mom called me a difficult teenager, I felt judged rather than helped.
Over time, I internalized all these judgments, so that even today—having been an adult for a decade already—I subconsciously judge myself, the same ways I have been judged in the past. So I didn’t know I needed help with regulation, nor did I know that on account of being autistic, perhaps some changes should have been made in my immediate environment. An acknowledgment and understanding of autism would probably have been beneficial not only to myself, but to my family and the family dynamics. Instead, I came to believe—on a subconscious level at least—that I am bad and lacking in value.
I came to believe this not just because of things my parents said or didn’t say, and not even specifically because I wasn’t told I might be autistic. I don’t even blame my parents for that, because they trusted the medical professionals as you generally would, and didn’t think much of it since. There wasn’t a pivotal moment that made me develop self-judgment. No, it’s an accumulation of the things that were said to me, and how I interpreted the things that were said to me. Because once you develop the subconscious belief that you are bad (I must emphasize that consciously I feel I am fundamentally good), it’s going to “color” how you see and interpret things. The more you see and interpret things within that narrative of “not good enough”, the more things are taken as evidence that, indeed, there must be something fundamentally wrong with you. It’s a feedback loop.
This “coloring” of reality, by the way, is something we inevitably and necessarily do. It’s called projection or transference (leading to countertransference). I will talk more about this in a future post.
The weird thing about perfectionism is that it’s experienced as something commendable and virtuous—I have always stated with pride that I’m a perfectionist. Or maybe that doesn’t sound all that weird to you, because indeed, working at things until they are elevated to a certain quality is “good” in the sense that quality is generally desirable. It might even lead to progress.
But what I often forget or ignore is that underneath my perfectionism is something more insidious. It’s the fundamental belief that I am not good enough. And because I feel—deep down and often beyond my awareness—that I’m not good enough, I must perpetually strive to be better, to prove to myself and others that indeed I am good enough. That I am not bad.
But I subconsciously strive for flawlessness not only to prove that I am good enough, but also because flawlessness is impervious to criticism. In other words, if I achieve perfection, I have no reason to judge myself, and there is no reason for others to judge me. If only reality were that simple.
But self-worth is never proven through striving for perfection. It’s a moving goalpost. It’s an ideal I try to live up to, and always judge myself by, but it is never an obtainable goal. The thing about ideals is that they are forever out of reach. And so if you frame an ideal as a goal, you will never reach it, and you will never be satisfied. Besides, even if you could achieve perfection, that still doesn’t mean that others necessarily appreciate or value it. Perfectionism simply isn’t sustainable.
The sad part is that due to the judgments I have internalized, I now perpetually live to prove to myself and others that I am indeed good enough, but never being convinced by it. I am doing therapy to resolve this, but it takes a lot of time and effort. It takes a lot of self-compassion.
So although I do take responsibility for my behaviors, I really wish I had known much sooner that there were significant reasons for it, rather than me being “difficult”—or more insidiously, “bad”. Because none of these characterizations have been constructive, and only lead to self-jugment.
Mind you, my parents never told me I was bad, but this is the conclusion a child will often draw, either consciously or subconsciously. I never tried to be difficult. I always tried to be good. But each time I didn’t manage to stay in control, I not only felt like I needed help, but felt that I was overemotional, irrational, undesirable, and bad. So I tried to take control by striving to be better. But better than what?
Self-growth is great and is to be encouraged. But really, I already am good enough. It would be tremendous growth if I find a way to genuinely believe that.
You might also be interested in reading the following article:
Countertransference, Meltdown, Overwhelm, Perfectionism, Psychological projection, Puberty, Self-compassion, Self-concept, Self-critical perfectionism, Self-judgment, Self-perception, Subjective experience, Subjective reality, Transference