The one advice I would give to my younger autistic self
Dr Brené Brown is a research professor and has devoted her life to studying shame and self-esteem. In her book “Daring Greatly”, Brené suggests that there is nothing as hurtful as standing on the outside — whether it’s our lives, creative decisions, family challenges or business meetings — and wondering what it would be like if we dared to step inside the ‘arena’ of life.
To step inside the arena of life, one must first have self-belief and confidence. Confidence is tightly related to our self-esteem and sense of self-worth, and the silent killer of self-esteem and self-worth is “shame”.
Shame is a universal experience that all humans feel. It is not only experienced by those who endured abusive childhoods or survivors of traumas. The brutal reality is that we all know the strain of feeling comfortable with who we are in a society that emphasises being perfect and just “fit in”. At some point, we all have felt the painful wave of emotion that washes over us when we feel judged or condemned by our looks, our work, or even life experiences over which we had no control.
Oftentimes, it is not someone else who put us down, condemn, criticise, or judge us. It is ourselves. Self-inflicted shaming is the most painful of all shame experiences. It forces us to place so much value on what other people think that we lose ourselves in the process of trying to fulfil everyone else’s expectations.
Experiencing shame can feel like an emotional, spiritual and physical aggression on your very being, and we lose our self-esteem along the way.
As an autistic woman, I have endured lifelong bullying and spent my school days hiding in the ladies room. Despite consciously evaluating my behaviour and attempting to mirror others to escape ostracism, verbal and physical abuse, masking and trying to “fit in” has been profoundly exhausting and ineffective. Most of the time, I felt completely invisible, disconnected from myself and left without any sense of self-worth nor self-esteem.
Regardless of how someone experiences shame, we can all recall feeling rejected, diminished, and ridiculed. Eventually, we learned to fear these feelings. We learned how to change or mask our behaviours, thinking and feelings to avoid feeling shame.
Being equipped with tools to embrace compassionate self-talk to replace negative behaviours towards oneself is critical. One of the most powerful things I have learnt in my CBT and DBT therapies is the power of challenge our thoughts through empathy.
Employing empathy to dissolve shame and low self-worth requires just one thing: THINK. When you have self-critical and destructive thinking about yourself, you must take a step back and remember the word THINK. And that is the advice I would give to my younger autistic self.
T is for True
The first step to challenge thoughts of shame is to question if our thought is TRUE. To answer this question, we must distinguish whether the thought is a fact or an opinion. Most of the times, you will find that it is just your opinion and not a fact. A few years ago, I sent an email to a former boss expressing my opinion on a product’s direction. I did not hear back from the person for days. The thought that immediately came to my mind was: “My email was ridiculous, and my boss must be laughing at me right now”. I remember shying away from my boss even though I had no evidence that the person was judging me or thinking little of my capabilities. Several reasons could explain why my boss had not replied to my email. It could well be the case that my email had just gone lost in a jam-packed inbox. Assessing whether our thoughts is an opinion or a fact can help us to avoid episodes of self-deprecation.
H is for Helpful
The second thing we must do is to ask whether our thought is HELPFUL. Sometimes our minds wander to places that are pretty unhelpful for us. In the example that I gave in the previous section, was it helpful that I went on a worrying spiral trying to guess the person’s reaction? The answer is NO. Try recognising the triggers that an unhelpful thought brings to you as well. Pay attention to your physical sensations (e.g. knot in the stomach, palpitations). If you have a poor feeling because of a thought, you can use mindfulness to rescue yourself. An excellent mindfulness exercise is to take deep breaths counting down from 10 to 1 while you inhale for 1 second and exhale for 2 seconds. The consideration of whether a thought is helpful goes hand-in-hand with assessing whether a thought is true. That is because without creating positivity, you can’t move forward, and without releasing that weight, your progress will be slow.
I is for Important
The third aspect of challenging thoughts is to ask ourselves whether what we are thinking is IMPORTANT. There is nothing as hurtful as standing on the outside — whether it’s our lives, creative decisions, family challenges or business meetings — because our focus is not on the present. In the case of my email, would I lose my job if my idea was not that ingenious? The answer is NO, hence the thought is not important.
N is for Necessary
The fourth aspect of challenging thoughts is to ask ourselves whether what we are thinking is NECESSARY. While we must not ever censor ourselves in what we think, we often have unnecessary thoughts about a given situation. Maybe the thought is necessary but not for the given time. I often thought and anticipated future events that are unnecessary and hurtful. If your thought cannot solve a situation at that right moment, or inspire and uplift you, then that thought is indeed not necessary to have in your mind. It is easily said than done, but try to see this as a muscle that you must flex to build it up. Over time you will get better at handling your thoughts when they are deemed necessary.
K is for Kind
The final aspect of challenging thoughts is to ask ourselves whether what we are thinking is KIND. I tend to be quite harsh with myself and genuinely unkind to myself, which I am working on at the moment. We must consider: Are we showing empathy to ourselves? Empathy is very different from Sympathy. When someone sympathises with you the person will most often say: “At least you have X”, “At least you are not X”. Empathy, on the other hand, demonstrates kindness. It helps us to unlock clarity and courage by helping us find our way back to ourselves. When we are empathetic with ourselves, we consider our feelings, stay with ourselves, and feel compassion. Sometimes being kind to us means distracting ourselves, taking a day off work, or having that nice cup of coffee and be in silence. If we can turn anger or self-deprecation towards ourselves into a positive, it won’t be something that causes upset inside ourselves. Always check: Is this thought kind to me? Does what I am thinking express compassion towards myself? If the answer is no, then the thought is unkind and does not deserve a place in your mind.
The THINK concept applied to challenge our thoughts is helpful to our day-to-day interaction with ourselves, to situations where other people are involved and words are employed, being in the virtual or real space.
By approaching thoughts in our lives with bravery, trust, kindness, and vulnerability ever-present, we can be closer to achieving a greater sense of ourselves and dissolve our self-inflicting shame.