The other day I wrote a post on Facebook which I knew would cause a lot of conversation and probably debate amongst my Facebook friends. This was something I have been doing recently as I like to pose questions for people to consider and discuss. The problem is that I am terrified of the response. I am an activist of sorts, but the rarest sort of activist because I struggle with conflict, disagreement and argument. There are a number of reasons for this
My parents – who are amazing and wonderful and I owe my life to – had one difficulty when I was a kid in that they never argued. I can only remember seeing them argue once when I was about 14. I was horrified and thought the world would probably end if they didn’t make up right away. It was threatening to see them argue as I couldn’t recall ever having seen it before. My parents avoided conflict like the plague so this became my default setting too.
As I grew to adulthood, assertiveness and boundaries were things other people did. I spent four years as a teenage socialist standing on the street corder selling the socialist newspaper terrified someone would disagree with me! Of course a lot of people did disagree with me. The whole thing was very stressful. When I was twenty – for reasons which you would probably be best off reading in my autobiography is you want detail – I found myself in prison. My life – like all prisoners’ lives – was very cheap and in constant danger. Even minor disagreements between prisoners often escalated to physical violence. I learned very quickly that disagreeing with my criminal ‘housemates’ was not a good idea so I spent that whole period of my life appeasing everyone and being ‘nice.’ I did this by giving others cigarettes and other things bought at the canteen with the money my parents put in my account every month. It was a time where I completely lost my sense of self. I didn’t know who I was. I was the ‘nice girl’ who everyone liked but I had no idea of what my wants and needs were because I was so busy keeping over 100 women happy and not saying the ‘wrong’ thing.
All those things were a very long time ago but they are etched in my brain and inform my character today. I struggled with assertiveness and setting limits until quite recently. The only reason I can now ‘do’ assertiveness is my absurdly busy schedule for my advocacy work. As of a year or so ago, I am asked to speak at, write or have some involvement in something every day. I work full-time and there is no way I can agree to do everything I am asked to do so I learned to decline things politely. My ability to set limits with friends and acquaintances has also increased. I have so many people who want my support that I need to keep some distance. Social media is wonderful but blurs the line between friend, supporter and acquaintance. In the past I would stretch myself very thinly emotionally and supported everyone who asked but now I know I can’t do that or I will almost certainly become really unwell myself. So I (hopefully) kindly explain this and suggest some services people can access for assistance (that aren’t me!)
I suppose the triad of managing relationships in this way is being able to assert one’s needs, being able to set limits and boundaries and being able to disagree with others. So I have the first two of these pillars working well for me at the moment. I’m working on the final – conflict and disagreement – as best as I can. Posting potentially controversial things on social media is still terrifying. I check my friends list whenever I post something people disagree with to see if my ist of thousands of friends has gone down to tens (this hasn’t happened yet). It is good though because it cements my relationship with a lot of people, even when we disagree. Disagreement does not need to be disrespectful. It can also help me to clarify my thinking – or change my thinking – on a topic. It helps me to keep my thinking current and relevant. It is a great realisation that I can disagree with people and they won’t disown me as friends and if they do it probably says more about their intolerance than anything I have said or done.
I actually think these sorts of issues are common for those of us on the Autism spectrum. Experiences of things like being bullied, abused, hated and invalidated makes us scared to express our thoughts publicly or even to our friends, family or partner. For me I learned assertiveness and boundaries incrementally and very slowly over time. I am happy I am at the place I am with this.It is a big thing to address. Building skills in that area has great flow on effects to other parts of life. Based in my experience, I think the two key places to start are learning to value yourself and understanding the issues you face which might be stopping you being assertive etc – An act of self love and an act of self-awareness. This is definitely not easy but it is certainly possible.