I read something at Alienhippy’s Blog towards the end of December, when I was brand new to the blog world, that really stuck with me:
“I think that the lack of empathy thing is just a shut down mechanism of self protection because emotion is so intense …” (You can find the rest of the post here: http://alienhippy.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/toys-and-empathy/.)
That was one of the first things I read that let me know I had come to the right place – someplace where another person had actually felt some of what I felt and understood. Up until recently, that was a very rare experience for me. I’ve had quite a few of these moments since then, and I am so grateful to have met so many wonderful new friends.
In my Figuring It Out post, I wrote about my difficulty in accepting negative feelings in my kids. I had come to the conclusion that this had something to do with my feeling responsible for fixing things. As the mom of a child on the spectrum, it always feels like I’m the one who has to handle a problem, because no one else seems to understand what to do. So I’m constantly on my guard for things that look like problems, and I’m anxious, because the truth is that I don’t always know what to do. I’m also afraid that if I don’t figure out what to do pretty quickly or if I get it wrong, the problem will get bigger, and everyone will suffer as a result. Seeing that typed out makes it seem like an awful lot to ask of myself. But it’s what I’ve been doing for all these years, and it gives me a sense of fulfillment to make such a meaningful difference in my child’s life. I just have to learn what is truly helpful and what is just stress.
I think there’s something else happening in the anxiety I experience over other people’s feelings, and over my kids’ feelings, in particular. All my life I’ve been overwhelmed by any strong emotions in myself or others. When my parents would argue, I’d shut down. When other girls picked on me, it was the same thing. Instead of expressing or even just processing something, when it got to be too much, I turned it all off so that I could keep on functioning and doing what I needed to do. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel anything. It was that I didn’t know how to respond or what to do about it, and I couldn’t tolerate that state of extreme anxiety for very long, so I found a way to make it stop altogether. The thing about stopping emotions is that you seem to have to stop all or none of them, so I ended up blocking a lot of good stuff, too. Thus began my ongoing relationship with depression.
My kids have plenty of their own difficult feelings, and each of them has a tendency to get overwhelmed pretty quickly. Simon has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, and I know Alvin well enough to know that he has a worse time with anxiety even than Simon. Little Theo is only seven, so it’s hard to know how much of his reaction to things is just because he’s so young. What is hard for me to experience with all my kids is that they don’t seem to do this shutting down thing – at least not around me. Each of them – even Simon now to a large extent – is holding it together through their school day and through some other activities. Then they come home, and I get to enjoy the aftermath. Being confronted with a bunch of unrestrained energy and emotion from three different individuals is just not something that I came equipped to handle.
I find myself a lot of the time either trying to fix what’s bothering my kids so they can be happy or brushing off their feelings in the hopes of not having to deal with them. I’m wondering if maybe my not wanting to be around their negative feelings is because I’m afraid of experiencing those feelings myself. If I allow myself to feel what they are feeling along with them, I’m afraid I will be overwhelmed. It makes me anxious when I am confronted with a stressful situation and I’m not already in an optimal state of mind, because then I don’t have access to my instincts, and my instincts are what I trust to help me make good decisions.
A while back I started reading a copy of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, and a great deal of it is about the healing effect of just letting your child express a feeling and letting them know that you hear what they are saying without trying to fix or judge anything. This is completely counter-intuitive to me, because like the authors and much of their audience, I hadn’t experienced a lot of that myself growing up, and my own spectrum issues don’t make it any easier for me to pick these things up on my own. I’ve managed to try this approach on some occasions – acknowledging or reflecting back a child’s feelings without adding any emotional charge of my own to the situation – and the results are truly amazing, even with my spectrum son. It turns out they do have the capacity to work some things out for themselves and even to calm themselves down, and when they still need some help, we’re all in a better state of mind to figure out what to do next.
I’m starting to see why this approach is so powerful, given the effect that blogging and exchanging ideas is having on me. Having a place to express myself and a community of people who will respond with encouragement and understanding allows me to release a lot of what’s bottled up inside and to relieve some of the pressure. It allows me to breathe and opens up a space where there’s room to care about others. Thank you all for that.
About the Author: Diane is a woman with Asperger’s Syndrome and the mother of three sons, one of whom is on the autism spectrum. This piece first appeared on her blog, Don’t Panic 2.0, and is reprinted here by permission.