Social Interactions, Misunderstanding, Stress, and Anxiety

Hopefully, anyone reading this post has developed some understanding from my earlier posts how being autistic impacts my interactions with others in both directions. In my posts of performance, I tried to walk through some of the ways, even without a specific label describing my difficulties, I was able to train myself from childhood to perform in something approximating a typical (that is, neurotypical) manner. I also explored some of the costs involved.

Even after writing about it, I had no idea how much pain I had stored up until it came out and surprised me when trying to explain things to a therapist I saw for the first time this past week. I found myself losing voice control, losing the linear thread of the events I was trying to describe, and with tears welling up in my eyes. I now understand my difficulties deciphering how I feel are the result of alexithymia. But I can still be surprised when they do visibly surface. And it’s strange. Even though I am clearly evincing the emotion, there’s a part of my brain that still doesn’t “feel” it.  I can “see” that I’m sad and hurt, in fact much more so than I knew, because it’s showing up through physical expression and in my own mental functioning. The therapist even said something like, “This seems very painful for you,” which is a pretty neutral observation. And my response was along the lines of, “It looks like I am, but I had no idea I felt like this until this (indicating the above) started happening.”

And the reasons for some of that pain are difficult to explain to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. That’s why I tried to walk through a more detailed description of a simple social interaction in my post yesterday. I wanted to convey some sense of how much effort goes into even the most trivial of such interactions (making a dinner reservation) and how easily it can still go astray. In and of itself, that one interaction cost me relatively little. But for most people, it would not have involved any noticeable effort at all. Also, everyone sometimes finds themselves in a socially awkward position. Most of the time, people step out of the awkwardness pretty easily, but even if not it remains pretty insignificant. Even so, hopefully that story offered some insight.

Now, take that one simple, highly structured interaction and start expanding it to cover every social interaction people have every single day. Expand until it covers every greeting or casual interaction in public, every conversation, everything required to shop, work, and engage with family and friends. Then try to imagine that you manage those interactions with some degree of conscious effort, that you review many of them mentally to check that there was nothing odd about them, and that you obsess every time an interaction goes badly trying to understand why. And however hard you try, however long you’ve studied or practiced, and however much you’ve prepared in advance, a certain percentage of those interactions will inevitably go awry. Sometimes you notice during it. Sometimes someone tells you afterward. Sometimes you realize it went wrong a day or two later. And you’re always aware that sometimes you’ll never know that an interaction went wrong.

Every interaction is like that.

Every day.

All the time.

I’m monitoring my expression, body language, and tone, trying to ensure they support whatever I’m trying to convey. I’m monitoring the other person’s body language for those clues that I’ve learned to identify over the years. I’m using scripts (or script templates) I’ve developed with a lot of practice. I’m slipping into different roles I know how to perform. While I am doing that, I’m trying to absorb, process, and remember the verbal information being conveyed. If you’ll recall my discussion of the results of my assessment, that’s actually one of my weaknesses. I simply do not retain much uncorrelated verbal information on first hearing, though I quickly improve with repetition.

It’s almost impossible to do that perfectly under the best circumstances, so misunderstandings on both sides are pretty common. Sometimes people react with anger because my tone, expression, or body language accidentally expressed an irritation or anger I don’t feel and didn’t intend to convey. Other times, something else goes sideways. There are so many variables in play that something goes wrong more often than not. I think I’ve gotten pretty good at damage control and am able to rescue or gloss over many of them, at least when I notice.

All of that creates a base level of anxiety that never fades. I’m anxious anticipating social interactions. I’m anxious during them. I’m anxious as I think about the interactions that have finished. Even on the days where nothing “major” happens, I’m expending enormous energy and managing anxiety just to exist in the world. And when a social interaction that actually matters to me goes wrong, I will become paralyzed by fear and anxiety, though I’m unlikely to show much of anything where anyone else can see it.

That’s a glimpse into one aspect of what it means to be autistic, for me at least. Other autistic people likely have a different daily experience. But the social exchanges that everyone else takes for granted are never automatic or easy.

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