Monday, March 29, 2010

Feeling Understood

This was written after reflecting on the problems I had upon moving in with my Bend, Oregon roommate last July.

Despite having exchanged probably hundreds of emails over the last few months, and several phone calls, Mary and I did not exactly hit it off right away. She meant well, I knew that; and she cared about me; but I felt she treated me more like a child than a roommate. That is always a danger, of course, when a 24 year old lives with someone her parents' age, but it had never been much of a problem before.

Some people just don't mix; they're like fire and gasoline. It may be nothing in particular, or it may be a bunch of small stuff, but put them together for any length of time, and they're at each other's throats. And the harder they try to get along, the angrier they usually get at each other.

Part of the problem was mine. I was, and am, still in the midst of growing up and trying to find my identity. Part of this was trying to figure out how much of the world I could handle on my own (which I very much wanted to do), and how much I would need assistance with.

"My stomach hurts! Why does it hurt so much? What can I do? I have to do something about it. There's got to be something I can do. Maybe I can change my diet somehow," I'd say, worrying endlessly about my stomach, needing to vent those worries somehow and doing so on the nearest target, which happened to be Mary. I worried endlessly, about my back, my stomach, my diet, what vitamins I should be taking, and how I could improve my health in general. I felt so powerless over the problems I was having; I wanted to be able to do something.

But here's the key thing. What I really wanted was someone to understand the worries I was having, my anguish about life in general. I have always suffered from a feeling of being misunderstood, and because of this, I tend to assume people do not understand what I am saying or where I am coming from unless they explicitly say otherwise. Call this Asperger's or call this just the results of years of bad experiences; either way, it was something I frequently struggled with.

So, if, for example, someone replied to a statement of "I'm scared to go to the doctor's office," with, "You need to go, you'll feel a lot worse otherwise," I might flip out because I felt the person was not understanding the depth of my emotions: my fear and anxiety at the prospect. If, however, they had said, "I understand how scared you are, but it's something you need to consider, or else it will get worse," I would be calm and be able to actually hear what they were saying and consider their advice, because I felt understood. The beast inside me - the one that continuously convinced me I was to be forever emotionally isolated even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary - would not be tamed otherwise.

Just one little sentence, but it made all the difference in the world. It was more important to me than anything. With some people, like with Kim, I could see the "I understand" part in their faces, and so words weren't necessary; it is my understanding that this is how most of the population works. They take certain things for granted; they don't need reassurance that the other person understands before they can change the subject or accept a person's advice, because they take it for granted that they are understood. This is a big problem with not reading
non-verbal messages. No matter how much I try not to, I fall into this trap every time.

When I was a kid, I had a speech impediment, and people usually couldn't understand what I said. With speech therapy, my speech got better, but it took me years to get it into my brain that people could actually physically understand the speech I was producing. It used to be that people would pretend to understand while not having a clue what I was saying, or else just look at me funny. I got used to being ignored or misunderstood. People still occasionally have trouble understanding me, but not very often.

That combined with the social isolation I felt of not having many people to talk to when I was growing up, and the social cognition impairment in Asperger's where I can't read their faces to know if they understood me or not, leaves me in the dark every single time. When I talk, I feel like I am throwing words out into a void, hoping they get to their intended destination. I feel like it is a production to say anything at all, and when I finally do, I stand there anxiously, trying to figure out how the hell they've been received. Did the other person understand the words physically? Did they comprehend their meaning? Did the words anger the person? Did they make him or her laugh? Do they agree? Do they disagree? Do they want to keep talking to me? Can they relate? Do they think I'm stupid? WHAT ARE THEY THINKING??

It's almost like I am the producer of my own theatre company in my head; to talk feels like acting, even if I am being myself. I am putting on a production when I try to communicate with others, and if the audience doesn't applaud, I don't know if the show was any good or not. Since I am driven to connect with others, this doesn't stop me from trying to interact with others, but it definitely makes it more difficult.

So you can see, then, how that one little sentence, those three words, "I understand, but..." make all the difference in the world to me. They calm my heart, my anxiety, restore my faith in both myself and the world. They restore equilibrium, let me know everything is all right, let me know that my words indeed have reached their intended destination. Then I can relax and be open enough to hear the message the other person is giving.

Without this, I am on attack mode; if I say something, not knowing how it will be received, and the other person tries to give me advice: "You should do this...." or "Well, obviously you have to do...." I explode, because to me it's obvious they didn't understand what I was saying, and they obviously disagree with what I said, and they think it's my fault, and they think I'm a terrible person! They think I'm doing X (whatever X is) wrong!
I get very defensive and angry when this happens. Not violently angry, but visibly annoyed.

Writing this, of course, I can see the logical fallacies to this line of thinking. Since I have tried to teach myself how to think like the dominant population does, I have begun to realize that this is how most people talk; that guilt and blame is not an automatic part of the deal, and offering advice is standard procedure. But understanding something logically, and understanding it emotionally, as I have found out over and over again, are two very different things.

In college, people used to tell me that I was funny, because I always tried to make them laugh. I developed a dry sense of humor that people didn't expect from me. Partly, because I feel like life is much more fun when you can laugh at it, and partly because I wanted to make others laugh. When others laugh - with me, not at me - it is the only way I know for sure that they like me without them explicitly telling me so. And that works great some of the time, but in the end, a person desires a relationship that goes deeper than just a few jokes. That takes trust, and social know-how, and unfortunately, that's not something you can really fake.

1 comment:

  1. I can relate to that! I even have dreams about being up on stage putting on a production to an audience that is not responding.
    Tough crowd.

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