I struggled with self-assertion for most of my life. Part of it had to do with low self-esteem. I thought something was wrong with me because I was a boy in a girl’s body, and even after I came out to myself as transgender, finding my voice was very difficult. On top of that, my Aspergers mind doesn’t always know exactly what’s appropriate to say or whether something is “important” enough to say something about. I’m sure that I’m not the only person with Aspergers who has ever struggled with self-assertion. This seems to be something that people in general have a hard time with, so it’s not a surprise that it’s difficult for those of us with Aspergers.
Part of the reason it’s so difficult is because of the way the Aspie mind works. I want to briefly go through some of the thinking patterns that I’ve worked on, and that other people with Aspergers have to work on, so that if you’re helping someone with Aspergers (or trying to help yourself), you’ll understand why this problem is particularly difficult and be better able to come up with some strategies of your own.
- Tendency towards black-and-white thinking. It’s automatic for people with Aspergers to see everything in an all-or-nothing way. Either things are amazing or they’re horrible, for example. It’s the same way with people. I have a tendency towards idolisation–I see the people I Love as perfect and amazing, and if someone says something I don’t like, I have to be careful to make sure they don’t come crashing down from their pedestal.Along with this problem, the tendency towards all-or-nothing thinking can get in the way when trying to assert ourselves. Some people with Aspergers may think that they either have to assert themselves in all situations or keep quiet all the time.
- Lack of confidence due to difficulty with social cues or with communication. People with Aspergers sometimes aren’t confident that their upset or dislike of someone else’s behavior is appropriate because they so often misunderstand what someone is trying to say or what is a reasonable expectation. After misunderstanding enough situations, you begin to think that you just have faulty analysis equipment and that anything that trips your annoyance meter is really no big deal. In addition, you may not be confident that you understood what someone said that disturbed you. There have been times where I took what someone said seriously, only to have everyone around me tell me that they were joking. It can be embarrassing to respond to a joke seriously or to an exaggeration literally.
- Difficulty with keeping emotions at an appropriate level. I don’t know for sure that this is solely an Aspergers issue–I suspect many people have deeper emotions than they let on. However, I know that many people with Aspergers–myself included–get easily overwhelmed with emotions. That untrue stereotype that we are emotionless occurs because people with Aspergers feel too much–we feel so much that we just shut down. (We also tend to get focused on reaching a goal and sometimes forget to take the time to acknowledge other people’s feelings when solving a problem, but that’s beside the point of this article.)In any case, when we feel so much and so intensely, it can be hard to figure out how to express it. I’ve had meltdowns all my life and I’ve gotten better at realising when I’m going to lose it and walking away until I calm down. But many of us don’t want to hurt others with our anger or sadness and don’t know how to handle it when it feels so intense. So sometimes we shut down and say nothing so that we don’t accidentally hurt someone.
- Over concern with other people’s feelings. Again, this is not strictly an Aspergers issue, but Aspies tend to be very concerned with other people’s feelings–even if they don’t always show it. For many of us, other people’s reactions can be confusing. We don’t always understand why certain behaviors trigger certain responses. I know I’ve done my fair share of hurting people I didn’t mean to hurt and sometimes I don’t know where the boundary lines are…what is my responsibility and what is theirs. So many people with Aspergers get afraid that if they stand up for themselves, they might come on a little too strong and hurt someone’s feelings–or even ruin a relationship. So we stay quiet in order to avoid losing friends.
Now, none of this is an excuse. I don’t believe people with Aspergers can’t learn to overcome these tendencies or that it has to stay like this for us forever. It certainly hasn’t stayed this way for me. I just needed guidance in areas that many people pick up intuitively so that I could understand things like the difference between being assertive and lashing out in anger. Sometimes I still am not confident in how I express myself when I’m upset, but I’m learning and I get plenty of feedback from the people I’ve asked to help me. So it is possible to resolve some of these problems and stand up for yourself.
Here’s some things you can do to begin.
- Learn how to use I statements. This communication skill can help you get around a lot of the obstacles that people with Aspergers face while trying to assert themselves. Use sentences that start with “I feel…” or “I think…” as much as possible when trying to assert yourself. Don’t do it mechanically; work on finding a tone of voice that helps you express the feelings your I statements are trying to express. You may also want to practice your facial expressions and body language while you are calm so that if something upsets you, you will be able to use the body language that matches your feelings.
- Remember that it’s okay to feel what you feel. Even if your feeling seems unreasonable or someone else tells you that you misunderstood what was going on, it’s okay to feel it. Feelings can be uncomfortable because they are sometimes intense and because they change easily; they’re not as solid as thoughts. Nevertheless, whatever you feel at the moment is okay–just don’t express it in a way that is hurtful to others.
- Practice skills to keep your emotions in check. Although this advice may seem contradictory, it’s really not. Remember: while all feelings are okay, not all expressions of emotion are okay. So if you’re feeling like you’re going to melt down or lash out, it’s best to walk away. It’s okay to tell the other person that you’re walking away. If you’re concerned about their feelings, you can soften it by saying something like, “I’m getting upset and I want to have a productive conversation with you, so it would be better to discuss this at another time.”
- Realise that everyone is responsible for their own emotions and responses to those emotions. Sometimes the boundary lines get a little fuzzy for those of us with Aspergers, but we are not responsible for how other people feel or how they act–no matter how much we want to protect them from negative feelings. If you’ve done everything you can to be kind and compassionate while saying what you had to say, that’s all you can do. Don’t get caught up in the all-or-nothing thinking that tells you that “our relationship is over because he got angry” or “I’m no good because someone got upset.” Keep your focus on being the person YOU want to be, not on making everyone else act or feel the way you want them to.
These principles can hopefully help you begin to assert yourself. There’s a lot more to self-assertion than expressing your emotions, of course; however, it’s essential to master this communication skill before attempting anything more difficult or abstract such as setting boundaries or asking for something that requires someone else’s cooperation.
If you would like to learn more about self-assertion, please comment under this blog post or fill out the contact form on my website. I currently offer one-on-one and group coaching sessions related to self-assertion and am developing a workshop related to this issue.