23: "Getting better" vs. self acceptance
Learning to unmask raises hard questions
I’ve recently been writing and thinking about the idea of self-acceptance and how hard that is. My sense is that accepting myself is the key to accepting others and to finding more joy in life. At the same time, I keep running into the idea of self improvement, or “getting better”, or adapting. The challenge I’m finding is understanding when is “self improvement” really about masking my autism and when is it about enabling self acceptance? Is self improvement at odds with self acceptance? Are they mutually exclusive? Or are they part of the same journey?
One thing I’ve heard some autistic people say, which I’m inclined to agree with, is “being autistic is not an excuse for being an asshole.” We could extend that to say being autistic is not an excuse, period. So, looking through that lens, self acceptance should not be about telling myself, “because I’m autistic I’m going to decline every invitation I get, sit in silence when I have company, focus on my needs over the needs of others,” and so on. That would be more like selfishness rather than self acceptance. At the same time, if I were to tell myself, “despite the fact that I’m autistic, I’m going to go out and see my friends, engage people in conversation, suppress my sensory needs,” and so forth - that would be masking, which is what I have been doing most of my life, and which can appear to take on the mantle of self improvement. I’m not suppressing my needs or hiding my true self, I'm working on being a “better person”. A better person by whose standards? This has gotten me into trouble before - if I mask too much I am misrepresenting myself. At some point, the “real me” is going to show through, and it will become clear that I was not being genuine before.
I’ve had friends tell me directly that I had misrepresented myself when they became friends with me (implying that they became friends with someone who isn’t me, and that they aren’t interested in friendship with the actual me). This is hard to hear because it feels accusatory, as if I was misrepresenting myself on purpose, when that was never the case. What others see as misrepresentation, I felt was a genuine attempt to fit in, to “be normal”, or (in some cases) to push myself to do things outside my comfort zone so that I could grow as a person. Close friends, or sometimes romantic partners, have pushed me to change, to overcome the things about me that they don’t like or that they think are holding me back. In these situations my assumption has always been that the person is correct, that they have learned my flaws, that they are doing me a favor by pointing them out, and the right thing to do would be to try to improve myself. In many instances, this wouldn’t work. I could pretend temporarily, but then would get exhausted and resentful. Or, I wouldn’t be able to change the way the other person wanted me to even if I tried. In all of these cases, the friendship or the relationship ended eventually, in a way that felt either unresolved, or like I had done something wrong that I was embarrassed about and the other person was resentful of.
Despite the negative experiences I’ve had with masking and trying to “improve” myself, I also have to admit that there are ways that I have learned to adapt social norms that are sustainable and that have improved my life. When I first got to college, I didn’t understand the most basic things about meeting people, talking to people, or getting to know people, and I felt quite lonely and rejected. After befriending someone who had patience with me, I learned from her some basic skills of interaction - what other people expected - and it had a dramatic positive impact. I can now meet people and engage with people quite fluidly and comfortably. So, I don’t think it’s an either/or question. It’s not as simple as self improvement vs. self acceptance. The challenge is in understanding when change or adaptation would be positive and healthy and when it would be potentially draining and self-defeating.
One thing I have not tried is verbalizing this whole dilemma openly. I do have these conversations regularly with my wife, but I wonder if I could have them more openly in general. When I meet someone, would it make sense to tell them I am autistic and explain what that means? Or, would that end up defining me based on someone’s idea of autism that would limit their view of me? Could I explain to my friends that I want to see them, but we need to structure the time and circumstances so that I don’t get overwhelmed, irritated, or exhausted? Or would that be too burdensome? For example, let’s meet for an hour to go for a walk instead of having a three hour dinner party. I think the people I have maintained long term friendships with have come to understand what works for me and what doesn’t. They work around my needs, even though we’ve never discussed them openly. That is a small number of people. For others, relationships have frayed and we’ve simply stopped trying. Perhaps if I was open and transparent about what is happening in my head, it would make it easier for me to sustain relationships.
Another technique, which Chesley Flood has been writing about, is the idea of unmasking by committing each week to “say ‘yes’ to one thing that’s just for you and ‘no’ to one thing that’s not for you”. The key part of this idea is that the things you are saying “yes” and “no” to have to be for you. Say “yes” to something that you want to do but might hesitate to do, for example, because you are self conscious about it, and say “no” to something that others are asking of you but that you don’t feel would be good for you. I like this idea in theory, and it sounds like it could be helpful to a lot of people, especially those that are still masking heavily. Since the pandemic started, I have come to many realizations about myself, including a much greater self awareness about all the masking I had been doing for so many years. At this point, I feel I feel that I am having no problem saying “yes” and “no” to things that are just for me, but the problem is more that I don’t want to say “yes” or “no” to things that are for other people, or for the sake of social norms, because being freed from that has felt so good. It’s as if my pendulum has swung too far in the other direction - from full time masking to full time anti-masking (I don’t know if that’s the right term - maybe full time just being myself?). And I don’t think I want to try to commit to doing more masking - that feels backward to me, even if it would help from a social relationship standpoint.
Despite the fact that I think I’ve been doing a lot of unmasking and allowing myself to be myself, I don’t think I truly feel good about it. This is the heart of the self acceptance question. When I’m truly being myself and following what feels right to me, I also feel like I’m doing something wrong (in the eyes of others or by some ambiguous standard of “normal” behavior). Perhaps if I learn to truly embrace self acceptance then I can transcend the sense that I am violating the expectations of others and be content regardless of whether I’m adhering to social norms or not. I don’t know how to find a resolution to these questions - what is a “healthy” amount of masking? When should I focus on my needs and when on the needs of others? When is it good to do things for the sake of social expectations and when is it better to disregard them?