Friday, September 25, 2009

Defining Ourselves via our Emotional Baggage - Part Two

Last time, I looked at a couple of small examples of how the future actions of aspies are often dictated by their emotional baggage and suggested that the long term memory and inability to let go could be root causes.

This time, I want to look at how that emotional baggage transforms itself into rules and begins to take over our lives.

The Leap from Memory to Rule
If a piece of baggage affects you enough to be constantly in your memory, it soon begins to transform itself into aspie rules. Sometimes these rules are good but sometimes they're too restrictive.

About 16 years ago, when I was only starting my second IT job, I made the mistake of forgetting to back up some address book data when wiping an employee's laptop computer. I did back up everything else but the address book data was in an unexpected location.

Although the employee in question wasn't particularly senior, he complained to management and I was reprimanded. What he didn't realise was that I would stress over that particular set of actions for the remainder of my six years in that company.

I stressed so much that it quickly became a rule to back this data up first. Then the rule expanded to an active "hunt" for data on laptops and finally to network backup options which border on paranoia. I've never since lost data when wiping a laptop - even when the laptop is otherwise inoperable.

My backup before wipe procedures have resulted in increased time being spent on the task and increased storage space being used. I back everything up. Favourites, Icons, Wallpapers... the lot. I'm often told that I don't need to backup internet bookmarks but I do it all the same. It's data and my rule says that it can't be lost.

I once had to leave the room when a junior employee repeated my original mistake. I simply couldn't handle the stress of seeing the mistake repeated even though on that occasion, no complaints were made. Sure, my data safety rule is good but it has its downside too.

Every Waking Moment
Over time, stronger rules and baggage start to pervade your every thought.

My father used to have a saying "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well". He wasn't a man who accepted imperfection in work. He would tell me that if I wasn't prepared to do something perfectly or correctly, then I shouldn't do it at all.

If I did things wrong, he would take over and redo them.

As a direct result of my father's mantra I've had a drive in my life to do things perfectly - or not at all.

Failure and even minor imperfections trip massive and sometimes near suicidal guilt trips.

I was nearly suicidal when I had my first car crash as a teenager because my nearest rival, my elder sister had - and still has, a near perfect record. Nowadays, I don't drive much ostensibly because I prefer being a passenger but really because I don't feel that I do it well enough (ie:perfectly), so it's not worth doing at all if I can avoid it.

I was even closer to suicide when my marriage looked like breaking up. Thankfully my wife and I managed to find a solution as I have no idea how much worse things might have become if I'd failed in that situation.

Every error I make, from programming glitches at work down to typos on the blog eats away at my self worth. Even worse, some of my rules prevent my errors from being corrected. I have to get it right the first time and many of my errors are doomed to remain as corporate records to haunt me.

Then there's cowardice; I rather doubt that I'd have much fear in a "self-sacrifice for the greater good" situation but show me a tough gardening job and you'll see the real coward emerge. I'm terrified of failure you see. If I can't do a perfect job, then I'm too terrified of failure to do anything.

I'm not, for a minute blaming my father for this aspect of my condition. I've internalised things from both my parents, my friends, my teachers and my experiences. After all, it's natural that we all internalise things that are said and done in our environment. I like trying to be perfect despite the downside that comes with it - it's tough but it's a good thing.

As a parent though, I now have to be painfully aware that any messages that I repeat constantly are likely to be internalised by my own children to become the emotional baggage that defines them in their adulthood. It's one of the main reasons why I've mostly abandoned any forms of discipline which involve aggressive tendencies such as shouting or spanking.


James said...

My goodness, but how familiar this all sounds to me.

Like you, I work in IT, and like you little mistakes that would typically have been forgotten in a day or two have continued to haunt me from the day they happened onwards.

I've not had a mantra of perfection drummed into me, but I have a very strong desire to be perfect regardless.
Whenever I fail to live up to my own exacting standards I feel terrible, and like I've let everyone down.
I suspect this stems in part from many of my mistakes being in areas that seem obvious and easy to my peers. I can see that most people would have found the task I failed at trivial, and that leads to a feeling of shame. This is something that has been going on for far longer than I've been aware of my AS - one of the great many things about which I was aware yet lacked any comprehension as to why it was like that.


Rachel said...

I can really relate to the perfectionism taking over one's life. For me, it's not just that I have vivid recall of my mistakes. It's also that I progressively find myself in a world that makes no sense to me. The more the world looks like a foreign place, the more inclined I am to assert control over myself so that, at least in my little corner of the world, I'm being consistent, thorough, and responsible.

I don't know how civilization is going in Australia, but here in the US, the levels of self-centeredness, rudeness, and selfishness are at nearly epidemic proportions. I grew up with parents who were pretty nuts, but even they taught me very basic things like having consideration for others, thinking about how your behavior might affect the next guy, and taking care not to exclude people. These kinds of values seem all but lost. So, a lot of my perfectionism is an attempt to assert control in a world that feels like it's devolving rapidly.

Oh, yeah, and then there's the low self-worth thing, where I feel like I'm never "enough"--good enough, smart enough, thin enough, strong enough, helpful enough, etc.--so I try to overcompensate by attempting to do everything "right."

Laura said...

I do not have Asperger's, but have a son that does. Reading about the real lives of adults with Asperger's has been such a big help to me. He is moving into adulthood and I am trying to figure out the best ways to help that transition. Your blog gives me great insight. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

so true man, everything!

BTW, it's VERY VERY hard to read white text on black background, very hard on the eyes.

Anonymous said...

Hi Gavin,

Do you think it is possible for an aspie to be good at public relations? I ask because I am repeatedly told that aspies can't do PR. However, what if they pick it up because it is needed for their special interest/work?
If Steven Spielberg is an aspie, as he says he is, then would he not have had to do a cetain amount of PR in order to get where he is now with his films? Can PR be learned by an aspie?

Gavin Bollard said...

In all honesty, I don't think that I'd put limits on aspies for anything.

I don't feel that public relations is something that would come naturally but I do know that if it were to become a special interest, then the aspie would become proficient at it.

We overcome our obstacles in different ways to NTs. What doesn't come naturally to us can be learned - but we obviously can't learn everything, so we need to be choosy about what we spend our time on.

Anonymous said...

i m so comforted to read this post - thx... i m not alone with my suicidal triggers... thx gavin! i love ur blog!

Anonymous said...

Gavin I have an earnest apsie ex-husband has recently been made aware of the fact that his last meltdown that eventually led to our marriage breaking up also caused a miscarriage on account of the physical injuries he had caused coupled with the stress and trauma of the entire episode. While I certainly have no compassion left for him I wouldn't want him to get suicidal. Can you please help me understand if such news can cause depression and suicidal tendencies in a person with AS ? If so, would it be advisable to warn his friends and family so they can keep an eye on him ? So far I have no other reliable source of information on AS so your response would be greatly helpful.

Gavin Bollard said...

Anonymous; The short answer is Yes, news like that could make a person with Asperger's syndrome feel suicidal. In fact, I'd expect that it would make nearly anyone responsible feel that way.

It's probably worthwhile (and certainly very noble of you) to warn his friends and family but you shouldn't withhold such information from him. He obviously needs to understand that his actions have consequences.

In fact, I'm surprised that he isn't up on charges. Causing a miscarriage could be manslaughter.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking the time out to respond Gavin.

I have been advised by family and friends to press charges for domestic violence (he has beat me up multiple times during the course of our marriage) and manslaughter. They all say he should be held accountable and face the consequences of his actions.

But the way I see it, it will only prolong my misery. I wish to forget this entire episode like a bad dream and move on with my life. Any link that I have with him (even one of pressing legal charges) will only hinder my sincere attempt to start my life afresh without the scars of the previous relationship. I did not so much as claim alimony. He was hostile during the divorce. And all I wanted was out. So instead of getting caught up in a long-drawn out and hostile divorce proceeding, i let him keep all the property and assets. Did not claim alimony. I just want my peace of mind. If that means not pressing charges and letting him get away with it all. So be it.

Thank you for your response. I have touched based with his friends and let them know that he has recieved some disturbing news that could lead to self destructive behaviour so they should keep an eye on him.

Now all I want is peace. All I want is to move on. Nothing else really matters to me at this point.