I will be writing a blog post on partisanship and the church, but right now I need to chat about dealing with self-esteem when you are on the autistic spectrum.
People with Aspergers especially deal with low self-esteem, partially because of being bullied and partially because we tend to isolate ourselves when we’ve been bullied. For me, there is this sense that I’m stupid, which isn’t true, of course, but it is there because of the low self-esteem. Sometimes experiences tend to bring people down and it is a lot harder to shake things off than it is for someone who is neurotypical.
Last year, a blogger who also has Aspergers explained why low self-esteem goes hand-in-hand with Aspergers:
The primary reason that most people with Aspergers, including myself, have self esteem issues, is due to bullying and people not being willing to make allowances for our social mistakes. Personally I have never met anyone with Aspergers who did not experience bullying in their school years and often beyond. Being socially awkward identifies us as targets in the playground. The fact that a lot of people with Aspergers are also physically clumsy doesn’t help matters at all. I always found that certain aspects of my Aspergers made me more sensitive to childhood bullies than other people. One example is the fact that I am a very literal thinker. Until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t understand that people would say spiteful and malicious things that they knew to be untrue just to hurt somebody’s feelings. I always assumed that people were just being honest and genuinely thought that I was ugly or a freak. If you are told something enough times, you internalise it and it becomes part of your self image. Many children with Aspergers are miserable in their school years-they are often isolated and excluded from playground games. If the only reaction your peers have towards you is to walk away, how are you supposed to develop a healthy self image of yourself as someone who is nice to be around? Of course, having these sorts of self esteem issues lead, in turn, to low self confidence, particularly in social situations where you feel that others will be judging you and looking for your flaws so that they can take great pleasure in pointing them out and ridiculing you for them. This compounds our social awkwardness and thus the vicious circle continues. At almost 27, I am still suffering from the effects of experiences I had before anyone even knew that my difficulties had a name, I still have days when I think the world would be a better place without me in it although, thankfully, these days are now few and far between. I always say that, until you have looked in the mirror and genuinely despised the person staring back at you, you will struggle to understand just how pervasive and destructive low self esteem can be.
It can take years for someone to get to a point where they feel good about themselves. I remember early on in ministry, a fellow pastor ripped me to shreds. It took a long time to piece back together my confidence. Once I did get it back, it happened again a number of years ago. And again, I had to rebuild myself, a process that took years. What neurotypicals can shake off takes a long time for someone on the spectrum.
Then there are what one writer calls Self-Esteem attacks. When someone with Aspergers does something perceived as wrong there’s a sense of shame that can act like a panic attack. Blogger Amy Murphy explains:
“Self Esteem Attacks” occur whenever a person with low self esteem does or says something that he afterwards deems to have been inappropriate, stupid, rude, obnoxious, off target, or inaccurate. At that time, the person may experience immediate remorse, excruciating anxiety, his heart racing, his face turning red, a sinking feeling of embarrassment, depression and/or devastation. Wishing he could sink into the floor or disappear, he may immediately look for a way to escape. He may feign illness, sneak out without saying anything, or just become totally silent, hoping not to be noticed. He will believe that everyone saw his blunder and is thinking poorly of him, maybe even laughing at him. This is a full blown Self-Esteem Attack that may last for minutes, hours, even days during which he berates himself, is fearful of seeing anyone who was in attendance at the time he made his “mistake,” and remain seriously depressed.
I’ve had moments where I wanted to hide and just curl up into a ball after making a mistake. On the outside, I might not show much emotion, but on the inside I start to feel like crap. I berate myself and get stuck in feedback loop of self-loathing. It’s not pretty.
The final thing to talk about is how this low self-esteem can affect relationships. I think a lot of my friendships have been stunted out of my own fear that I’m not good enough, that I can socially engage others and reminders of other past relationships. So, I remain distant,to protect myself and because I don’t have confidence that I could be a good friend or fear that I will say or do something wrong. This has happened in romantic relationships as well, but it happens more frequently in friendships. Gavin Bollard has a good blog post on how self-esteem can wreck potentially good relationships.
One thing about how my faith and self-esteem. I truly believe what has helped me not totally fall of the deep end is my faith in God and the belief in the concept of grace- that I am loved and called by God even when I mess up and feel like I’m stupid. It doesn’t take the self-esteem attacks away, but it does surely blunt their punch.
I was a bit leery of sharing this. I don’t want to focus on myself or get into a pity party in front of others. But I do want to share what someone with Aspergers deals with on daily basis. The world can be a harsh place for those of us on the spectrum and people who don’t have autism need to understand that.
I want to end with a quote from Steph, a woman with Aspergers, about understanding how people with autism deal with self-esteem:
Next time you see someone with Aspergers or autism, please remember how they may be feeling inside and have compassion for them. We struggle daily to get by in a world which often seems to revel in making us feel like failures and sometimes just a small amount of kindness can make our day so much better.