A blog advocating autism through my own personal experiences and insights.

Archive for the ‘Perfectionism’ Category

The Pitfalls of Social Media

A theme that I have used throughout my blog is how to cope with feelings of loneliness when they arise. Loneliness is a prevalent feeling a lot of us experience, not only to those of us with autism, but much to the general population as well. There are several ways to try to cope when these feelings of loneliness and/or depression arise. Last summer, I went through a bout of loneliness and depression and, as such, I was looking for techniques and strategies to cope with it. For example, I was seeing a counsellor and browsing the internet for resources. Then I stumbled upon a bit of advice I found on one internet webpage that gave me pause. Mainly because the idea was so simple, yet I hadn’t heard of it before.
The idea was to take a break from social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, etc because they don’t really help social relationships. People can be cruel on these sites and seeing people report doing fun activities by “updating their status” can give rise to a lot negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions, such as jealousy, sadness, depression, etc., especially if you’re currently going through a difficult time already.
As soon as I read this advice, I knew that Facebook (which is the social media site I use the most and the one I’ll be referencing for the rest of this post simply because it’s the one I’m most familiar with) was indeed having this effect on me. For the time being at least, I felt taking a break from it would indeed be a good option. I stated my proposed break as a status, which included alternative ways to contact me if anyone I had on Facebook wanted to do so. I also stated that I would be back in September, which was a month and a half away. I felt that would be ample time to give me a chance to recover.
I also started doing some other internet searching to see if there was anyone else who felt the same way I did about sites like Facebook. It turned out a lot of people actually felt the same way and some had posted, for example, youtube videos describing this problem with social media. I even asked a couple of people I knew about how I was feeling, and they actually confirmed that they had similar stories regarding Facebook. I also believe Facebook gave rise to these feelings before, but I never really acknowledged them. For example, I can be a perfectionist so it would make sense that I would be prone to such feelings as jealousy and so I didn’t give those feelings validation in the past. Seeing other people comment on exactly the same thing, however, made me see and feel it wasn’t just me and that I wasn’t alone with this issue.
I also feel it’s worth pointing out that you don’t even have to be addicted to Facebook or be an extreme Facebook user (posting statuses every day and having 1000’s of Friends) for it to be easy for these feelings to get to you. I’ve always been a pretty moderate user. It took me 3 years to become interested in posting a profile picture and to post statuses on a regular basis I only currently have 200+ Friends. Once I started posting statuses, however, I really grew to liking the idea of posting something on the internet that automatically everyone could read. It was like having celebrity status. Of course, not only was Facebook allowing me to do this, it was also allowing others to post as well. It made it very easy to treat Facebook like a popularity contest. All you have to do is compare the number of likes and comments to different statuses.
Another thing I’ve learned from this realisation is that what people’s lives are really like and how they’re portraying them on the internet is often very different. When I talked to a friend about this issue with social media, she agreed and said she had interacted with friends who were having a lot of problems with their jobs, yet they would always post on Facebook how happy they were. The rub is that when you look at someone’s Facebook wall (which is where they’re posting all of their statuses) what you’re seeing more often than not is just one shade of reality or one side of their life. People aren’t generally going to post their own problems with their lives on sites like Facebook. This observation also helps explain why the negative feelings arose in the first place. You’re comparing what you know as your life to how someone else wants you to see their own life. This, however, is a false comparison. The other person will have much more control over how they portray their life on social media than how their life is actually going. A lot of the time, this isn’t even the person’s fault. It’s very easy to sub-consciously post something that makes it look like you’re happier than you really are. Even I’m guilty of this. I’ve looked through some of my old posts and sometimes I’ve thought, wow, I certainly wasn’t that happy at that particular time. Of course, however, our thoughts can be irrational, even when we’re rationally aware of the falsity of this comparison.
While I have spent the majority of this post examining the negative aspects of social media, I feel I should at least end with a positive note. After my break from Facebook, I did return to it and still have an account. I still post a status every once in a while, even if it’s not as regular as before, and I use this feature wisely. In other words, I use it for the convenience to, for example, let people know I wrote another blog post and to post big news such as getting through an academic milestone or to post my grandmother passing this fall (my uncle didn’t realise she had passed until he read my post and was very grateful for it). I take advantage of such positive aspects of the site, which also includes planning events with friends and talking to multiple people simultaneously on the message feature. Currently, at least, this is all how Facebook is serving me best.
Different people will also use social media in different ways. While a good number of people will treat it like a popularity contest, there are some who mainly use it to stay in touch with family who are far away, to talk to several people simultaneously (both of which happen to be a contributing factor to why I stayed on), or to play the games that are on that site. As my other grandmother likes to say, “Everything in moderation.”
Regardless of one’s relationship with any social media site, however, it is often a good idea to ask yourself the question: are you controlling it or is it controlling you?

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Becoming Closer with my Sister

Last winter, I was dealing with a problem. It’s too private to even post on this blog, but in any case what it was is irrelevant and it was quickly resolved anyway. Like I usually do when a problem arises in my life, however, I normally talk to people about it to help find solutions and also since my perfectionistic mind can often distort a healthy perspective hearing someone else’s perspective on it can help combat it.

One of the people I ended up talking to about it was my sister Carolyn. She was sympathetic and told me to keep her updated about it and, in fact, she said she wanted to communicate with me more anyway. My relationship with Carolyn throughout our lives has probably not been the closes in the world. There might have been a little bit of sibling rivalry, but we certainly loved each other even if we didn’t express it in the closest of bonds.

We’re also different in a few ways, which most likely caused us to grow a little apart. For example, I’m much more of an academic than she is. I’m in my third year of a PhD while she after high school took a year off and didn’t really know what she wanted to do at the time. Since then, however, she’s found her dream passion in cooking and got both a culinary arts degree and a hospitality management degree and she’s now working in hotel management and eventually wants to become a chef. While her path in life might have been a little more disconnected than mine, I never believed that this was because I was more intelligent than her or anything like that. In fact, I sometimes feared she was intimidated. I just see her path as demanding a different (but certainly not less) kind of intelligence. I’m sure that the meals I make in my home can’t hold a candle to what my sister is capable of in the kitchen. I also sometimes wonder what it must really feel like to lead a slightly disconnected path in life (this is actually something in general that graduate students sometimes do, positing ‘what if’ scenarios since graduate school is quite demanding and “delays” your entry into the “real world”).

At any rate, in response to my sister’s request to remain in contact, I sent her another email and we’ve since had a couple of email correspondences since then. I feel I was more open with her about what is going on in my life. Doing so in writing like in an e-mail was a great method for me to achieve this since I could make sure it was exactly what I wanted to say and I could take my time with it, which helped combat perfectionistic thoughts in the process. Making yourself vulnerable in describing your short comings, your struggles, and your weaknesses I believe is a key component for any relationship to become closer. I’ve talked to Carolyn about how we’re corresponding and we both agree it’s making us feel closer to each other.

Carolyn also has a great philosophy on life, which I completely agreed with it when she told me. She said that everyone’s life sucks in some way or another and that if people though all their problems into a pile and actually saw how big the pile got, they would see that their life isn’t as bad compared to everyone else’s that they’re making it out to be. She also said it was okay to be unhappy and to let out your misery (so long as it was in private).

In a world like today where often family members may not be particularly close, I count myself lucky to not be in such a situation and to be close to a lot of my family including my only sibling.

Joy and Suffering

When we think of the concepts of joy and suffering, we usually think of them as opposites to each other. We tend to think of suffering as getting in the way of us experiencing joy and happiness. The problem with such thinking is that suffering is inevitable in life no matter who or what you are. Joy and suffering go hand-in-hand and you can’t have one without the other. They are both important pieces in this journey called life.
Such thinking helps me, especially given that I can be perfectionistic with respect to my goals and my choices. If something goes wrong in my life or I make a mistake, I’ll often pause to think for a moment and count off the people I know who have gone through or are going through difficulties or mistakes in their own lives. If their difficulties and mistakes were in the past, I’ll reflect on how they’ve been able to get over it and are still very happy with their own lives. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not viewing it as a competition to see who can make the littlest or fewest mistakes. There’s just safety in numbers and that I’m not different from anyone else in any kind of bad way. It gives me relief that there isn’t really anything wrong with me when I screw up on something.
While I have gone through several depressed periods in my life so far myself, I made a promise to myself several years ago that has helped me through such periods. The promise was simply: Never commit suicide. I didn’t make the promise because I thought there was real potential that I might do so or that I was being pessimistic about my life. I haven’t even harmed myself, such as cutting myself. Rather I made it because you always have to be on your own side in embracing the joy and dealing with the suffering when it comes. I made it because if you can’t trust yourself, then you can’t trust anyone else or anything.
Also, when the suffering does come, I don’t try to push the suffering away or try to be strong and overcome it in a speedy fashion. Trying to do so makes the suffering worse. The first real step in dealing with suffering is to accept it, trusting that whatever it is, it’s only temporary. I may go easy on myself during such periods and I might, for example, decide to go out to eat one or two times more than I usually do in a given week, or take a day and curl up on my futon and watch a few movies or T.V. on Netflix.
A counsellor I recently saw got me to see how joy and suffering co-exist and that you can’t have one with the other and gave an analogy of them as being two sides of the same piece of paper. It really got me thinking and made it easier for me to embrace everything in my life with a sense of adventure. I’m on a good adventure, which will surely continue.

How Anxiety Works For Me

I know it’s been a while since I’ve last posted, I’ve had a lot going on over the last little while. But at least I’m taking the time to make a post now.
As I’ve told about in previous posts, I’m working up to my next attempts at my PhD comprehensive exams. The first one, which is Algebra, will be at the beginning of February. I’ve been studying since September for it so hopefully it’ll work out this time after unfortunately failing it last year. There are four main subject areas for the algebra comp and so far I have three of them more or less mastered. The last subject I’m studying right now is the strongest area and I did very well in it on the comp last year. Hence I’ve saved it for last and it’s coming back to me pretty easily so far.
Back in October, however, I felt anxiety start to mount again, however, and I went to the Student Success Office at the university to book an appointment with an advisor there for some academic advice. I’ve since had three appointments with her and so far it’s been well worth it. We delved deep into what was causing the anxiety and it’s really helped a lot. Even though the algebra comp is only a month and a half away I’m feeling considerably less worried about it than I have about the comps ever before.
One of things we talked about was how anxiety actually hindered my academic experience and we talked through the steps. It was a cycle. The first phase was feeling anxious, which led to the second phase of letting feelings of anxiety and anger overwhelm me. Then the third phase was letting these feelings completely blind me. By this time, I’m aware I’m not getting much accomplished, which causes the fourth phase of panic mode. The fifth phase was not carrying out the given task I was trying to complete to the best of my ability because of the panic. Finally to complete the cycle, this led directly back to feeling anxious.
We then talked about how to break the cycle, specifically between the first and second phases. It was okay to feel anxious when trying to complete a task, but I couldn’t let it expand to overwhelming feelings of anxiety and anger. To help, we found supporting evidence that of everything I had going for me: my intelligence, my undergrad professors high opinions of me, every struggle I’ve taken to get to where I am (in second year of a PhD in pure math now), I’ve gotten research published in the past and am currently getting more research published.
There were also various factors that was causing the anxiety. For example, there was the issue of what my future job would be and how failing the comps would impact that and what kind of backup plans were necessary. My advisor got me to make a list of all the resources I already had if I ended up failing the comps again (and which she properly emphasised was a big “if”). For example, I put away a lot of money from my NSERC scholarship that I had during my Master’s and I still had financial support if necessary from my parents. Then just like how we broke the anxiety cycle, we looked at everything that would say I would survive and succeed no matter what. Specifically, the things we came up with were that I am intelligent, I am hard working, I have good references, I have research published, and I have a Master’s in Pure Math from Waterloo. Then she gave me a list of reminders I could read every morning until the exam to further build my confidence, some of which were as follows (and which I have been reading):
Failing the comps is not about your IQ it is simply about learning how to handle anxiety – which you are in the process of learning.
I do belong – I have worked hard to be where I am and I have tackled many obstacles
I understand and know most of the material, I have a great start.
Finally, it’s also been approved that I have the comprehensive exams split up between two days. The usual time that students get for them is 3 hours each and the last time I wrote them I got 4 ½ hours each, which I found out when I wrote the comps the first not enough extra time so I now I’ll be getting double time. For each of the exams, I’ll be getting half the questions one day and then the other half the day after. I suspect this will decrease some of the anxiety as well. Instead of getting a sheet full of 9 major questions all coming from different areas of algebra or analysis (the subjects of the exams), I’ll only be looking at 4 or 5 questions at a time and thus will be able to manage them a bit more.
It’s now just a month and a half before the algebra exam is over and done with. Once that time period comes to an end and I’ll have passed it, I’ll have a new confidence level for preparing for the analysis exam, which will be in May. I’ll be celebrating wildly.

A New Strategy of Coping with Uncertainty

Life is full of surprises. It’s an old saying, but rings true regardless. Sometimes these surprises are pleasant, sometimes not so. When unpleasant events occur, especially when they were unexpected, it can lead to worry and havoc. This is again another example of how my black-and-white autistic mind naturally works. It has a difficult time coping with uncertainty because of this. If say a term at university doesn’t go well for me or at least not as well as I had expected, then I begin to worry and think about all the possible negative consequences that could arise from this.

But the future can hold anything. There is no way to absolutely guarantee that a desired outcome will occur. A lot of these factors are just outside your control. Examples would be which university accepts you into a given program and what kinds of relationships you form and how well you integrate with the people in your community. As someone who has a tendency to want things to be certain, I can certainly have a hard time accepting such things and often waste time worrying about what the future holds for me and how many of my current problems will end up being solved and if so in what time frame (days, weeks, months, even years).

I have heard of other strategies of coping with this. Some people trust in a higher power. They also comfort themselves that whatever happens, happens for a reason and you have to make the best of it. While this does help for me, I find that I need something extra. I also think I know what that extra piece of strategy is. It comes down to my love of writing fiction and my love of stories. Because that’s basically what my life is: a story with me as the protagonist (as well as a whole cast of colourful supporting secondary characters haha). But if this is the case, then why would I need to know what’s going to happen in my life tomorrow, next week, or a few years down the road? Why would I want to know? Knowing ahead of time will only kill the suspense! This is how I combat my feelings of need to hold on to some kind of certainty. I combat this by pointing out to myself how boring my story would be if I knew for certain what was going to happen!

Viewing my life in such a way, helps me calm down and relax and not worry about what’s going to happen. It also releases stress from areas that aren’t going nearly as well. Again, to be a good story my life has to have a lot of conflict in it and conflict of all varieties. At the end of the day, you can only do what you can do to help increase your odds to strive for your goals and solve your problems and let the world do the rest and create your story.

Training My Mind

I have learned a new technique to dealing with being a perfectionist and in general to dealing with the kind of black/white mind my autism has given me. It is a very effective mental technique that helps my mind adapt to the world around it. It is simply training my mind. I have to train my mind to not have the automatic thoughts that are associated when something goes less than perfect in my life. Let me give probably the biggest example of this.

I hate being criticised. When someone criticises me, the thoughts that grow through my mind are “You didn’t reach your full potential” or “There is someone better than you”. Such thoughts can be very detrimental, especially since my mind in its natural state has trouble seeing subjectivity and see something as correct or incorrect. Sometimes when I’m criticised, I can even freeze up and can’t do anything productive for an hour or two (such times only happen now and then fortunately). I have, however, just recently talked with a friend who has perfectionistic tendencies herself and she has used the technique of training her mind out of these automatic thoughts and found it very effective. This weekend, I tried doing the same, and I’m finding it with a big relief that it works.

Whenever I’m in an imperfect situation and let my mind wander where it wants to, it will inevitably go to the ‘negative’ of the situation, the characteristic(s) that are making the situation imperfect. What I do here is shift my thoughts out of the ‘negative’. This is by no means something that comes natural to me and it requires persistence and perseverance to get right. With a little effort, however, I find that it can be done. It requires getting rid of some previous thoughts like there is something ‘bad’ about being criticised and replacing it with thoughts like “I will allow the world to criticise me, regardless if how much or how little the criticism is justified and how harsh the criticism sounds”. After all, people respond in speech on impulses and emotional cues, so if they have a reaction (positive or negative) to something you have done or said, it may not be completely justified or at least not phrased in the most appropriate way. For example, when I’m criticised, sometimes it can sound like the criticizer is being very harsh when they do not mean to sound that harsh and are only offering the criticism as a way to help me improve (and they certainly don’t want me to freeze up for a couple of hours and having me feel stupid).

It’s training my mind to get rid of these automatic thoughts and to replace these with other thoughts that is helping my black/white mind appreciate the shades of grey there are in the world, especially dealing with such things as subjectivity and emotion. And as I continue to adapting, the more human I’m feeling.

Choices regarding Sexual Frustration

As I grow older, the more I’m finding out about the world around me. I’ve had very inaccurate conceptions of what the world is and in this post I would like to share an example of just that. Of course, this isn’t the first time in this blog that I’ve done so, but this one is certainly major and I believe it deserves attention to.

It all began four years ago when I was about to turn twenty. As I’ve told about in previous posts like any guy my age I had and continue to have a lot of sexual frustration. Four years ago this all came to a head and something happened. I started doing (gasp!) the following activity: looking at pornography.

I can hear the peanut gallery now. So what? What young boy in this age hasn’t seen pornography??

But that’s the point I’m making here. I didn’t know guys my age were into this stuff. Sure I heard about it like on TV shows and such, but the concept of pornography was always treated with such negativity (at least that’s what it seemed to me) that I had automatically dumped it into the ‘bad’ category and really thought nothing of it. It’s just another example of how my autistic mind works and comes with my perfectionistic traits. Everything is either good or bad with no in between. Well, perhaps I did have some notion of shades of grey, but it wasn’t as deep as I thought it was. That is, until four years ago when I started looking at porn myself. I thus started to freak out.

I knew porn was accessible on the internet. When my sexual frustration had reached a peak four years ago, I started to rationalise why I would look at it. Why not? No one would know. No one has access to my laptop except me so just as long as I kept it a secret, it wouldn’t matter. Afterwards, however, as I said I started to freak out and my black/white mind had trouble reconciling this behaviour with the good person I was. I thus went to see a counsellor about it and lo behold it didn’t turn out to be as big a deal as I thought it was and I walked out totally as peace myself. I continued to watch porn, but I don’t much anymore because it got boring and clichéd after a while and it’s never interfered with my life since that session with the counsellor.

A related example of how my black/white mind operates happened a year later. I met a girl who was a student at Acadia like me. I forget how it happened exactly, but we started talking about relationships and sex. She revealed to me how she had a boyfriend and broke up after having sex with him and then went on to say how a lot of teenagers have sex. This was news to me. I knew that the subject of sex was appearing everywhere and anywhere in the adolescent world, but I never figured that I was in the minority as being a virgin. I then confirmed all this information with another counsellor who informed me that young people having sex was indeed the norm and not only that, but a lot of them weren’t even in long-term relationships, but did one-night stands, friends with benefits, and engaged in sex with multiple partners. I remember being shocked in hearing this and started questioning her whether I could do the same. After all, why not? I bet it would take away a lot of my sexual frustration to which she replied absolutely and that my body was my body and I was free to choose to do what I wanted with it, regardless of what anyone thought.

While I knew at a subconscious level that I would never partake in this, I really couldn’t help but feel tempted. But at the end of the day, I knew I wouldn’t do it and would save it for the right girl whenever she comes along. I’m certainly in the minority when it comes to living my life this way, but I’m in the minority on a lot of things so as far as I was concerned I’m only concerned about what’s right for me.

I’ve made my choices. What are yours?