Masking, coping, avoidance and appeasement habits
Those of us who had gone through life unaware of our autism – over 5 million of us in the USA today- have developed behavior to defend ourselves, to cope, to attempt to fit in, to self protect in a world we have found mostly confusing, frustrating, physically and emotionally painful, and stressful. I lived from my earliest consciousness in fear. Fear and anxiety have been the drivers and motivation for any interactions I have had with others for the greatest part of my life. I had no idea this was so, and I had no idea how it could be changed. I had no idea that things could be different or that I could find peace. I had to have somebody explain it to me.
We learn to play roles, to try to please and appease others to avoid confrontation, criticism, punishment, being ostracized and bullied, etc. We learn when we are very young that we must depend on the adults in our lives for absolutely everything, and we often adapt our behavior to suit those who have power over our lives.
We as adults may avoid situations we know will be distressing without ever understanding why we feel so completely inadequate to cope when others seem to do these things with apparent ease.
We may have physical symptoms that are distressing and we may have been trained to ignore them or press on and force ourselves to do things even though the physical feelings are present.
Until I was well into my 30’s, I had chest pains, nausea, headaches, rapid heartbeat, shakiness and trembling deep deep inside, and often I hyperventilated.
I had no idea that these were signs of anxiety and a response to adrenaline flooding my system whenever I forced myself to do things that I was not equipped to cope with.
I was considered melodramatic, that all these things were “psychosomatic” and that I was doing it to “get attention”.
In truth I was in constant fear of failing and of the resultant anger, criticism, punishment, etc which resulted in my failures. I was having almost constant panic and anxiety attacks.
If I had learned to recognize the signs my body gave me that something was wrong much earlier in life, I may have been able to find help.
I may have been able to sort out that what I was forcing myself to do was not right for me. Instead I used appeasement behavior and tried to fit in as I was expected to.
My headaches and nausea every time we went to a social gathering, whether family, friends, or strangers, my shaking and quaking inside my stomach, rapid pounding heartbeat, nervous sweating and restless anxiety were all of me telling me I needed to escape, but I had been trained to force myself to do the things I was expected to do.
I am wondering how many others struggle through all sorts of physical symptoms of their anxiety, fear, distress, stress, and never have a clue that their body is telling them something?
When I got therapy as a young adult, I learned to listen to my body, to search for the emotions that I was expressing through my physical suffering, and to identify the specific time and place where such physical manifestations happened.
I learned to listen to that part of me and to find what I had been hiding or trained to deny in self defense as a youngster dependent on others for survival, for shelter, food, and striving in vain for approval and the feeling of safety and comfort
I was able to provide the self approval, the feeling of safety and of comfort after years of hard emotional homework, but let me tell you it has been worth it. Knowing my autism diagnosis could have helped tremendously. Knowing now gives me the complete perspective I needed “back then” when I first started therapy. I would have had much more insight into the “whys” of the development of my coping behavior.
Having a therapist or life coach to help you spot these things and help you learn from your own body’s feedback, is life changing. I could not do it on my own, I had to have the help of an outsider to be able to see what had happened all those years and to understand how life could be different and better by making healthier choices for myself and learning to do things to please myself instead of appeasing others.
Now if I feel like I want to run, to hide, to leave, to avoid any given situation, I can recognize it before my body gets to trembling, I get sick to my stomach, I have the headaches, etc. I have learned to recognize and respond to the very first signs my body gives me that “something is wrong” and to think it through to sort out the cause so I can take action.
I did not know how to do this by instinct and had been trained to ignore and deny myself any feelings or responses besides those expected of me (due to punishment and my seeking to appease those in control of my life to avoid punishment).
It has been a long time trying out and having the courage to practice new and healthier behaviors, but first I had to learn to recognize that the adaptations I had made to survive were not healthy, and that I could change the way I responded to any person or situation.
I had to learn that I could choose for myself how to respond and what to do as an adult.
Think about the ways your body might be telling you something is wrong.
If you feel sick physically in any situation, if you feel restless and uncomfortable, if you are upset and you don’t know why, it might be time to take a look at sorting old and useless adaptations of youth and discarding them in favor of new ways, new choices, new things to try to make your life better, ease the distress, the pain and discomfort, and start to find peace and self understanding.
You do not have to do it alone!