Saying “no” to emotionally demanding people is made harder by my autism, sometimes at a high cost to my wellbeing
I find it incredibly difficult to be held responsible for another person’s unhappiness.
This seems to happen with people who are habitually anxious or distressed, and have learnt to blame others instead of taking responsibility for their own circumstances.
Being an emotional doormat for another person (to wipe their feet on) can literally set off a blind fury in me. A very primal instinct becomes awoken, one that really doesn’t like feeling this way. I’m incredibly familiar with this experience, and yet, it takes great patience to maintain my composure.
The cost of becoming involved in someone else’s distress
The Karpman “Drama Triangle” explains a couple of ways a person can seek to involve others in their drama, either through ‘playing the victim’ or ‘becoming the persecutor’ (Karpman terminology, not mine. No personal judgement implied).
I find it particularly hard to help a ‘victim’ because somehow I end up assuming too much of the other person’s responsibility. Irrespective of what I may do in good faith, it always seems to fall short of their expectations one way or another. The resulting disappointment then becomes levelled at me, unfairly.
I also find the ‘persecutor’ incredibly hard to be around because when I feel threatened, I start to modify my own behaviour in an attempt to please the other person. Think micromanagers, passive-aggressive individuals, outright bullies. Unfortunately, attempting to please a ‘persecutor’ rarely works for very long and with time, I begin to lack empathy for the other person and feelings of revenge and retribution quickly follow (nb. I take no enjoyment in feeling that way).
After being in sustained contact with ‘victims’ and ‘persecutors’, I find that my patience or ‘masking’ (pretending I’m fine in the company of these people) finally wears thin and I start to show my frustration/anger/moodiness at being imposed upon. Quickly the finger is pointed and it becomes my fault for being ‘unreasonable’. If I show any further frustration at being misunderstood, now I’m ‘difficult’. “Grow up Frank, you are not a child anymore”.
I would go so far as to say I feel emotionally “hollowed out” and physically “out of sorts” following these encounters, yet (strangely) left wondering if there was something I did wrong. The truth is, I’m generally calm, friendly and level-headed in the absence of these types of people. But more importantly, I’m the one with a legally recognised disability.
Avoid rescuing another person from their distress for your own sake
For many years I was held responsible for other people’s unhappiness. First by close family members, then later by managers and other people in positions of responsibility. Dealing with it in a composed, socially acceptable way made me very tired. Very, very tired indeed. And seemed to embed a general feeling of powerlessness from having the same experience, over and over again.
But there also seems to be something peculiar about my autism that predisposes, or perhaps actively encourages me, to become involved with ‘victims’ and ‘persecutors’. Perhaps it’s misinterpreting their facial expressions as something requiring my help, perhaps it’s being afraid of being blamed if I don’t, perhaps it’s not being able to separate their responsibilities from mine due to some kind of strange emotional enmeshment; or perhaps it’s just seeing their distress and genuinely wanting to help.
Either way, the end result is almost always an utterly self-esteem destroying experience.
I now take responsibility for part-creating the dynamic, time and time again, even if I don’t fully understand why I continue to do so. It doesn’t happen so much anymore now that I understand the dynamic better and actively seek to avoid it. But it does, in part, explain my strong preference to generally work for myself, and by myself.
Frank Ray & Associates is a software engineering consultancy that builds high quality software for businesses.