Religion, Spirituality, Psychology and AS

Introduction

Martin is 37 years old and has worked as an accountant since leaving University 15 years ago. He was diagnosed during his time as a student and has therefore known about, and worked with, his Asperger syndrome (AS), ever since then.

He is not religious, but has been attending church to accompany his wife since his marriage just over 5 years ago now. Gradually, though he hasn’t converted, he has increasingly become aware of how the positive messages that emanate from the readings are beneficial from the psychology perspective of AS and some of the associated issues many of which are of direct relevance to his work and performance.

Exact details in this case study have been changed for confidentiality reasons. The views expressed are personal, for illustrative purposes only and should not be related, or automatically applied to, other situations or scenarios

Case Study

Let me say straight away at the outset I am not a religious person. I am an established agnostic and cannot foresee myself at any stage converting to any faith throughout my lifetime.

Against that I have always found religion interesting as a subject and have picked up on various factors in relation to different faiths. For me something profound probably must have probably happened 2000 years ago to have such a lasting impression.

I am also interested in the inner calmness that Buddhism seeks to provide and, apparently, is able to deliver and; I am fascinated why many of the most talented and influential people to have lived have been Jewish – such as Einstein, Freud and Marx.

My interest in religion and its messages developed further when I started to attend church with my wife after our marriage five years now. I found the subject matter interesting to a degree, but what really intensified my interest were the homilies of the priest who has a gift of being able to relate the readings to a real-life matter which, in turn, makes them highly relevant.

This is really useful in life in general and for me as a professional. What makes it doubly beneficial is the relevance of the message to someone with Asperger syndrome because of the psychology involved.

As my degree was in psychology, I was readily able to pick up on certain themes. However, they have also applied to my AS and the messages and lessons have proved enormously advantageous in their application to my working practices, relationships with my colleagues and the way I have acted and projected myself professionally.

To provide some examples.

1. Honesty & Integrity

One homily started by asking why terrible or unjust things occur in the world. Why an athletic young man who has taken care of himself via diet and exercise falls ill prematurely. The text poses the question: “why me?”

In my career to date I have had a number of things happen to me which I believe were both unfair and unjust. Being passed over for promotion is one such example.

However, as the homily went on to say that when we suffer it is rarely consoling to complain of being singled out for misfortune or lament our fate as this only makes the suffering worse.

When we feel we have been dealt an unfair blow or betrayed by friends and those we counted on for support we feel abandoned. This is why I can resonate with this. I have been blamed unfairly at work by people who have not fulfilled or undertaken their responsibilities and have passed the blame onto me.

Did I feel hard done by this? Too right I did, and it was exacerbated by the sense of honesty and integrity inherent within my Asperger which heightened my sense of anger and injustice.

Yet, as the homily goes on to say, within such occurrences lies meaning. Things happen for a reason. The key I have learnt from my experience is not to let my anger subsume me, but to look for the causes or the problem in the first place: by confronting the issue and the person constructively using facts and not emotion for example.

The piece then talks about how fear holds us back, yet if we are truly free from all the worries we feel it is liberating. However, it is our anxieties and the need for approval that ties us.

I have certainly felt that. My Asperger, and sense of being “different” has, at times, contributed towards me being somewhat to blame when, in fact, I have not been. This, in turn, has led me to seek approval when a better course would have been to stand firm behind the self-confidence of knowing myself and my true values and not allowing myself to feel guilt unnecessarily.

2. Making Things Excessively and Unnecessarily Important

Another message revolved around greed: how people place value on their material possessions which is out of all proportion to their actual needs – a common message. The problem is that things then become supremely important when, in fact, they are not so very important at all.

I think I have certainly been guilty of this in a work context, not so much from a personal gain perspective – I have never been driven solely by financial gain – but more by the approach to business issues or how other people have acted.

I have come over time to appreciate the value of keeping such thoughts in perspective. I know I am not going to get everything I want in terms of business strategy and I certainly not going to get all my colleagues to act in a way that I find agreeable or which are in line with my AS driven values.

Doing this reduces my propensity to feel less strongly – and hence agitated an anxious about them also to focus on the only thing that I can concern myself: my own performance.

3. Being a Team Player

I have been told a couple of time at work that I am not a great “team player”. I have always found this puzzling to a degree. I accept that I am not a great socializer, but I do my work and no-one has ever stated that it is sub-standard.

However, I was also conscious of the fact that people, whilst not necessarily hostile to me, didn’t go out of their way to do extra things either.

The answer is to be generous to others. I have learnt though, that if I do, do things – or give generously as the homily says in terms of my time, energy, resources and interest – people do become more reciprocal.

4. Restraining Personal Dislike and Judgement

One week the priest talked about love for others. I suppose like everyone I come across people whom I dislike at work. Because of my AS there have been some people whom I have developed an intense dislike towards; sometimes even before they have done anything detrimental to me.

At times this has been far from helpful: it has caused antagonism between me and the other party and has prevented me from working as effectively with them as I might have done.

The priest went onto to talk about love – or what perhaps more pertinently for me – respect – for others! Again, my Asperger dictates that this is far from easy if someone transcends my ideals.

The key is not being careless about the reputation of others and not be judgemental of people. Now, whenever I meet someone whom I have an initial dislike or impression of, I try to find something good in them or, at the very least, give them the benefit of the doubt.

I have come to learn that, in a working context, I cannot allow my AS to afford me the luxury of taking a dislike to some or not engaging with them.

5. Being Conciliatory and Non-Provocative

This point was driven home even further in the next service: the need to “love your enemies”.

As mentioned in the previous section, I have met some people in a work context whom I have disliked intensely. Everything about them has been contrary to what the traits associated with my Asperger dictate I feel.

However, as the homily starts by saying, we personally have responsibilities towards other people. Every one has the right to their good name and no-one has the right to question that without very good reason.

I have come to learn from experience that this really holds true in a work context – especially as a person with Asperger. Looking back I can see how people have acted in a way which “may” be contrary to their individual personality, but which business or commercial circumstances have dictated that they must. This particularly applies to senior managers.

As the reading went on to say, as human beings we have a psychological need to forgive others as this has conciliatory qualities. It prevents one from becoming angry and retaliating. As my AS has certainly meant that I become angry and, at times, have experienced significant inner turmoil because of the actions of other people, this has been an invaluable message.

As the piece goes on to say, hatred is a dangerous thing and should be handled with great care; it should be kept for instances of intolerance or injustice and not for an individual.

I found that interesting. Injustice? That is something that my heightened sense of right and wrong which emanates from my objective, i.e. factual not emotional mode of thinking, I find highly unsettling.

I can see looking back how many of my inter-personal difficulties have been triggered by my criticism of the individual and not their actions. I can also see how this has offended them and caused a reaction and retaliation against me personally.

The reading provided a possible way forward for me. As it outlines, when we hate it means we expend more energy than with any other emotion. I believe this is exacerbated in the case of Asperger as it awakens in us feelings of unease, fear and anger.

The answer is to acknowledge and take ownership of our capacity to hate and harm which is a very good thing as it reflects the fact that the enemy is not outside but within! If the person or the issue becomes less important to me, it has less propensity to agitate and upset me

As the homily also goes on to say: “returning love for hate is one of the most difficult things in the world. It’s a very high ideal and a very difficult one, but it makes sense”. Usefully though, from my perspective as a professional worker with Asperger syndrome, the solution also encompasses rejection of weakness and passivity. Instead in order to achieve this I now focus on truth (facts?), justice (fairness) and reconciliation (respect) – I try to respond to the worse with the best

6. Values and Self-Worth

This theme was built upon in a following week. It talked about how the core Christian values are mercy, justice, reconciliation, forgiveness and peace, as opposed to those that often prevail in the outside world such as: self-importance, greed, vindictiveness, selfishness etc.

I know only too well from my own career how these can manifest themselves in a corporate environment. However, as the homily went on to say it is very difficult, if not impossible, to like others if we dislike or doubt ourselves.

There have been times when I have experienced doubts about myself as a person or my self worth because of my condition.

However, I have come to demand that I will not allow myself to ever think any less of myself because of my Asperger.

To achieve this, whilst being effective and assertive at work to look after my own interests, I have come to appreciate the necessity of acting appropriately: to not allow myself to judge people negatively, to give them initially the benefit of the doubt or to allow my moral or ethics to impinge upon my relationships with them.

Central to this is also refusal to allow myself to assume blame for things that do not go to plan if I am not responsible for it. I also refuse to allow other people to pass tasks that are there responsibility and not mine onto me.

If someone does try to do this, or criticises or attacks me unfairly, then I confront that person – in a constructive way of course – to ensure that appropriate boundaries remain intact.

Doing this, as the homily says, is not easy. Being aware of the need and rigidly attempting to follow the line is, in the face of unjustified pressure, not always entirely easy. However, it is important; even at times essential and it has become a personal behaviour of mine that I have internally instilled and practised assiduously.

7. Setbacks and Failure

There was an important message also about failure. In the business world there will always be setbacks or failures. I know this only too well: when things have gone wrong for me my AS has meant that my self-esteem has perhaps suffered disproportionately. This, in turn, has impacted negatively upon my work.

As the homily in question lists: “we can say I tried and failed so what is the point? I never allow myself to do this. Like many other people with AS I know, I have great depths of inner strength. Deep down I know am strong.

Whenever I fail at a task or receive a setback now, the first thing I ask is: why? There is always a reason and, though the message may at times be painful, if I can face the issue and locate the answer, I know that there is a way forward and a real learning experience for me.

As the piece alludes there is always the danger of giving up all together, something which I am very conscious of. However, failure is only fatal when we get stuck in it. The important thing is keeping at it. That is a message I always think of when I experience setbacks.

8. Doing Things for the Right – and not Personal – Reasons

One homily really made me think and, if I am totally honest with myself, made me feel quite uncomfortable. It talked about good deeds, looking at ourselves and why we are doing something.

My innate rightgeousness has meant I enjoy doing things for other people. If I feel I do them a good turn it makes feel good.

However, if I am to be brutally honest with myself, looking back, I think I have may have been doing such things as much, if not more, for my benefit and me personally and not, as I have sometime claimed, for others.

The reason being I think is that my Asperger or feeling of being different has meant that I have doubted whether I am liked in the eyes of others and therefore feel obliged to try do something for them in order to overcome this. I have perhaps tried to hard to please which has also meant people viewing me as someone whom they can take advantage of. As the homily says, we may want to be a beacon, but we also need to be a humble one.

Looking back I can see now how other people or work colleagues have viewed things this way and this has meant them judging me negatively and caused a reaction on their part.

Now before I do something, I challenge this issue and ask myself internally: why am I doing this? If it is for the right reasons – to genuinely assist a colleague who needs help for example – then I proceed; if not, I pull back and do not become involved.

As the homily concludes: the message is: “goodness can’t be a put on thing or an act. Any good deeds that one does must be an expression of the person you are and not done for show or notice.

9. Productivity

I have to say that this hasn’t always been my strongest suit. I have a tendency to not do things until they become important or essential to me.

What this has meant is that I allow things to fester which, at times, has stored up problems for later. I tend to work somewhat to my agenda rather than that of the organisation.

This is why I believe that, as one reading asserted: “time and tide wait for no one!”

The advice given here was that it is vital to reflect upon and to things NOW. I read one piece on Aspergermanagement.com previously about Urgency Addiction which I found incredibly useful and insightful: http://aspergermanagement.com/urgency-addiction-getting-things-done

If I leave I prevaricate and do things when I – and not necessarily the organisation – need’s to do it.

Preventing this provides other advantages. I get ahead of the game which stops anxiety to develop as a result of having to do things at the last moment. It also gives other people who are involved in the project more time to respond.

10. Positive Thinking

Finally there was a homily about prayer. From this I took a message about the power of positive thinking. We are told that we need faith and trust – or in my words – belief and confidence.

But we need to do more than this if we are to achieve things; they won’t just automatically happen b thinking about them. In a work context we need to work at the role and accrue technical skills to advance our case so as to deliver and make things happen.

The two go together and as a person with Asperger, I know I need to deliver on both points. As mentioned earlier, I do not allow my feeling of “differentness” to impair on my self-belief and, also, to not allow any sense of urgency addiction to impair upon my output.

Moreover, if I do things now as outlined in point 9, I get things done and actually deliver. Doing this means I achieve; it also helps to deflect any possible negative attention or criticism.

Conclusion

As mentioned at the start of this piece, I am not a religious person. However, as someone with Asperer syndrome I have come to appreciate that there are real benefits and advantages in having a spiritual side or, more pertinently, engaging in the positive psychology that the messages inherent in the theme of religion can often provide.

As a person with Asperger syndrome, having a template that provides a means of acting has proved immensely useful; in a way I suppose, these are the same as the “learned behaviours” that people with AS are encouraged to acquire in order to enable them to navigate the social world and its unwritten rules.

From a business perspective I have found that these learned behaviours are also incredibly beneficial. They have prevented problems from developing in the first place and have also provided the basis for ameliorative actions when difficulties have arisen.

Religion, I believe, is an intensely personal subject and I would not for one attempt to lecture anyone in this area. All I can say is that the core messages – which in my opinion apply in a non-religious way also – are well worthy of consideration for any manager working with AS.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome