The Wisdom of No Escape – Exercising Moderate Assertiveness
I have been conscious of the benefit – and need – of perhaps reviewing publications that are not AS specific for inclusion on Asperger Management but which touch on issues that still impact upon the self development of someone with Asperger syndrome, (AS).
The Wisdom of No Escape is one such book. It was recommended by Sally Brampton in her weekly column Aunt Sally in the UK’s leading Sunday broadsheet The Sunday Times, a commentator whose piece I always enjoy and views I have come to respect. In particular, the answers she provides to questions always seem practical and relevant to me in the context of my AS.
The Wisdom of No Escape was recommended (along with Beating Anger: The Eight Point Plan for Coping with Rage which I will also try and read at a later date) in response to a reader who was having difficulty coming to terms with a family member whose personal behaviour was agitating them from a mental perspective and so was causing internal, cognitive disruption.
The behaviour related to actions which the reader felt were unethical and aggressive.
They related to traits in the family member’s personality which reflected his own – which is why it was causing him irritation and anxiety. In addition, the person is a “people pleaser” and, like someone with AS uncomfortable with conflict and confrontation.
According to the commentator when somebody triggers us (provokes us to overreact), it is often because something in that person’s behaviour mirrors a quality in ourselves that we don’t like or are afraid of.
I could relate to, and concur, with these assertions quite closely and have encountered similar situations in my career. One in particular provoked extreme anxiety by triggering buttons inherent within my Asperger and so caused me long term internal disruption cognitively.
Given this, I thought that the book would be worth a read as the above mentioned area is one which I have identified as key for personal development. According to the commentator the problem is really about the recipient’s levels of confidence and assertion and I suspect that these may be the root cause of difficulties with me in this area.
The text asks why the reader can’t simply accept the other person’s “unacceptable behaviour” when most other people can. The central premise of the book is that you have to accept, and come to terms with, who you actually are; indeed it is unavoidable. Only by doing this can you come to terms, and accept, people who act at odds with your perception as to how people should.
As there are people who act “unethically or unacceptably” in the eyes of someone with AS, and as such people are always going to be present in work based scenarios, I thought that investigating the issue, and identifying possible solutions was a worthwhile exercise.
It is virtually impossible to negate entirely the traits inherent with Asperger syndrome and given that most people – myself included – are proud of what it encompasses and so wouldn’t want to change, I thought that this was a good starting point in addressing the above issue.
According to the book we try to avoid pain in order to feel and remain comfortable. This is a mistake.
To grow and lead a fuller life we need to acknowledge the need to endure discomfort to find out who we really are, what the world is actually like etc. If we are committed to comfort at any cost we will retract from pain as soon as we come up against it and so not find out what is beyond. Personal growth is, therefore, inhibited.
To begin with we need to like and accept ourselves. This is something that I have not always found easy; indeed uneasiness and uncertainty within me has often meant I have harboured doubts about myself. In a work context this has sometimes meant that I haven’t confronted issues when perhaps I should have as I have – wrongly – sometimes apportioned blame to myself.
A good example is confronting aggressive personalities. At times I have reacted prematurely in a confrontational way, partly I believe, because I see a bit of myself in the person opposite – as in the example referred to in the article above; or as Aunt Sally says: “when we self reflect we often see things we criticise others for – the ones we don’t like; those that we judge”.
Of course, our fundamental honesty and integrity and high moral standpoint, often predisposes us to do so. In an organisation of course, this can be dangerous.
According to the author we can never get rid of all our negative traits and personal growth involves getting to know all the unknowable things and questioning everything to mitigate their downsides.
This applies from a career as well as a personal perspective and is a journey we need to take to realise our full career potential. Doing so involves speaking from ones true nature which is what, according to the author, other people respond to. For someone with AS of course that means being honest and “who we are”.
According to the author arrogance is sometimes unconsciously used as a cover for the internal feeling that we are bad – in other words, a defence mechanism. My Asperger has meant that I often with draw and am perceived as doing so because of indifference to others.
Only recently I have fully come to appreciate that others see this as arrogance, perceiving as they do, that I am uninterested in them or know it all and so can’t be bothered. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth, but in a commercial context where I am required to contribute, and be seen to be contributing, this can be highly damaging.
The book advocates meditation and accepting that you must make mistakes in order to overcome and grow. I have never tried the former, but have become increasingly comfortable with accepting the latter. Though, at times, the mistakes I have made in the commercial world have been significant, they have been the most valuable source of learning. Moreover, as someone who has AS I have surprised myself how able I am to cope with the process and how indelibly entrenched the lessons become after; it is although I feel I never have to learn the lesson again!
According to the book most people are caught up in their particular style of ignorance, unkindness and shut “downess” meaning that we are naturally unsympathetic to ourselves. Instead we need to be more open to our thoughts and emotions, to all people we meet and situations we encounter so as to not bring dislike or discord into our own worlds.
The author states that neurosis and wisdom are one and the same thing. We mustn’t get rid of anger, but view it with honesty and treat it with gentleness. To do this means not judging yourself as a bad person or “I am good this way” by being angry with other people. Anger, fear, jealousy or depression can be got rid of by fully understanding and getting to know it and removing pre-conceived, fixed views.
As The Sunday Times article states, it helps if we can feel free to express a bit more anger – which is what I would like to do – but feel inhibited from doing so because we feel compelled/must to keep this urge hidden because we people-pleasers and worried about upsetting others which we believe is a bad reflection of our-self. We don’t want to rock the boat because we seek to avoid conflict. As a result, we put our own needs aside and bottle the emotion up until it erupts!
The key according to Chodron is to learn to be extremely honest and wholehearted – but above all open – about what exists in your mind: for someone with AS, of course, this is far from innately easy. In a business context if I regard the actions of others as unethical, I can find this can be very hard indeed! We need to learn how to assert our needs in a moderate way.
The book then moves onto the wider perspective by being open minded in general so as not to indulge in self concern or by insisting that your life must always go your way or to plan. The main obstacle to achieving this is our emotions as, when we get angry, we can shut down. In Asperger terminology, this is a “meltdown” and in a work context nothing is more damaging.
If we continue to think in only one way then that is the world our belief system creates which, in turn, becomes destructive: we insist “holding onto something”. This certainly applies to me.
The alternative is to acknowledge what that something is without judging it as right or wrong; for example by accepting that others have the right to exercise different views or principles, or maybe, by questioning our own. By becoming more compassionate about ourselves and others, we become less dogmatic, prejudiced and determined to have our own way. By lightening up and acknowledging that people are different we can stop blaming others or justifying ourselves when things are not as we would like.
All this is less than easy for someone with AS of course. When I meet someone I truly disapprove of, or when I am down, it becomes harder to adjust to the situation, so what does the author say about overcoming these forces?
Firstly, we need to accept that it is human to feel discomfort. Secondly, that our ego encourages resistance in life by clinging to narrow views. As my current boss sometimes says, I am stubborn – I can resonate with that because my AS perspective sometimes dictates I can’t be otherwise! To overcome this we must cease to resist at any cost: get rid of the “I must do this” or “that person is automatically wrong” otherwise something negative is likely to happen. In a work context, I have found, it more than often does!
So we must not be too tight – but also not too loose! WE need to find a middle way. However, according to the author this is different for everyone; it is also common practice to take extreme views: “I am going to do this perfectly” so one practices intensely for example. I can concur with that! The solution is to slow down and rest the mind. For me as someone with AS, this means always having “down time” and not trying to do “too hard” in a work setting.
So, we cannot hold back and stay in a protected, limited world. We need to instigate the journey ourselves and always seek a new “edge” in order to stay challenged. Ask: “why can’t I go further”? This indeed is a question I have always asked myself in business, and by not accepting that I can’t, I have been able to achieve.
I have done this to a degree by doing what the book suggests – inviting the pain in! Central to this is acknowledging that suffering or injustice exists in the world or that I will encounter people or situations that are anathema to my principles. When I do this, I do become less bothered internally.
The book then makes an assertion I find interesting namely that: at heart many mature people are children. As adults we nurture a confidence in ourselves and a sense of the way we are. By accepting this, we learn to have respect for ourselves. The only way to begin the journey is to respect yourself – and then leap!
My AS ears then picked up to the next, related point: we are never sure and always continuing to leap! This is how I often feel, especially in the commercial world, yet when I look back, I am encouraged by the fact of how I have always got on with it. Deep down people with AS are strong and we can realise this and so achieve, I believe, a great deal.
Working with obstacles is life’s journey and, of course, there are many obstacles in a working environment. You may get scared before the battle but you mustn’t hold back. The real obstacle is ignorance – or a refusal to confront unfinished business. If you don’t face a difficulty it will keep recurring – and, of course, the traits inherent within AS (lower self esteem, anxiety etc) are likely to ensure that this will be the case.
Ultimately, it is about being who we are and taking the armour off ourselves because nobody else can. I think that this is a particularly pertinent point with Asperger syndrome because so few people know about it, let alone, understand what it is. In a company setting this is even more so if you choose not to disclose your condition.
One way that people can help themselves however according to the author, is by seeking feedback. This is a technique that I have found especially useful in my career. Locating a trustworthy person you can confide in is a key requirement here. If such a person can be identified then they can give invaluable insight. This is something I was able to benefit from greatly within the BBC.
According to the text, we must not get caught up in any neurosis – getting entangled in worry and fear – so that we never settle down or achieve the internal peace and quiet that prevents personal growth occurring . If you can arrange your life simply you become attached to it.
In AS terms this often of course means routine and in the ever changing business world this can be dangerous of course. To help overcome this, identifying rituals is advocated: undertaking only required tasks and ensure that we do things properly, thoroughly and completely. If we do so, we can learn and it will “lift the spirit”.
This is a technique that I have already tried to implement in my working practice. Previously I have tended to rush; partly I think to create a sense of doing things as my productivity has typically been lower than fellow workers and also, possibly, reduce attended anxiety levels that result from not having got things done. My tendency to take on perhaps too many tasks sometimes due to my lower concentration threshold and ability to work on one matter for a prolonged period of time, has maybe also contributed.
The book then moves on to what for me as a person with Asperger is the key message: the difference between the taught and the experience.
According to the author, it is only when you actually experience something that you question and find out the answer for yourself. It means not always believing what you are taught, read or told per se. By knowing yourself you can truly understand “your” experience and develop a complete acceptance and openness to all situations, emotions and other people so as to find out what things really mean. I can resonate with all of this; in particular my tendency to insufficiently sometimes question and interrogate business issues that are presented to me.
“If you live your way, it will become your path”. I am convinced that those with AS can’t do so any other way and, as previously mentioned, wouldn’t want to do so. However, I do believe that the next message in the book is equally important: we must stick to one path and not prevaricate.
As previously mentioned my lower attention-span or inability to stay focused have meant I sometimes switch continually between job tasks. The net result is that my productivity varies and I do not satisfy timescales. From a wider perspective, it has also meant that I have changed jobs prematurely and forced myself into new learning situations, something that I believe is negative for someone with AS if it occurs at a pace that is excessive. In a pressurised commercial setting, this can be extremely anxiety provoking.
To go your own way and find your own path requires commitment to finding the truth about yourself. This is unlikely however until you encounter a particular way that resonates with you and which you choose and want to follow.
I think that, perhaps above all, this is the facet that applies more than anything to someone with AS. Trying to follow the path of management and achieving higher positions is not something I confess to have found easy, given as it involves things like man management.
It also necessitates as the book concludes inconvenience. The comfort orientation of withdrawal oppresses the spirit and prevents you from doing something new. Inconvenience however, keeps you awake and wanting to push at new edges. You have to accept that you are “never going to get it all together”.
This is maybe the hardest thing of all for someone with AS, but it can I passionately believe, be done both personally and in a professional context. One particular useful closing comment is the advice of “learning about anything that helps overcome a sense of fear or insecurity”.
Every action has a result and if we do try we can learn. It’s not easy in a work context of course, because experimenting can involve unacceptable risk but, as the book rightly says, not doing so also risks shutting down personally. There was a time in my career for example when I needed to take a risk but didn’t and paid for it dearly.
If the seeds are sown, the rewards can be reaped. I think from a career and business perspective it’s a lesson that is worth heeding for someone with AS. We can surprise ourselves and really advance if we do so.
A useful, though perhaps not essential, read.
Harper Element Books