Coping with Nervousness

I’ve just finished reading an article entitled troublesome emotions. I don’t particular like the title because, for me, it has negative connotations. So, I have chosen to entitle this piece Dealing With Nervousness which I think is more appropriate in relation to Asperger syndrome, (AS).

The article does make for interesting reading however, and it certainly contains and addresses a number of issues that are relevant to having AS and which I can relate to.

I have often felt nervous when at work: when giving presentations or meeting new customers for example; moreover, the feeling has not subsided greatly over time despite quite a bit of effort and attention on my part. I believe that this is because of my AS and so I have had to develop compensatory strategies in a work context.

According to the article underlying emotions are responsible for the prevalence of nerves which, if not resolved, will continue to intrude and impact. This, of course, also applies to having AS.

Other people and external events are usually the key cause of uncomfortable or nervous feelings. In the main, these have been the key cause of difficulties and anxiety at work for me. People or events can contradict my AS thought mode and cause tension: when someone is being personally unfair rather than objective towards me for example.

However, as the author then goes on to say: “the most important emotional causation is you – it is down to the personal significance of an event”. Your beliefs and thoughts ultimately determine how you feel: if you choose to let someone upset you, they will, but you can decide what attitude to adopt or how to react in relation to this.

The reason for this is “you feel how you think” which can lead to Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs). These are thoughts that come to mind involuntarily and are not the result of objective reasoning. Often they seem plausible at the time, and may be difficult to turn off, even though, in reality, there may actually be nothing to worry about.

To change the way you feel you need to change the way you think. Many emotional difficulties are self-defined and induced and so automatically lead to emotional difficulties. I have sometimes thought that because I have AS then I must, in part at least, be to blame when there is disagreement or displeasure being demonstrated by others when, in fact, this is not the case. Challenging this negative thinking and not allowing emotions to dictate otherwise is, I have found, a key way to counter it.

To deal with ANTs it is necessary to ask: what is the evidence for this assertion? Does everyone hold the same opinion? What is the worse that could happen? Often, as I have also discovered, the facts do not support the reality

Why is our thinking or thought processes distorted? Well, many of the explanations offered by the authors provide for me some answers.

Distorted Thinking

The first point they make is that when a person is emotionally unsettled they process information in a distorted way which maintains a state of anxiousness. Examples include:

• “all-or-nothing” thinking when what is needed is balance;
• magnification/minimization – exaggerating any positive or negative;
• Personalisation – holding yourself to blame for events which you were not responsible. (it is important to distinguish between actual and presumed responsibility);
• Emotional reasoning – you believe something is true because you feel it strongly. However, feelings are not facts or objective reality so an alternative perception of a situation is needed. As Gilbert (1997) asserts: “when we use feelings to do the work of our rational minds we are liable to get into trouble”;
• Mind-reading: the ability to know the thoughts of others. Assuming negative things before waiting for evidence;
• Labelling: attaching a global or negative label to yourself based on specific behaviours (“people don’t like me, so my AS must be to blame”) Instead attach labels to behaviours not you as a person;
• Discounting the positive: any positive experiences are not given full acknowledged or given due credit;
• Should and Must: rigid rules of living that you impose upon yourself and others and life, when what is required is flexibility of thought in relation to actual situations;
• Mental filtering: focusing on one negative aspect of a situation and not exercising balance;
• “Fortune Telling”: believing that you can predict the future in a consistently accurate way;
• Over-Generalization: drawing sweeping conclusions based on a single event or insufficient information. “I’ve failed so I can’t succeed again”;
• Catastrophizing: always assuming the worst and a reduced ability to cope with it when it does.

I was going to go through and address each of these points but have decided there is no need to: they all apply in relation to my AS. The following explain why!

Core Beliefs

Core beliefs are described as global and absolute; once set they determine how you view a situation and become activated during times of high emotion. This will continue on an ongoing basis unless the underlying belief is modified in some way. Moreover, negative core beliefs may leave a person vulnerable.

There a number of troublesome emotions that emanate form these core beliefs.

1. Anxiety

According to the authors’ people frequently overestimate the danger of any given situation and underestimate their ability to deal with it.

Anxiety can lead to physical symptoms like palpitations or sweating and can also result in psycho-social effects i.e. fear of rejection. Depending on the person’s interpretation of the situation they may either “fight-or-flight” or “freeze”.

Anxiety is an emotional response. This means a person either looks to withdraw or seek re-assurance from others that it will not occur again.

The best way to deal with anxiety is to face the fear. This involves staying in the feared situation until the anxiety has subsided and cognitive re-structuring has occurred, i.e. your thinking has changed – “I am in some way not worthy” or “de-catastrophising” your outlook.

I concur with most of the above and have, over time, tried to address these issues.

Facing fear for someone with AS is, I think, less straightforward than for other people. To do this I have had to cognitively condition myself to accept that I will face change and that I have to force myself to face negative issues.

What has helped is slowly exposing myself to any contentious situation or problem rather than confronting it head on. Not taking on responsibilities for which I am not fully prepared for example or instigating small and gradual change into my working practices so that I feel more at ease with change and able to accommodate it have all helped to reduce nerves and potential anxiety – and with it heightened emotions.

I have also fought hard to not entertain or counter any negative thoughts. I may have AS, but that does not mean that I cannot overcome any of the problems that others have to deal with on a day-to-day basis also.

2. Depression

This emotion involves the theme of loss and leads to self devaluation. It is sometimes referred to as the “triad”: “I’m no good” (negative view of oneself); “everything is against me” (the world) and; “I’ll never get over this” (the future).

Depression can involve self-blame: continuous self-criticism and/or self-pity: feeling sorry for your misfortunes. Either way, it means that you will predict your future on the way you currently feel even though the future is something you cannot determine.

As someone with AS, I dislike the word depression intensely. For me, it has an extraordinarily pronounced sense of negativism. I prefer the words “low” or “less than motivated”.

Of course I get down at times at work like everyone else. As someone with AS, I have to confess there are things which tend to dwell on me perhaps slightly longer than they do for others.

However, as someone with Asperger’s I have always felt a deep inner sense of self-confidence. When I look back at my career it strikes me how, despite some of the hurdles I have faced, I have always come through – and come through all the stronger for it.

The hardest lessons have been the ones I have learnt most from. They have taken me time to get over them as they have often involved emotion. But I always have, and I always remind myself, that I will come out stronger which gives me great self-belief. I make allowances for my AS and never self criticise myself for having it.

According to the paper depression always results in distorted views and the motivation to deal with it comes “after action”. For this reason if I am feeling low about something at work the best response is to face, and do something about, it immediately.

3. Anger

This is a perceived transgression against yourself and occurs if you feel you are blocked from achieving; where important personal goals have been violated or; where self-esteem is threatened. Having AS means there are many potential things for me to get angry about – perceived injustice for example.

When angry retaliation may involve aggression may be displaced onto another person. Another response is to withdraw from the situation.

Open expression of anger is usually counter-productive as it re-enforces personal anger as the beliefs underpinning it then become strengthened. You feel other people should change rather than you, because they are the cause of your anger, when this is invariably not the case.

Your inner or self-talk determines how you respond to a situation. Assertiveness is standing up for yourself and involves developing an early-warning system by recognizing the signs of incipient anger by talking yourself down so as to defuse it.

I can resonate strongly with this. Reacting and demonstrating anger, though at times an innate and spontaneous AS response, have, I have found, rarely achieved anything worthwhile in a work context. In the case of a meltdown, the consequences can be disastrous: a tendency at times to overreact emotively has not only been counterproductive, but has also been the catalyst for a perception of weakness of me in the eyes of others and has subsequently made me vulnerable.

I have come to appreciate that there is a distinct difference between anger and assertiveness. The former is detrimental; the latter constructive.

Central to effectively exercising assertiveness is not practising the former. If I do get angry I have found that it creates an inner sense or being somewhat in the wrong and partially to blame for any antagonism. This has then impacted on my self-confidence and ability to effectively address it.

4. Shame

Shame stems from the assumption that you have publicly revealed a defect weakness, inadequacy etc, meaning others will agree with your negative self-evaluation. When this occurs people want to remove themselves from the gaze of others.

If you cannot withdraw however, you feel trapped and this increases the feeling of frustration and so draws further attention. Shame can also be internal: you denigrate yourself for falling below some kind of “standard”.

Tackling shame involves separating behaviour from your-self: “I may have acted foolishly but that doesn’t mean I am less capable!” For me as a manager with AS, this is vitally important. I may be “different” because of my AS, but that does not make me any less of a person because of it. Indeed, I believe that I should be proud of my AS – and I am!

Implementing this mind-set, and insisting that I believe it, has really reduced a previous perception of personal limitation. It has also reduced my levels nervousness in many situations and enabled me to deal more effectively with an assortment of difficult issues.

5. Guilt

This is described as a moral violation or lapse. It can be something you have done or something you have failed to do. Tackling guilt involves assessing your degree of responsibility for the event you feel guilty about.

Redistributing responsibility for events is not meant to “get you off the hook” if you are primarily responsible but, instead, to help you stand back and apportion proportionate responsibility.

Damming yourself for violating your moral code mean you neglect or fail to understand why you behaved in the way you did initially. As a person with very levels of honesty and high ethical standards I have been prone to this and have worried when I feel I have transgressed in this area. There have been times when the situation has provoked me to behave in a way I may not agree with but which does provide an explanation.

According to the authors a more constructive approach is to label your behaviour wrong or incorrect, but refrain from self-condemnation through self-forgiveness. If other people are involved explain to them why you acted as you did and ask for understanding – but do not beg for it.

I think that this is sound advice. It resonates with the AS desire to be totally honest, overcomes the issue of me assuming that other people will infer and understand when, I have found, more often than not they do not and; enables me to clear my own mind of any doubt and negative feelings which have the potential to fester.

6. Hurt

This involves reacting to a perceived injustice against you. It can be combined with self-pitying hurt. To punish the person (or situation) responsible you withdraw from, and don’t speak to, them.

According to Lazarus this indicates a dependence on the other person’s attentions and goodwill. A direct attack is not made on the other person in case they are totally alienated and the relationship is endangered or irreparably damaged. This approach demonstrates neediness or inadequacy – or lack of self-confidence.

As a person with AS I do believe that I have a greater propensity than most other people to be hurt by their actions or the outcome of certain situations. There was one occasion in my career which affected both.

Hard as though it has been, I know I had to put it behind me and move on. The article suggests that to overcome any hurt it is important to try and establish the facts of the situation rather than rely on your interpretations of it. Even if you are being treated in an inferior or uncaring way, there is no law that states you “must” not be treated in this way or you “must” get what you believe you deserve. At work this is important.

In the case to which I refer, organisational circumstances moved against me and placed me in a position which inflicted hurt. Perhaps I could have seen it coming and done something earlier about it, but, ultimately, I wasn’t to blame.

It wasn’t fair, it wasn’t objective but, in business and at work, the possibility of it happening always exists. My AS dictates that it will never be right, but I have conditioned myself to accept that it “may” happen and that I do not have the right to insist that it cannot. This contains any emotional downsides.

Accepting this realistic attitude is more likely to lead to disappointment, rather than, hurt. Assertively communicating what changes you’d like can help achieve improvements in any relationship or situation.

7. Jealousy

This involves an actual or perceived threat to your relationship. One definition is: “excessive irrational pre-occupation with another person for which there is no objective foundation”.

Hauck believes that it is not the distrust of another person that causes jealousy, but distrust of yourself or: your perceived inability to cope with, and see off, potential rivals because you are inferior to them.

When jealous you are likely to seek constant reassurance from your partner which drives the other person away. When mild the jealousy acts as a stimulus to discover what is wrong with a relationship and seek to address it constructively.

I have never found jealousy to be a problem as a person with AS because of my objective i.e. non-personal way of evaluating people. My inherent sense of fairness predicates against it.

What I have found more difficult to accept is being rejected by others; especially if it is personally, not objectively, based.

According to the authors, if you are rejected by another person you don’t have to reject yourself: self evaluation is in your hands. Your worth as a person does not depend on being loved!

This is another invaluable point I have learnt from past experience and which has helped lower my levels of emotion in the workplace. The most difficult instance that I have encountered in my career was with the one person (unlike everyone else in the organisation) who disliked me.

At the time I took it personally and emotionally; it greatly affected my performance both directly and indirectly (because of the influence that the person in question was able to exert).

Many years later after I left the company, I was informed by an ex-colleague that when I joined the company as the youngest executive, I assumed from him the source of the protagonist’s projection of self doubt: “if it’s your fault, it can’t be his!”

In other words, he was the source of the problem not me. I didn’t appreciate this at the time and it certainly wasn’t a result of anything wrong with me, i.e. having AS.

8. Envy

Finally envy. This can be positive – you admire others – or negative, i.e. resentful, whereby you compare yourself unfavourably with another person. Gilbert (1989) believes that envy is particularly marked in competitive cultures where individualism, possessions and success are emphasised.

With non-resentful envy you admire the other person and want what they have for positive reasons. Trying to improve your own position in life is more constructive than attempting to worry about, or undermine, others.

Again, this is easy for me to practice as someone with AS due to the reasons outlined under jealousy. I focus on positive envy as there is no negative emotion involved

Conclusion

In conclusion to this piece, I was going to list the actions which I believe have helped overcome nerves and reduce my emotional responses whilst at work.

However, there is one factor which overrides all of them and I will repeat it now from the introduction to this article:

Your beliefs and thoughts ultimately determine how you feel: if you choose to let someone or something upset you, they/it will, but you can decide what attitude to adopt or how to react in relation to this.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome