Piety and Perspective: Overcoming Self-Doubt

I’m re-visiting the columnist I referred to in a previous newsletter who writes a regular in the Sunday (UK) broadsheet newspaper about inter-personal issues relationships.

The previous subject I wrote about was boundaries http://www.aspergermanagement.com/boundaries-finding-balance. The topic this month is something that I believe is also highly appropriate and relevant to Asperger syndrome and the workplace.

The story in question this time is about a successful career man who was very close to his parents, both of whom suddenly died. To try and cope, he moved into a new job but quickly became unsettled and moved into another which didn’t work out either.

Each time his self-belief and confidence was eroded, leading him to fear that “I will be found out” and that his lack of [self] confidence would begin to show. He went on to elucidate how he seemed unable to relate to other people or cope with criticism and would become overly disappointed with the smallest of things.

The introduction finishes with the worry that his wife will come to think he is a complete loser and will bail out leaving him to ask the question: “can the smart, witty man I used to be ever come back?”

The commentator starts by expressing sympathy, but how she believes this achieves little in helping to resolve the issue the man really wants: that he can change.

Her opening gambit in addressing the situation is the need for him to really acknowledge the losses he has experienced and extend some compassion towards himself. Or, as she says, we confuse self-pity (or in his case the term “complete loser”), with self-care.

According to the commentator, the problem with refusing to acknowledge our own pain means that the strong emotional demands that need to be acknowledged and processed are ignored and won’t go away. The smart, witty man that he used to be is still there, but it is only part of him.

She then goes on to ask whether he left one of the new jobs not because he was “bored” as he claims, but because there was a residual, underlying emotion revolving around an emptiness or lack of meaning. Rather than look at the real, underlying cause and refusing to accept it, the person took new, unsuitable jobs which eroded his confidence.

She goes on to explain how depression is anger turned inwards or trapped emotion. It is often precipitated by loss, such as a parent – or job – along with the sense of identity we attach to those things.

People go on coping (or apparently coping) until, eventually our minds say enough is enough, and we start behaving in ways we think are uncharacteristic – or seem to have nothing to do with the people we like to believe we are.

The case in question is a perfect example of this. The man believes he is unable to relate to others, finds criticism difficult and becomes disappointed at the slightest setback. However, as the commentator goes on to say: “that doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human”. The key is to acknowledge this and give yourself some compassion or afford yourself some personal credit.

Doing so involves addressing negative and self-critical thought patterns, including “I must be better”, “I must get over this” which, according to the commentator, are sticks we use to beat ourselves with.

She concludes by saying that it takes great courage to face our pain and work through it or: “you sound like a great man whose trying to do the best for his family. Now, please, try to do the best for yourself!”

There was much in this that struck a chord with me. As readers of my book Managing with Asperger Syndrome will know, I had a particularly bitter career experience over ten years ago now when I lost what I regarded as my dream job.

There is no need to go over old ground here but, suffice as to say, I am still not entirely over it and it continues to have a negative impact on me. I know this is wrong, but I struggle to address the situation. Why?

Sympathising with myself as the commentator says will not bring about the required change. The outcome, though incredibly upsetting and painful, was, to a large degree, outside of my control and the result of business/political conditions. There was, though, retribution against me personally which my AS dictated was an “injustice”. Needless to say, because of my condition, I have found this incredibly hard to put behind me.

My personal starting point for change has been to “acknowledge the losses” and try to put the scenario into some sort of perspective. Everyone goes through corporate upheavals in today’s rapidly changing business world, so why should I be any different? The experience was also incredibly educational – even though it was extremely painful – and provided me with a number of invaluable lessons going forward that I have been able to use to good effect in my career. In some ways, it provided me with a template which has compensated for my lower level of innate ability to respond appropriately in unfamiliar circumstances.

What I suspect may also be playing a part is my Asperger syndrome. Having a conscious feeling of being “different” has often caused me to self-label blame unnecessarily, or to a higher than justifiable degree. This is not to say that I avoid facing my own limitations or mistakes, but it does mean, as the commentator says: showing some “self care”.

This, I feel, is incredibly important for a person with Asperger syndrome in a work context. The world of work will always throw up anomalies that will appear illogical or unjust, and establishing a mind-set that accepts this reduces the propensity I sometimes feel of being less than adequate which can then fuel lower levels of self-confidence.

Having Asperger syndrome dictates, I believe, the need to “acknowledge our own pain so that the strong emotional demands are acknowledged, processed and not ignored so that they do go away”.

What this means – for me – is acknowledging my condition, (Asperger syndrome) and working within its parameters whilst, at the same time, recognising the real benefits that it can bring to the person and an organisation in a working environment.

There is no contradiction to this in my view. Whenever I talk to fellow members of the spectrum almost all invariably say that they do not ever want to change who they are. I feel this way too.

So, why try? We are proud of what and who we are, and the potential benefits the condition can bring, and so try to work within those parameters and adjust the work environment so that it meets our requirements – not the other way round.

Doing this can go some way to reducing what the article says is: “how depression is anger turned inwards or trapped emotion. It is often precipitated by loss, such as a parent – or job – along with the sense of identity we attach to those things”. If we can remove the blame from ourselves for [negative] job related occurrences, then we are likely to feel less emotive and embittered about it.

I personally, as I have admitted, have found this hard. This is where the next point in the article of: “addressing negative and self-critical thought patterns, including “I must be better”, “I must get over this” which, according to the commentator, are sticks we use to beat ourselves with” becomes pertinent.

This I believe is hugely important. The person in the article has outlined how the setbacks he has endured have seriously eroded his self-confidence.

Many people with Asperger syndrome have feelings of low/lower self-esteem and I am no different. Doing so as a result of setbacks at work has been a serious (negative) contributor to the residual loss of confidence that I feel over the career setback I underwent ten years ago.

I know have to fight this hard. When I did leave the company in question, I received a private and confidential letter from the new Managing Director – who I was told by the outgoing MD had a negative view of me which was a spurious one – thanking me for all my efforts and wishing me the best for the future.

The reason for this was, whilst I was working my notice period after my dismissal, I undertook a project for him which he was highly impressed by. In other words, I was capable after all!

That letter to this day is hugely important to me. It is a self-reminder that I am competent and capable and that what happened was largely down to circumstances and not me or the circumstances I was operating within. Whenever I have self-doubts, I think back to it.

There are other instances in my managerial career where I have experienced self-doubt and loss of confidence unnecessarily as a consequence of having Asperger syndrome.

I am not blind to the effects that the condition has had in – unintentionally – contributing to such occurrences. As mentioned earlier in this article, recognising and acknowledging them have been the source of real, highly beneficial learning that has enabled me to progress and succeed going forward.

For example, when small, minor things go wrong, I don’t dwell but simply ignore them. If someone, as a colleague at work was this week, rude towards me, I don’t react and instead now turn the other cheek. This removes the propensity for my Asperger tendency to worry or my innate sense of right and wrong to want to address the situation to prevent the issue escalating into something beyond its real importance.

Because of my [Asperger] condition however, I think residual elements of doubt will always remain to a slight degree. However, I continuously fight them mentally and I refuse to accept them!

In other words, I have demonstrated the requirement that the commentator concludes with in her feature. Namely that: it takes great courage to face our pain and work through it, so now try to do the best for yourself!” Now, as the article advocates, I care more for myself.

This conclusion is where managers with Asperger syndrome can, I believe, take great confidence. From speaking to many colleagues on the spectrum and visitors to my site aspergermanagement.com, I know that they, like me, possess tremendous inner strength and resolve.

Central to this is not allowing myself to become a martyr or exude self-pity. I am affected by Asperger syndrome and have no problem with it. I am what I am and don’t want to change. I do though acknowledge and accept its implications and try to take self-responsibility to mitigate its downsides and exploit the numerous and undoubted benefits that it affords me in the workplace and the organisation I am working for.

Though we are, to a degree at times our own worse enemies, the problems we face are not insuperable. Having AS at work can mean hurdles, but there is no reason for us to allow our condition to make things harder.

We may feel our limitations and shortcomings, but we can – and do – overcome them.

Managing with Asperger Syndrome