I am returning this month for my personal Viewpoint piece to an article from one of my favourite writers – Aunt Sally – in the (UK) The Sunday Times. It’s entitled: “I Don’t Stand Up for Myself in Relationships Because I Hate Rows”.
The reason I have chosen this article is, because like many people, I dislike confrontation. However, being affected by Asperger Syndrome (AS) has meant that there implicating factors which prevent me from dealing with confrontational issues when I have had to and, also, have provoked me into engaging in behaviours that – I believe – have antagonised other people in a work context.
Fundamentally, I have failed to strike the correct and appropriate balance between being necessarily assertive and unnecessarily confrontational in my approach and reactions. Part of this stems from the anxiety that develops when I come under pressure and when confronted aggressively. It was this reason I found the article both of interest and of value.
The article starts with the writer stating that he had a difficult relationship with his father and that he has a history of being a doormat in relationships. Because of past failures he continually feels “guilty” when difficulties arise.
He goes on to ask the question whether he should stay safe by not confronting problems or take risks in relationships which may be unsatisfactory or unfair. His problem, he believes, is that he is terrified of conflict, and can’t face it because of this fear.
I thought that the story has many parallels with experiences that I have encountered as a manager; experiences that have, sometimes, been compounded by having AS. At the very least, my Asperger has been a contributory and complicating factor.
I am sure that not knowing how to deal with confrontation due to the absence in my repertoire of appropriate, formal techniques hasn’t helped either. However, perhaps the most salient factor has been a self-perception that, because of the “differentness” inherent in my Asperger personality, I have always felt to a degree that somehow I am – inevitably – partly to blame.
Whilst there have undoubtedly been cases where this is true, there have also been numerous instances when it is not, and by allowing myself to unnecessarily feel that way, I have not defended myself adequately when I have very much needed to.
So, what are the answers?
Well, the author in the article starts by making the statement that the people with whom the person in question has been experiencing difficulties, have no idea how unhappy the latter is. In other words, the individual in question has failed to communicate their own displeasure – or needs.
She – the author – then goes onto ask whether simply walking away from the situation – which is what the individual states they intend to do – is brave as they assert or cowardly? Her following words are: “I am sorry to sound unkind, but I feel you need to look at things from a different perspective, not simply your own”. According to the author, what it really comes down to is an unwillingness to tell the other person that they are in a relationship with what their needs are. In the case in question, the person claims that they don’t want to cause the other person unnecessary pain as that would be “unfair”.
The author then looks closer at the word “unfair”. Is it fair to not tell someone that you are unhappy with them or that your relationship with them or unfair on yourself for not ensuring that your own needs are met?
According to the author the person is terrified of conflict but that, in his own way, the person himself is deeply aggressive. By not ensuring that the other person knows and understands him, his failure to engage and, instead, simply walking away (or shun?), sends a message to the other person that is both shocking and upsetting.
The text then states bluntly that the person is engaging in passive-aggressive behaviour. According to the author this stance reflects a simmering resentment or a form of anger. She goes on to assert equally bluntly that: “the person is playing the martyr”. The word martyr struck a chord with me in relation to Asperger Syndrome and I think that the author then goes on to provide the answer.
In such situations, when people who play the martyr are angry they become frightened of unleashing that anger. The net result is that they avoid any form of confrontation and so allow the problem to fester and turn into resentment and blame towards another person until it explodes – or they walk away.
Even in “good” relationships there is some degree of conflict. With two individuals there is always, given the complexity of human behaviour and differing personality profiles, different sets of feelings and behaviours.
According to the author, these parameters need constant adjustment and negotiation but, most of all, they require honesty. Unless we show somebody the worst as well as the best, of ourselves, we are not being authentic, and without authenticity there can be no true or effective relationships. As the author then, quite rightly in my opinion, goes onto say, we make our own lives and are responsible for our own feelings and behaviour; we cannot load then onto other people or play the “blame-game” or: “it’s not my fault if they don’t understand me”. All of these statements rang true to me as a manager with Asperger syndrome!
The first step in dealing with such a situation is to establish boundaries. As the author says the first and most important boundary is the word “no”: no, it is not OK for you to do that!
The piece finishes with the statement that it is difficult to stand up for ourselves or confront others when we are desperate to be liked or frightened of being abandoned. Overcoming this necessitates having the courage to be ourselves.
As the article rightly states this takes bravery and that few people possess the self-awareness and honesty which means they need outside help to understand ones inner workings. This, according to the author, is where one needs to start: a person must establish an authentic relationship with themselves. Only when we are in a genuine relationship with ourselves can we be in true relationship with others.
My Asperger syndrome has certainly been the reason why I have in the past, failed to assert myself sufficiently in a work context and as a manager/professional. Most notably, it was when I allowed a relationship to fester until it did, in effect, contribute significantly towards me losing my position in the company.
My response towards the person in question when he initially started to attack/provoke me was one of aggression which subsequently antagonised him. Later, when the problem persisted, my response was one of passiveness. In short, in the end I was, to a degree, playing the martyr and it culminated in an incident when, with hindsight, I most definitely, should have confronted him and set the boundary of refusal to accept his behaviour towards me.
Basically, I walked away as the author outlines in the article some people do. However, this is not because I am a coward – far from it given my deep, inner strength that emanates from having AS. It’s been more a case of being insufficiently assertive and respecting both me and my rights as an individual.
The point about being “frightened” is also, I believe, pertinent. As other people with AS will, I am sure, appreciate the physiological response to being confronted is often one of heightened anxiety. This is where, as the author says, we need to demonstrate personal courage by simply not accepting such behaviour towards us.
Confronting the feeling of anxiety head-on internally here is, I have found, hugely beneficial. In such instances, I mentally ask myself the question: “what is there to be fearful of?” Usually, at least in a business setting, there is nothing of course: it is not as if anyone can physically assault me; the least the can do is criticise which may result in merely a different point-of-view or opinion from my perspective.
Related to this is the need to accept ourselves for what we are. I know that, because of my AS, I am “different”, but, as I have asserted many times in my writings, this doesn’t make me any less of a person –or manager. It also means that I should not like myself.
To overcome this factor necessitates as the author says “understanding ones’ inner workings. However – as she goes on to say – because I have not understood to the same extent as other people/neurotypicals – my inner drivers, I have been less able to exercise perhaps the required authenticity to be fully honest with myself due to the propensity to try and accept blame to an unnecessary and unjustified degree.
By understanding, and forming a totally honest relationship, with myself, I can overcome inner feelings of being “different” and, therefore, in some way to blame for issues when I am not. It is important also of course, to ensure that I do not contribute in any way to any discord by not reacting and provoking the other person. By doing so this also helps me to achieve the authenticity the author states is required to deal with any prevalent problem.
It’s not easy of course when, in a corporate environment, you are confronted with issues such as organisational politics, an oppressive manager or the inability to satisfy work or task requirements and so always be assertive.
However, it is here that addressing the need as the author says of ensuring that other people do understand what I am about and what I need becomes incredibly important. This would not necessarily mean telling people directly about my Asperger syndrome (indeed at work I have always adopted the strategy of not informing people).
More to the point, it is more about informing them directly about my requirements: being told where possible of impending change, receiving written instructions, ensuring that I have a regular, direct point of contact with my managing superior etc.
Some of this does necessitate taking risks with relationships. In the most extreme case referred to above, my strategy of trying to safe by not confronting the person/issue meant I ended up with the exact opposite outcome to that which I wanted!
However, it does mean being assertive, non-confrontational and refusing to allow my Asperger to dictate that I am less worthy as a person or a manager. By doing this, I do believe that I can stand up for myself and protect my position whilst not antagonising others and forming achieving, ongoing healthy working relationships.