The Relationship Between Autism and Self-doubt
How do you form a sense of self when you constantly interrogate who you are?
Recently I have begun learning about the autistic struggle for self, and it is making a lot of sense to me.
My life has been defined by self-doubt. Endless self-interrogation taking the joy from new relationships and jobs alike. Do I really like them? Is this job the best possible use of my skillset? Or am I uselessly frittering away my limited time on earth?
Self-doubt has also made endings incredibly difficult - how do you know when something is really over? I have found myself feeling trapped in relationships, jobs and living situations that aren’t working many times.
Considering topics I care about it's rare that I arrive at a conclusion. Every opinion is pending more information. I am an eternal fence sitter. A constant bet-hedger.
With a questioning, doubting nature like this, it makes sense that forming a sense of self would be difficult.
What even is a self anyway?
Wikipedia defines it as:
“The self is an individual person as the object of its own reflective consciousness. Since the self is a reference by a subject to the same subject, this reference is necessarily subjective.”
It seems wild to me that anyone would have a strong sense of self, given what a self actually is.
Don’t we all have multiple versions of selves that we switch between?
Of course. And many will struggle with this who aren't autistic.
But it's oddly comforting to learn that this struggle for a sense of self is something that has long been connected with autism.
It makes me feel like less of a failure for being so uncertain of myself across my ages. For being unable to build upon previous identities. For the unconstructive habit of razing previous version of myself to the ground and trying to hide the ashes.
Temple Grandin says, “different, not less,” and I'm trying to believe her.
I am a writer and an academic, which my motoring brain has enabled. It's allowed me to complete two publishable books, for which I'm incredibly grateful.
My struggle for identity has arguably made me an interesting person. I've done a lot of cool stuff in pursuit of myself.
Self-doubt is just like any personality trait: it has its pros and cons, right?
One of the best lessons from my 12 step training has been the importance of acceptance. It has been groundbreaking for me.
What if you accepted yourself, exactly as you are? Wouldn’t that be relaxing? How would it look? How might it feel? Can you even imagine?
I experiment with self-acceptance. When I catch myself beating myself up. Or doubting my latest decision. I remember that this is how I am right now and that it's ok. It seems to help. Until the next time, at least.
I remind myself of what my friend Georgie often says, that in every moment I'm doing the very best I can. Sometimes my best is excellent and sometimes it's not very good at all, but it's always the best I can do in that moment.
After 5.5 years of recovery from alcohol I'm pretty much a walking affirmation.
Because the truth is existential crisis feels like a normal and sane response to being alive to me.
We are here just once, and we must build the best life imaginable in the time available. We know our time will run out, BUT WE HAVE NO IDEA WHEN. Oh, and the world is heating up. Great swathes of the planet will become uninhabitable. We are already seeing daily evidence of this.
Does this scenario not warrant a crisis? Or ten?
Using the 12 steps helped me build a more stable sense of self and the spirituality I found there soothed my existentials. Thinking back to who I was as a kid helped me redefine myself as I learned how to live sober. Who was I at the beginning? I found many commonalities with my kid self - she was still in there.
Still, today, I often find myself haunted by self-doubt. I question my own choices, and compulsively revisit events of the past or skip ahead to panic about the future.
My partner (and many others) says I think too much, which I find confusing and slightly misdirected. It suggests I have choice in the matter, which so far as I can tell, I don’t. When the option is available, I choose not to obsessively ruminate. It's just not often the option is available.
And of course, to me, it can seem like people don’t think deeply enough.
There is so much to worry about. Life. Death. Health. Whether my cat will ever truly accept the new kitten. Work. Politics. Work politics (not really, I don’t understand these). Plastic in the ocean. The meaning of life. What came before the big bang. That thing I said 20 years ago. And yesterday. And today.
It’s exhausting. And not only for me.
At our best, my partner and I compliment each other. My restlessness makes our life more interesting and his restfulness makes our life more relaxing. At our worst, we are mired in misunderstanding.
And so we work to accept ourselves. As we are. Right now. Each of us must do this. In the same way we work to accept those we love. It’s the best and kindest thing we can do. Recognize the positives and live with the negatives. Work towards acceptance for who (and how) we are, right now.
These days (years) I feel less existential angst than I’m used to. More like myself (whatever that means). Sobriety and a strengthened support network have played a big part. A stable relationship and job make a difference. My diagnosis has been crucial. It feels like I have been gathering pieces of my identity and they are finally starting to fit together.
Whatever my self is, however ethereal, or mercurial, I am working to accept it, flaws, and all. I hope you can do the same too.
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You can connect with the Autistic community on Twitter. If you have a question, use #ActuallyAutistic or #AskingAutistics (or both). You can also visit The Autism Self Advocacy Network and the Autistic Not Weird Facebook page and website.
Chelsey Flood is the author of Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, and a lecturer in creative writing at Falmouth University. She writes about freedom, addiction, nature and love at Beautiful Hangover, and is also working on a non-fiction book about getting sober, and a new YA novel.