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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
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SOCIAL INCOMPATIBILITY, MY DAD, FRIENDSHIP

LEADERSHIP AND CHANGE

Copyright 2000 Roger N. Meyer

 

 

[This article is from a post I made in the fall of 1998 to a member of Martijn Dekker's InLv listserv, a subscription based email group for individuals on the autistic spectrum and their autistic cousins (AC's).  The writer of the original InLv post described the difficulty she had in moderating the intensity of her efforts to befriend a co-worker.  She just couldn't seem to get it right.  She either came on like gang busters or a wilting lilly.  Her concerns started me thinking.]

 

June:

 

     If this is true friendship, somehow, in some way, you are going to have to strike a balance between obsessiveness and total remove.  I'm sorry, but that balance is the only thing that can preserve the friendship, especially for you.  It has for me.

 

     I expect criticism from others on this list in the way I perceive the issue.  I do know that I am extremely respectful of other peoples' needs for privacy and their own time.  I still have major problems in regulating the reasons WHY I reach out.  Usually, I am aware of my need to resolve a problem when I make a deliberate effort to hold a social communication.  But, like you, until recently I found it necessary to have an "excuse" just to be friendly to other people.  Even now on each occasion when I reach out to "touch someone" psychically that is, not literally, I am aware of how tentative is my contact.  On many occasions, I find myself unable to modulate the extent of the visit, and the intensity of my monologues.  That's one of the reasons that in the past, I did a big data dump and then made myself scarce until the next need to do a big dump.  That what I called "engagement."  Doing that too often will wear out  the need we both have to keep a conversation reciprocal.  That reciprocity is what is necessary to keep a friendship vibrant.  I realized the only reason I sought people out was for help.  It was a one way trip.  Well, that worked for a while.  It doesn't work for a lifetime.

 

     I consciously find myself stopping and pausing to let the other person speak.  I am getting better at active listening.  I constantly work at checking in with the other person to let them know I have heard what they have said by asking whether I can restate what they said to me to make sure (1) I have really understood what they said and (2) that I am willing to expose myself to correction or returning to a common thread where I notice I've started to drift.  Only in doing that is it possible for me to get a "sense" of how things are going.  By checking in with the other person, they know you are on the same wavelength.

 

     If I start to drift, both of us can notice it and take the steps needed to bring me back on course.  I ask peoples' permission to help me stay on track.  It's kind of like steering a tugboat pushing a barge in a fast running river.  I constantly feel a sense of fragile connection between the "load" I am pushing and the actual direction it is heading.  I announce in advance that I may need help to keep the conversation "in the channel."  I'm really asking the other person to help me navigate.

 

     There is nothing wrong or "defective" or  "dependent"or "needy" in doing that.  In jargon, it's called "coming along to get along."  If your running lights are lit,even if you are lost, others can find you.  If you dim or turn off your lights, how indeed do you expect the other person to "see" you, let alone read you and your intentions?

 

     They'll try for a while, but piloting a tugboat without a rudder or a good connection to the load even if the water is calm is a feat that takes practice.  If you don't "toot your horn" or let the other person know that you are aware that are subject to "drifting" and would welcome help keeping the conversation going, the other person will soon tire of your monologue and going off on tangents they can't possibly understand.  To the other person, there is less and less value that they experience in such a relationship, and soon things will get to a breaking point.  They can call an end to it, but so can you.  I've often seen fellow Aspies "give up" on a conversation or a relationship that has gone sour either out of fear that it can't be repaired or that they fear the other person will abandon them first.  Whoever decides to pull the plug on the relationship first isn't either right or wrong in doing so.  If there is nothing left to share, why prolong the relationship?  So often sooner rather than later, it's over.

 

     Of course in our case, we often don't think of the relationship as a sharing one to begin with, and that will eventually spell its downfall.

 

     I have learned to listen actively so that not only does it appear natural; it actually has become so.  But I first had to consciously learn how to do it, and I'm still learning.  I know I have a long way to go, but I can sense my progress.  Years ago when I taught Sunday school or instructed apprentices, I was unaware of how to stop being a martinet.  I could feel myself "getting into the groove," and somehow, I couldn't get out of it.  It was as though I was observing myself from an overhead position, like a camera, and I felt powerless to stop the action I was observing, even as I was doing it.  Even if I "did a good job," I couldn't take the compliments of others because my "third eye" had been telling me that I was blowing it.  I simply didn't take their statements at face value.  I thought they were saying things to placate me, when in fact, my defensiveness led me to question the motives of everyone. As long as I felt that way, I could learn nothing about how to how to relax and listen to others.  Not even when I was firmly in control, such as when I was teaching a class or conducting a demonstration.  That's what made me a pretty bad trainer of mediators.  I was great on a one-on-one, showing one person how to do something.  Under those circumstances I was much more relaxed, mainly because there was more of the total situation that I knew I could control.

 

     In this I share a lot of my long gone AS father's approach.  He had a number of leadership positions.  But though he was a leader of sorts -- and in many respects he was a dedicated, hard-working, respected volunteer -- he never seemed to integrate his leadership in one kind of activity with other social activities in which he could claim equal acceptance.  Example:  He was president of the St. Paul Mt. Zion Temple board for a couple of years, but he managed its finances for over thiry years.  He was valued as a consciencious work horse, but not equally valued as a natural leader.  In that setting, whatever natural leadership he did develop was done gradually, painfully, and over a great time.

 

     I'm convinced that he was voted to head the board as very much a reward for being such a hard and dedicated worker.  But his leadership always came across as strained and formal, a contrast from the casual -yet-in-command manner of others in leadership.  He wasn't a schmoozer or a backslapper.  He wasn't a people-user, or a people-pleaser or a manipulator.  It just wasn't in him.  This may sound strange for someone who sold life and health insurance for a living.  To this day, I wonder how he pulled that off.  To a great extent, it isn't in me, either.

 

[After a careful re-reading of my father's letters to me answering questions I put to him during my intense period of Sturm und Drang self-searching in the early 1970's, I recently discovered that my father wrote me that he felt he was only a tolerably competent salesman, not a particularly good one.  This dear man.  He lived with that feeling all of his life.  RNM 2005]

 

     By contrast, many of his contemporaries and predecessors were more affable and got as much accomplished as he did. Others seemed to work with a kind of natural ease he was never able to muster.  For him, and to others, his was "serious work," and he was recognized for it.  But, even with recognition, he never wore his badges, or touted his awards, or displayed his plaques to anyone other than himself.  I'm not sure he believed enough in himself to even privately cast an appreciative glance at the symbols of appreciation he collected from others.  Even when the rewards were genuinely extended to him -- which I'm sure many were -- he simply did not know how to deal with compliments or true success.  He never seemed to derive the full pleasure that such positions of responsibility and recognition for good work often bring.

 

     For him it was a struggle, like his teaching Sunday School.  During all of the time I remember him after our return to St. Paul, he was a Sunday school teacher.  He prepared dilligently for each week's lessons from our graded Jewish history books.  He worked hard.  He went through all the motions.  Somehow, to him, his motions never seemed to make a difference.  The sad fact was, in the eyes of others, they didn't either.

 

     Dad had a need to instruct.  Not bond.  Instruct.  Lord knows, he was a poor bonder with all of his three children.  Needless to say, when teaching sixth graders, more is involved than just rote learning.  When I taught at the same time he did for a couple of years during a period I thought of becoming a Rabbi (another story, another day), I used to wince as I observed other teachers horsing it up in the teacher's lounge before classes and during the breaks.  They were just men and women being comrades while he was always so dour, and so mechanical in his efforts to be humorous or one of the bunch.  Finally, things must have gotten so uncomfortable for others, and the emotional needs of his students appeared to be so patently overlooked in his work that he was asked to step down as a teacher.  Perhaps he was given the message much in the same way as he was asked to step down as a leader in the Masons, the Kiwanis Club, the Temple board.

 

     When that break came, he didn't only step down, he stepped out.  It wasn't any longer possible for him to convince himself that he was needed.  When he was told that the children he was teaching simply didn't like him, he knew it was true.  He knew it every time he stepped before the class.  Just being an adult wasn't enough.  It wasn't about respect; he got plenty of that.  But because he didn't appreciate what he couldn't see and never understood, really, the connection with the students that he thought he was making in "going through the motions"...when those "connections" finally couldn't be pretended any more, something snapped, something collapsed within him.

 

     This unmaking was more profound than having to accept the fact that he wouldn't be again asked to "lead" any of his adult organizations.  He weathered his unfrocking with some equinanimity.  After all, as an adult, he did understand something of politics and the explanations of why his leadership wasn't any longer needed could be cloaked in diplomatic language.  Those explanations allowed him to sail along on a wind of his own making.  He did have his own memories, and for a long time, memories -- perhaps wishful thinking and fantasies -- sustained him.  Making the transition from putative leader to a somewhat disgraced "ex" was literally inconceivable to him.  He was able to keep up a mental image of himself as a "former" leader.

 

     I think what protected him was an approach to change he had mastered at an early age.  If something went sour, he had learned to script explanations that sustained an internal logic.  That's what made him appear so steadfast.  Now, I can look back at all of this and say, "No surprise, considering all of us Aspies have trouble with transition."  I didn't understand it back then, and of course, he neither vocalized his hurt or truly understood his own pain.

 

     For my mother, throughout their marriage that was one feature she was drawn to.  He was predictable; he was steady.  In his final years, though, after all was over, each fantasy fell away during his long days of rumination about the past, something all elderly people indulge in.  Once they were all gone, she was left with a man constantly vulnerable, constantly needy.  For someone who had major dependency problems of her own, she struggled until her own death shortly -- and prematurely -- following his with the double duty of taking care of this man-child.  With his passing, her own insatiable needs became too much to handle.  She had depended on him for resistance.  It was a strange dynamic, really, but it was one sustaining feature of the marriage that must have kept them together when all the other incompatibilities of their relationship rubbed them both raw.

 

     What has taken me on this excursion into my own youth, and my parents' relationship?

 

     What indeed has it to do with communication?

 

     Everything.

 

     I am doing today what I never learned to do as a child.  I am slowly learning the meaning of the continuum of a nod, an acquaintanceship, a collegial relationship, casual friendship and true friendship.  I hope that intimacy, even at this late a stage in my life, may enter the picture.  But there I go again.  I am speaking of something hoped for as though I have no active responsibility in achieving it.

 

     'Tain't true.

 

     Impulsiveness, obsessiveness, impetuosity, fear of treading where others easily wade and swim:  I've had it all.  I still work consciously to suppress it when these feelings of profound shame or my behaviors -- the ones I used to observe with my "third eye" -- get in the way.  Now I know not only more about HOW they get in the way by actively seeking the feedback of others.

 

     The point to all of this has been "feedback."  Of course, that's a coldly logical expression.  I'm really not talking only about feedback.  I'm talking about the role of understanding myself as a participant in a relationship.  Like my father, I want the relationship, but unlike him, I haven't yet "settled" for what I've been able to accomplish.  For him, after so many reversals I saw the light go out of his eyes.  It wasn't only age; it was a tiredness he never could speak about because the words weren't there, not even the inner words.

 

     I want the relationship.  Like you, like most of us here, I always have.  It is clear that the old tools and strategies I once employed in childhood to protect myself from the assaults and intrusion of others into interests, space, or other things I considered "mine" no longer work.  I've carried a lot of that baggage around way longer than I should have.  When I'm desperate, I still return to these old scripts but now I have other options.  I realize that having the power to choose has moved me beyond where I was before I was formally introduced to my Aspieness.  That was fourteen months ago.  Now, I catch myself recognizing when an old script doesn't work, and I am still scared to completely abandon it until I find something to replace it.  But with every passing day I realize how important it is to "keep house."  It's fall now, but it could just as easily be spring.  It's a time to sweep, and a time to consider whether the now useless tools I still have in my bag of tricks are worthwhile keeping or discarding.  In the past, just considering discarding an old tool was enough to immobilize me.  Now I realize that the immobilization is a part of this condition I have that I share with you.

 

     This sense of immobilization.  It isn't just about getting moving again.  Now I recognize that when I am immobilized, the only effective way to move is in a new direction.  That means change.  If that doesn't happen, I won't survive and I won't grow.

 

     To make the change, I haven't just gone somewhere new and plunged in.  In the past, whenever I did that, it was a recipe for disaster.  And I've had quite a few.  I finally realize how difficult it is to accept change and to take charge of it.  For the longest time I've thought that change is something "done" to me.

 

     Well, it isn't.

 

     Change is about "I" statements.  I test.  I poke.  I wiggle things.  I open boxes.  I ask lots of questions.  I turn levers.  Gradually, I pick up the nerve to open a door or two.

 

     Do I have a road map?  No.  Can this all be logically charted out?  Definitely not.  Do I need answers for every question?  Nope.  Sometimes the questions are more important than the answers.

 

     And I still have plenty of those.

 

     Each person has her/his own journey.

 

     This is how I have started on mine.

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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