You Will Hurt People (and How to Deal With That)
Confession: I originally wanted to make my next blog post something about labels or language we use around disability. On October 13th I’ll be part of a panel discussion on functioning labels and the general evolving language around autism for the Philadelphia Autism Project Annual Conference: Exceeding the Vision. So why not make a blog post on the subject too? However, I have learned that sometimes I need to allow myself to be pulled in a new direction when another topic calls to me. Makes my life easier that way, and my writing is usually better for it.
This time, the topic that has called to me is how easy it is to hurt people without intention or malice (and sometimes even when you’re a hurt party too), and how to deal with that. It’s not something unique to those on the spectrum, but I do think we are often susceptible to it. Plus, I think it’s something that has become tempting for us to write off as a case of people refusing to understand how a neurodivergent mind works, but it rarely is that simple.
I’m probably fixating on this topic because there’s an incident that happened to me some months ago, and my brain can’t help turning it over in my head more than is necessary or helpful.
Around the middle of the summer, some personal drama blew up in my face. It turned out that some members of an online group I was heavily involved in had been nursing some hidden grudges about my behavior (and in some cases what they imagined or assumed to be the behavior of my friends and I). Like all brewing resentment eventually does, it all came out at once. A million seemingly trivial actions were built up into a laundry list of hurt feelings. It felt like every little thing I’d said or done to them had been weaved into some conspiracy web of intentional malice on my part. And none of them had said anything until it was apparently too late.
I won’t say their accusations were entirely baseless or their feelings were overblown. It rarely is that simple. Looking back, I can see when my actions were rude and when my words were unnecessarily hostile, blunt, or mocking. I’m an abrasive friend at times, and I considered these people my friends. I do my best never to say anything hurtful, but I do enjoy ribbing the people I hang out with. I also can get caught up on small things due to my autism. This can make me argumentative seemingly at random moments and over trivial things, though these days I try to just disengage from a conversation when I recognize I’m having a disproportionate emotional reaction. This is all to say that I can’t claim complete innocence.
Some of them were even more abrasive or forcefully opinionated than I was. We sometimes clashed because the biggest way I show someone I trust them is to voice my disagreements head-on. I wouldn’t want someone else venting about me behind my back with me being none the wiser, so I try to extend the same courtesy to others by being direct about if I disagree with them or if something they do bothers me. Yet I’ve learned that people tend to take disagreement, even over trivial things, as a sign I don’t like them. I admit it’s frustrating to me because venting about someone in private is seen as two-faced yet telling them your issues is seen as bitchy.
I was also facing a lot of stress at the time, and I did allow it to fuel my momentary anger or frustration when I was already in a bad mood. I lashed out, not in any truly explosive ways, but enough that it might cause people to feel I had a real problem with them. I admit that.
It wasn’t as if I had never noticed any of them getting angry at me sometimes, but I shrugged it off, trying not to make a big deal about it. I told myself that it wasn’t like I didn’t often get angry at little things too and that if there was a bigger problem it was on them to communicate with me. I felt I couldn’t be held responsible if they chose to stew over something instead of telling me it was a genuine issue. But people don’t always see it that way. People get caught up in the idea of what you should have known. They refuse to believe you truly had no idea of the feelings they were bottling up.
Worse, by the time I even learned how upset they were, they seemed unwilling to communicate. In some ways, I understand this. Sometimes it’s easier to sever ties rather than risk an ugly fight on the off chance some good may come of it. It still hurt that cutting ties with me felt like the easier option.
In the end, I tried to apologize. I was privately angry that it felt as if I was being blamed for not reading their minds. Yet I also did feel genuinely terrible that I had made people I cared about feel this way. It just wasn’t enough, and they went their separate ways. I will probably never be in contact with these people again. I’ve since mourned those friendships and accepted they’re gone. In that sense, I suppose all of us have moved on by now.
But I still can’t fully leave it in the past. Sometimes I still think about the whole situation, and it upsets me. I think it frustrates me that I recognize my mistakes, but it feels like that was not reciprocated. These people were angry because they assumed how I felt and assumed the meaning behind my actions. Intent isn’t magic and doesn’t change the fact I hurt them. I can accept that. But they also assumed certain things about me and my other friends that just weren’t true. They made conjectures based on their outside observations of things, not knowing the full story of what was going on in private. And some of these were misunderstandings that could have been easily cleared up had they voiced them to any of us at any time. Perhaps to them, we should have known how some of these things might look on the outside. To me, it doesn’t feel fair.
It doesn’t feel fair, that people can refuse to communicate yet make it my fault. Sometimes people seem to resent the idea that they should have to communicate anything. It drives me up the wall sometimes to think about how these people hold this image of me in their minds, and it feels like there was nothing that could have been said to convince them otherwise. I second-guess myself when I am feeling at my worst. I go over and over everything I did back then in my mind. I consider every possibility, everything I could have done differently, anything that might have fixed this. If they were so convinced I was the villain in this, am I just in denial if I insist I wasn’t?
I need to keep reminding myself it’s rarely that simple. With my words and actions, I hurt them. Their own actions, the way they assumed the worst, also hurt me. Was anyone truly in the right? It’s tough admitting I don’t have an answer. It’s even tougher knowing I just have to move on without one.
Events like this always make me paranoid. They make me want to shrink into myself, terrified of saying the wrong thing. Wondering if silence means nothing or everything. It may be true that I shouldn’t torture myself trying to guess at people’s feelings or boundaries if they’re unwilling to communicate them, that to resent me for crossing a line I had no reason to know was there wouldn’t be fair. Even if that’s true, it’s hard to remember in the face of the awful knowledge that there are people out there who probably think I’m a bad person.