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.
That thought, it’s a tough thing to cope with. I’ve come to realize though, that it’s something you just have to get past. Not everyone you ever meet will like you. Some will hate you. You can never be perfect enough to prevent that.
I think what I’ve struggled with is finding the line between self-reflection and self-flagellation. I worry if I give myself too much slack, if I fail to recognize my wrongdoings, then I can’t grow and become better. How do I become better from incidents like this, while leaving the pain behind? If I think of my own hurt too much, is that just my own ego trying to preserve itself by playing the victim? Can I trust myself to know when an accusation is justified and when it isn’t?
By chance, I am finishing this blog post on Yom Kippur. It is the day of atonement. In his opening remarks about how it can be important for our own sakes to try to forgive even what we believe is unforgivable, one of my Rabbis said, “sometimes forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past”. I realized then that what I needed to do more than anything was forgive them. And myself. Not on their behalf, but on my own. I must forgive myself for failing to be the ideal version of me I hold in my mind.
Guilt and regret are important steps in the process of Teshuvah, or repentance. Yet there must be a limit to them. I cannot stay frozen at that stage forever. I acknowledge that to torture myself continuously is of little use. I was doing it because, like many people, there is a part of me that truly believes that by imagining what I could have done differently I can change the past. If I can just hit upon what would have been the perfect course of action, it will somehow have the power to retroactively make things better again. I could make them see how they hurt me and forgive me for how I hurt them. That is not possible. I cannot go back. I could seek forgiveness from them in this imperfect present, but I know that (perhaps selfishly) I could not do that in earnest unless they were willing to admit to making their own mistakes. Plus, some of them have made it apparent that they want no more contact with me. At this time, I truly believe that it may be better for all of us to just move on with our equally messy and biased version of events. I will simply resolve to keep trying to improve myself. It is all I can do.
Of course, as I mentioned earlier, I also have thoughts on this topic in relation to the wider autistic community. Working in disability advocacy so much, my mind just naturally turns that way.
Sometimes, when looking through social media, I see others on the spectrum attempting to “flip the script” on neurotypicals. Neurotypical norms are weird and make no sense, they read too much into trivial actions, are too stuck on meaningless acts of politeness instead of striving for genuine kindness, are rude and dismissive, and lie way too often. There is a desire to prove that the way autistic people see and do things is better, more genuine. A desire born out of the way every aspect of autism is often twisted into a negative by those who don’t understand it. But it is not that simple.
Social norms can often be absurd, I won’t argue that, but there are plenty that exist for a reason. Little white lies can feel phony, but they often prevent the unnecessary cruelty of unneeded honesty. Eye contact feels forced, but it shouldn’t be difficult to get why it might be hard to believe the person you’re trying to talk to is paying attention when they keep staring in the opposite direction. When you interrupt people too much, they feel ignored, even if it’s really because the conversation just has you so excited. Sometimes rudeness is rudeness, no matter how you meant it. Even if we built a world where masking was no longer necessary, I don’t think that would mean no longer having to consider others’ feelings when it comes to our behavior.
I think I have this perspective because it is not as if being autistic somehow means I am always on the same wavelength as others on the spectrum. Quite the opposite. Often when faced with my own patterns of behavior in another autistic person, I can see just how frustrating and annoying they can be. I understand the behavior, but on its receiving end, I also feel its negative effects. It’s why I’ve sometimes admitted that I don’t always enjoy being around a lot of other autistic people.
This is not internalized ableism. I simply have found I don’t particularly enjoy when, for example, someone refuses to follow a small request or argues with me about it just because it doesn’t make sense to them. Or when they get caught up in the way something was said, turning a casual conversation into an argument over semantics. Or when I’m continually interrupted or talked over. Or when someone continually finds ways to relate a conversation back to what they want to talk about instead, giving the impression that if it isn’t about their current special interest they don’t care (even if I know that this is often meant to be an attempt at bonding via mutual infodump, it doesn’t always come across well). I do all these things; I understand why I do them and why others do them. That still does not mean I enjoy having them done to me.
While writing this, I saw a post on social media that I felt was a perfect example of this. It was people on the spectrum decrying the strange dichotomy of “reason” vs. “excuse” and that neurotypicals, in all their conniving ways (it might as well have been phrased like this) just call reasons they don’t like to hear “excuses” arbitrarily. That the phrase “I don’t want to hear excuses” is just used to shut the other person up and means only a groveling apology is expected. Honestly, yes this is sometimes the case. And as someone who does also prefer to explain the reasoning behind my actions even as part of an apology, I have gotten this phrase thrown in my face too. But I can also have enough empathy to see the other perspective. I can see why a need to justify or explain actions instead of focusing on the harm they caused can, to others, make an apology seem less sincere. Why “reasons” can feel like “excuses”. I may not agree with that perspective, but that does not mean it is nonsensical or that those who feel that way do so just to be manipulative or selfish.
We hate to see ourselves as the villain in anyone’s story, so we may attempt to dismiss others’ feelings rather than have empathy. It is a trap I fall into just as much as anyone else. I still challenge us all to be better.
The truth is some of the people in my story were in some way neurodivergent themselves. That may have even contributed to their own handling of the situation, just as my autism and ADHD doubtless contributed to mine. It may be that neither of us extended enough empathy to the other.
I think there is a longing in all of us to be told we don’t need to change at all, only the world does. But there will never be a world of perfect understanding between all people. Our actions will always have the potential to cause unintended harm, and there will never be a time when we no longer have room to change and grow. We should want to change and grow if it’s for the sake of being kinder to those around us.
You will hurt people, and not be able to fix it. Sometimes you won’t want to fix it.
You will be hurt by people, and they will not be able to fix it. Sometimes, worst of all, they will not want to fix it.
This can all be true at the same time in the same situation. Life is messy like that.
I’m sure all of us have memories that make us feel guilty and angry at the same time. We wish we could just decide how to feel about them. But I’ve come to realize that instead of trying to fit an experience into a simplified narrative, it’s far better to accept what happened, try to learn what we can from it, and then allow ourselves to move on.
That’s what I’ll keep trying my best to do.