Welcome to another Halcyon Tidings, your bi-weekly dose of real but uplifting takes on life, getting through it, and trying to be the best humans we can be. (Also much randomness.) This newsletter’s subject quote, “The fool looks at a finger that points at the sky,” reminds me of the film, Look Up, where society disregards an urgent apocalyptic warning because of how it’s delivered; there’s far too much focus on society’s messengers instead of their actual messages, and when we zero in on people or presentation instead of substance we wind up missing the point.
The quote seems to be adapted from the words of Chinese sage, Confucius: “When a wise man points at the moon the imbecile examines the finger.”
I consulted Reddit for modern interpretations on this ancient wisdom— Yellowsnow2 explained, “It means the imbecile will ignore the message by focusing on the messenger. You see this all the time when debating politics on reddit. This is also known as an ad hominem [attack of the character, motive, or some other attribute of the person making an argument rather than attacking the substance of the argument itself].” Or, as RogueRoamer mused, – “Don’t confuse scientific models with the aspects of reality they are modeling. Don’t confuse religion with the true highest properties of Being. Don’t confuse your sensory inputs with the real world. Don’t confuse the messenger with the message.” Finally, grearzilla hilariously put it, “When I point at a toy for my smart dog, she looks where I’m pointing and gets it. When I point at a toy for my dumb dog, he stares at my finger like it owes him something.”
May we all be wise enough to look towards the toy instead of just staring at the finger.
* SUBJECT/TITLE QUOTE: The subject’s quote, “The fool looks at a finger that points at the sky,” is from Amélie, a beautiful film about a likely-autistic (imo) woman on a quest to see if kindness can make a difference—finding adventure, connection, and love along the way. *
This news wasn’t the only ingredient, but I literally had a nervous breakdown after learning that this was happening in my own country. It was like my brain just couldn’t process such horror happening now, here, in the United States. I think that horror is part of why the torture has been allowed to continue — people have a hard time believing it’s really that bad because it’s just too much, it speaks too loudly about the kind of things we’re still secretly allowing in our society.
But it’s real. These people are real.
And you can help make it stop — anyone reading this! — but especially those of you living in Massachusetts (or who can pass the news onto people who do).
In MA, there is currently proposed critical state-level legislation that could finally stop the torture, an amendment ending the legality of causing people with physical, intellectual, or developmental disabilities pain in order to punish or teach them. If passed, bill H. 180 will ban aversive techniques like those used at JRC, banning procedures that cause “physical pain, including, but not limited to, hitting, pinching, and electric shock” and denying “reasonable sleep, food, shelter, bedding, bathroom facilities, and any other aspect expected of a humane existence” — atrocious treatment that should have never been permitted, or at least been put to a stop a long, long, time ago.
Hopes have been raised with similar bills before, but the state legislature has tragically failed to get them passed. It’s time for leaders to take this issue as seriously and get it done. To help raise pressure, support, and awareness, the Autistic Self Advocacy Center (ASAN) is organizing a Day of Action on May 22nd, something people in MA and beyond could help make a success.
Here’s the scoops:
Firstly (since there are more of you), if you aren’t a resident of Massachusetts, share this call to action soon and frequently! Get on social media to share links/info — ensuring that you’ve tagged #Massachusetts as well as #StopTheShock so it has a better chance at reaching resident eyes. Extra doses on the 22nd. And encourage MA residents to participate to take a couple of minutes to contact their senators about this crucially important bill. (And keep sounding the #StopTheShock alarm after the 22nd, the FDA is someone else that can act and just…isn’t.)
My name is [your full name] , and I am from [your city] . I am a constituent of [Senator/Representative NAME]. I’m calling to ask [Senator/Representative NAME] to support H.180 to ban aversive conditioning, or using pain to punish people. Aversive conditioning is harmful and not effective. Plus, Massachusetts is home to the only institution in the country to use electric shock devices for aversive conditioning on students with intellectual and developmental disabilities, a practice which has been classified as torture by the United Nations. This bill would ban that and keep all people with disabilities safe. Can I count on the [Senator/Representative]’s support for this bill?
This Day of Action will also be an in-person event at the Massachusetts State House! So, if you’re able, please join local protestors on May 22nd to speak with legislators’ offices in-person and raise awareness about the fight to #StopTheShock. ASAN provided this link to learn more and register.
Whether you’re in Massachusetts or on the moon, please, please, please make some noise about #StopTheShock.
Isn’t shame the worst? Knowing that you behaved in a way that hurt someone else, or yourself, or a project’s success, etc.—it sucks, it can make you feel worthless. And since it’s such a bad feeling, it often winds up being repressed by denying responsibility for one’s fuck-up, leading to more bad behavior (like blaming someone else), which just creates more of that shame.
The antidote to shame is kindness, exhibiting compassion and consideration, something that applies to oneself as well as others. Firstly there’s self-compassion, looking at your mistakes without damning yourself, recognizing that messing up is just a part of life…while also taking responsibility and learning the lesson. (Though it’s important to note shame isn’t always earned.) As for kindness to others, it feels good to help and it’s empowering to have a positive effect, which leads to more do-gooding, which means doing fewer things to feel shitty about. Don’t underestimate the power of acts of kindness.
As the song from the subject suggests, it’s natural for kindness to know no shame (as “the seasons know exactly when to change”).
This week I turned in an article that references something called the ‘double empathy problem’, a concept that details how breakdowns in mutual understanding happen between people with very different experiences and perspectives—the autistic autism researcher Damian Milton coined it in reference to allistic (not-autistic) and autistic communication, but he also describes it generally as something that can “occur when people of very differing dispositions attempt to interact.”
Who and how we are affects the way we see things, it shapes our perception. The way a situation is viewed by someone can completely depend on where they’re coming from…and this isn’t always easy to remember.
So much of life is subjective, it’s based on one’s feelings and life experience, my ‘common knowledge’ isn’t the same as yours. The subject quote of this fortnite’s newsletter, “‘Falcon hood?!’ ‘Raid on Entebbe?!,’” is from a scene in an HBO show where two friends get in a shouting match over whose conversation reference is least relatable. (Entebbe, if you ask me.) What we know about the world has only been informed by the bits of it we’ve learned about and/or experienced; yet so often we expect to immediately understand and be understood, which can be frustrating.
Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes isn’t possible without questions, without working to understand where the other person is coming from. We can never know what’s missing from our awareness, we are blind to the things we don’t know we don’t know (something I *try* to remind myself of when feeling exasperated af by others’ actions that I just don’t understand).
So, may we all find the strength and wisdom to acknowledge when we might be making presumptions about a situation or person(s), as well as the curiosity, articulation, and compassion it takes to succeed in mutual understanding.
* SUBJECT/TITLE QUOTE: “Falcon hood?!” and “Raid on Entebbe?!” are shouted between Zach Galifianakis and Jason Schwartzman in the dazedly clever show Bored to Death (2009)—hope you had a happy April 20th! 💚 *
“The antidote to loneliness isn’t just being around random people indiscriminately, the antidote to loneliness is emotional security.” ~Benedict Wells
Emotional security. The feeling of being at home in the presence of another. Safe to be who you are, good times or bad. Feeling seen and seeing the other clearly, accepting the other’s whole lovely mess. It’s good stuff, and it can be hard to find.
In fact, ever-increasing loneliness stats have led many experts to describe the problem as epidemic. You might assume it was caused by the pandemic, but it was a crisis long before lockdowns and social distancing.
In 2018, Cigna conducted a survey of U.S. adults and found that loneliness was at 54 percent, already at epidemic levels. Since then, it shot up to 61 percent in 2019, with three in five Americans reporting feeling lonely, and now sits at 58 percent—we’ve got ourselves a big problem. And it’s not just the fact that it’s unpleasant to feel disconnected from others and not have anyone to talk to; research also shows it’s also bad for our health.
As someone who went thirty-seven years not knowing I’m autistic, for most of my life I’ve hidden a lot of who I am (masking), making it impossible to feel truly connected and seen. So, despite formerly frequent socializing, I’ve been exceedingly familiar with feeling lonely for most of my life.
However, when health issues took me out of the day-to-day world altogether in 2015, I was surprised at how much worse it got. At first, rarely interacting with others was largely a much-needed relief, but a few months in, things got dark. I was communicating with the people I knew so little—sometimes it’d be months—that I felt ungrounded, like I could just disappear, or die, and no one would even know I was gone.
When I did get to talk to the people who I then considered close, it often felt like I wasn’t really allowed to talk about my life anymore because it’d become too sad. (So cringe. Positive vibes only.)
Even with the support of a therapist, feeling so alone in what I was going through made me feel like my life didn’t matter. And it’s not that I was associating with awful humans, it’s just how we’re socially conditioned. Society prioritizes seeming-pleasantness to a severe degree, and as a result most folks have no idea how to hold space for the hard stuff. We just aren’t taught to be emotionally equipped for providing that kind of support; instead, the general example is to repress and deflect.
It’s like we’ve decided compassion is inefficient and awkward, instead honoring placid insensitivity as a virtue. And, as a result, people feel like it’s not safe to talk about what’s really going on in their lives, what they’re really thinking and feeling. This, of course, creates loneliness.
Eventually, after half a decade of dealing with severe health and life trauma in isolation, I was diagnosed with autism, which was amazing in many ways… but also a core-shaking thing to handle with only the support of online groups and a telehealth therapist who had dozens of other clients. It was too much to process, and I had a nervous breakdown.
Afterward, I accepted that I needed to work harder to find people I could regularly and, especially, authentically connect with. It took some time, but I eventually found aligned friends via reaching out to people I didn’t actually know all that well (yet) but had met through very authentic circumstances.
Routinely talking and connecting with them has changed my life. I’m still homebound for health reasons, and it’s still hard, but despite still being without human company like 95 percent of the time, I don’t feel like I could just float away anymore; I now feel warmly and safely connected, even seen and understood.
Honestly assessing if I had people with the bandwidth to connect regularly, that also know how to hold the kind of safe-feeling emotional space I need, was the first step to having consistent connection with people who let me be my whole self; relationships that do provide that precious and hard-to-find feeling of emotional security—progressively replacing my loneliness with connected perspective, understanding, and acceptance.
If your honest self-assessment comes to the same conclusion as mine—“I need to confront this loneliness thing”—these sorts of authentic-connection-seeking efforts can do the same for you.
8 Ways to Combat the Loneliness Epidemic
1. Honestly assess your needs.
Do you feel lonely? What do you need to feel socially connected? Which interactions leave you feeling drained and which ones lift you up, making you feel less alone? Do you feel safe to be your whole self with the people in your life? What are some characteristics of those who’ve made you feel safe?
2. Reach out (and reach back).
Once you’ve got an idea of what you need, reach out to someone who makes you feel relaxed, safe to just be you, and see if they want to catch up. Maybe they’ll be down for it, and maybe they won’t, but keep trying.
If you don’t really know anyone you feel safe to be authentic with, try joining like-minded activity groups or using a platonic friend-finding app. And if someone who seems safe reaches out, don’t let fear stop you from reaching back.
3. Set and respect boundaries.
What you need from someone and what they’re able to provide might not mesh. It’s important to understand that some of us are comfortable with having open, potentially vulnerable, conversations, and others prefer to stick to more shallow waters. And the same is true for the reverse.
It’s okay to prioritize time with those who connect in a harmonious way and also to distance yourself where needed. Life is pretty demanding and people can only do so much, so try not to take it personally if people can’t meet what you need, and let others (gently) know when you can’t meet theirs.
4. Practice ‘holding space.’
Make sure you’re present enough to really listen and ensure you’ve understood and/or been understood (we rely far too much on easily misinterpreted nonverbal communication).
Learning to stay in the moment—resisting deflection, going into judgment or fix-it mode—is crucial to creating authentic connection in your life (and that includes holding space for your own honest, but difficult, emotions).
It can be scary to hold space, and/or ask someone to, but we need to get over our societal fear of awkward experiences; isn’t it worth it when it could lead to connection, growth, and clarity?
5. Resist the pressure to lean on small talk.
It can be tempting to stick to trivial matters, but it’s not without harm. I concur with the take on small talk that Natasha Lyonne shared on an early February episode of Late Night with Seth Meyers:
“I don’t believe in it. I would say I aggressively don’t like it. I think it’s damaging to society as a whole… it’s like John Lennon said, just gimme some truth. I think it’s really dangerous because when you ask a person ‘How are you?’ their only option is to lie aggressively, right? Society says you’re supposed to say, ‘Oh, I’m good’ and keep it moving, but you’re not good, are you?”
It’s isolating that we’re expected to talk in pleasantries, especially since it often happens even in relationships considered close.
6. Gossip doesn’t count as connection.
In the same interview, Meyers fights for small talk as a segue into shit-talk, and Lyonne suggests that maybe instead of talking about other people they could segue into some other talk (she suggests inanimate objects, which I don’t hate).
Our society depends on gossip far too much. People very often rely on it to judge another’s trustworthiness, a fact that is manipulated all the time. And if you’ve ever played the game “telephone,” you know it’s not exactly a science to depend on hearsay.
Real conversations, asking direct questions, can be intimidating—but it’s a hell of a lot better than writing someone off because of what so-in-so told so-in-so. Also, gossip isn’t connection. It might feel like fleeting togetherness à la “we hate them,” but you know your shite-talking cohort’s talking about you as well. It’s fake. If gossip’s the primary mode of convo, you’re just flapping jaws.
7. Reflect on and articulate your feels.
When we don’t understand why we feel alone, it makes it much harder to address, so it’s unfortunate that introspection is underrated in our society (sometimes even ridiculed, which is revealing).
Gaining emotional awareness and being able to express our feelings is key to reducing loneliness. To quote sociological researcher Brené Brown, “The more difficult it is for us to articulate our experiences of loss, longing, and feeling lost to the people around us, the more disconnected and alone we feel.”
When we don’t have the words to describe our emotional experience, emotional communication becomes foreign—but by gaining emotional awareness and vocabulary, that kind of connection becomes possible.
Crucially, we must know that it’s okay to feel whatever it is that we feel, as many of us are taught that emotions like anger or fear aren’t okay. They are. Using tools like the emotion wheel, journaling, and therapy can be of great assistance, as well as opening up to trusted others and holding space when they open up to you.
8. Know (and love) yourself to connect authentically.
Finding relationships where I felt supported the way I needed to be involved a lot more time getting to know myself than I thought it would; tons of self-reflection and, ironically, solitude were necessary for me to find the self-acceptance it takes to have any shot at finding authentic support.
To again quote Brené Brown, “Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them—we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.”
As far as how to get started on fostering self-love, I think all love grows from appreciation, something many of us find hardest when it’s pointed in our own direction. Appreciate your efforts to choose growth by reading articles on a website like this over mindless scrolling, or reaching out for connection instead of your favorite escape. And acknowledge your needs in addition to your efforts. You deserve love (the whole you).
Self-reflection and cultivating emotionally secure relationships inherently involves vulnerability, but our social norms dictate staying away from that—safe in the shallows of small talk, leaving the depths to be explored in fifty-minute therapy slots by a complete stranger who won’t have the same security with you (if you’re lucky enough to have the coverage).
While therapy can be very helpful, emotional support shouldn’t primarily be found at a price as one of many clients on a therapist’s roster. We need to have the emotional tools to express our feelings and support another’s.
And, in addition to our individual efforts toward authentic connection, we, as a society, need to recognize the costs of mass loneliness and prioritize having a populace that knows how to be there for each other in good times and bad. It’s time to learn how to allow space for authentic connection in our lives and relationships. We need it, we deserve it, and we can do it.
Ahhh, the empathy miss — that crucial moment when someone’s having a hard time and you really want to say the right thing, but after you speak there’s just a painfully awkward pause…you’ve stepped in it, and made things worse.
Or the reverse, you’re having a hell of a time and express that fact, and someone says something with the best of intentions — but rather than comfort their words leave you feeling invalidated, misunderstood, and worse than before you reached out.
As a society, we really aren’t great at holding emotional space for one another.
Luckily, a sociology researcher and famed storyteller named Brené Brown has been researching topics in this arena for well over a decade.
She’s covered many relevant ideas in this area, but one of the most helpful is probably her list of empathy misses from the book Dare to Lead.
BrenéBrown and Empathy
These are common well-intentioned behaviors displayed in emotional times of need that completely miss the mark, leaving the already upset person feeling more so.
While I’ve certainly been on the side of empathy miss, as everyone has, I’ve also dealt with being on the diminished end recurrently since invisible illness and problematic Autism traits have taken over my life.
People genuinely seem to want to say things to make me feel better, but they’ll wind up invalidating my experience or changing the topic altogether; leaving me feeling not only still alone with the issue, but also feeling like I’ve erred by even bringing it up.
And these are mostly kind, truly well-intentioned, people; and this happens to all kinds of Neurodiverse and/or disabled people.
They are trying — we all are trying — but we lack tools. This stuff just wasn’t included in our social conditioning. (And in some cases, there were toxins in its place.)Brené Brown’s 6 Empathy Misses
The concept of empathy is often described as a quality that people simply possess, or not, but while some folks do seem to have a particular knack for effectively understanding others’ feelings — Brown says empathy is also something we can work to become more effective at.
When dealing with nebulous and subjective issues, it’s often best to look at the failed attempts — or, what not to do. In this spirit, I’d like to present the 6 Empathy Misses identified by this sociologist who’s dedicated her life to helping us live with more heart.
This work branched out from her interest in human shame, with these being common unhelpful reactions after someone’s divulged an err. The list is from Dare to Lead, with explanation text from the book’s study guide, followed by my brief take:
Empathy Miss #1: Sympathy vs. Empathy
The friend who responds with sympathy (“I feel so sorry for you”) rather than empathy (“I get it, I feel with you”)
When faced with an immediate internal reaction of “sucks to be you,” the most caring words are often something like, “That sounds really hard, need to vent?”
Empathy Miss #2: The Gasp and Awe
The friend who hears your story and feels shame on your behalf.
Have you ever confided in someone, sharing a mistake you’re processing — and instead of empathizing, as you might expect a friend to do, they act horrified and judgy?
Yeah, everyone else too. Let’s start trying to remember our own f*ck-ups before condemning those who trust us with their struggles.
Empathy Miss #3:The Mighty Fall
The friend who sees you as perfect. They are so let down by your imperfections and disappointed in you (“I just never expected that from you. I didn’t think you would ever be someone who didn’t do well. What happened?”)
The thing about pedestals is that they’re really easy to fall off of — plus, you know, they’re complete and utter bullshit. No one is perfect. That’s not even a thing. When we expect people to be better than human, we lose our humanity.
Empathy Miss #4: The Block and Tackle
The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that they criticize you (“What happened?! What were you thinking?”)
Otherwise known as, “How to get people to never trust you again,” this deflective move helps those scared of feels to avoid their own self-reflection — and it’s really freakin’ common. We live in a really judgy society and that kind of persistent energy can lead to folks becoming really defensive, which often turns into lashing out with condemnation.
I’ve (slowly) learned that compassion is the way out of judgment. When I’m hurt and my mind gets hardened over the WTF-ness of someone’s behavior, I do my best to imagine there’s a reason I’m not aware of before doing anything about it. It’s hard, but it’s important to remember that perspective really is everything.
Empathy Miss #5: The Boots and Shovel
The friend who is all about making it better and, out of their own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually make terrible choices (“You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you”). They are trying so hard to make you feel better that they’re unable to connect with your emotions.
This is another popular one. When feeling shame, and wanting to talk about the mistake — something that can lead to not making the err again, as the mind’s verbally articulated why it’s a nope — but someone just won’t believe you, it’s invalidating at best; and, at worse, it enables problematic behaviors.
Empathy Miss #6: If You Think That’s Bad…
The friend who confuses “connection” with the opportunity to one-up you. (“That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”)
This one’s another one that often happens with truly good intentions, wanting to help the other person see that things could be worse; but it’s actually invalidating, and leaves the hurting person still alone in the issue they were hoping to talk to someone about.
Empathy Miss #7: I Can Fix That!
The friend who immediately jumps to problem-solving rather than just being with you in your experience.
Most of us struggle with this one, especially if friends often come to us for help solving problems. One helpful empathic reply is to acknowledge the feelings and ask, “What does support look like?” This gives the person in struggle the opportunity to say, “Just listening helps” or “Can you help me figure this out?”
You don’t need to fix it or make people feel better. Connecting and listening is powerful.
Try to understand how the person is feeling (not how you might feel in the same situation).
Help people know that they are not alone in their feelings. Even if you’ve never had that experience, you might know the feeling.
Let people know that you are grateful they shared with you.
Allowing opportunities for second chances. When we miss the opportunity to show empathy or when we would like the opportunity to do it better, we can say, “I’d like to circle back.” In this context, circling back means practicing empathy by trying again.
There’s a divide of understanding within the autistic community, one that can get quite contentious online: autistic adults and parents of autistic children. I think a root of the problem is society telling parents they’re responsible for raising kids in a manner conducive to doing things in neurotypical ways, the “normal” way, and parents at large face a lot of homogenized expectations and judgment for noncompliance.
But when a child has different neurological wiring, a different neurotype, normal expectations and activities can actually overwhelm their nervous system, making it even more difficult to do things like process language and verbalize. And autists are expected just act like we’re not experiencing this kind of agitating or even painful neurological overwhelm when we are, something that leads to all kinds of trouble, like autistic meltdowns, which are terrifying. During meltdowns, sometimes it truly feels like my brain is going to catch on fire from all the misfiring and pressure, then finally just explode.
They. HURT. And we don’t choose them. And we don’t get to decide when they end.
These kinds of internal autistic experiences have been treated as if they’re irrelevant, as if autists just have behavioral issues and need to learn how to “act normal,” something that makes us even more vulnerable, and we’re already unnecessarily dying decades before our peers.
Bridging the knowledge gaps between us and allistic (not-autistic) folks needs to happen and it won’t without help from parents of autistic children — the hard truth is that you’re the ones society listens to, not us, and we’re dying from the societal apathy. We need parent allies to really listen and to help our voices be heard.
Here are 10 takes on this gap from other autistic adults, starting with a couple of autists who are also parents of autistic kiddos:
“I fall into both of these categories. I wish that there was more understanding of the different communication styles rather than people jumping down each other’s throats all of the time. I wish that functioning labels would be done away with and that the parents would stop speaking for us and listen to us instead.” A.M.
“I am autistic and so are my children. I’d like parents of autistics to understand that they need to pay attention to what is going on and how their child is interpreting the experiences around them. As much as they can at least. They can’t understand truly but they can watch out for say, how a child might be handling someone having a crush on them or trying to interact with them in some intimate way. . And then they need to not approach their autistic kid with morals and judgments the kid may very well not understand. I was raised in the church and things just never made sense, yet when my parents would address whatever the issue was, they’d do it through the filter of something that already didn’t logically make sense to me. Your kid won’t understand what you want or mean if you aren’t speaking a language they understand. They may have to set aside what they think they ‘know’ and approach things differently, potentially without some things (like religion) being the primary measuring stick of a moral code.” S.L.
“That when they talk bad about my autism, they are talking bad about me personally, because I don’t see myself as separate from my autism.” A.F.
“That [autistic adults] often do really understand what it’s like to be an autistic child and we can help them if they listen to us. We can provide insight from an autistic perspective that they may not even consider as a possibility. Yes, parents often do know best, but when your child has a different neurology than you, why not ask the people who share that neurology for help? After all, we want what’s absolutely best for our future neuro-kin generation and will fiercely do whatever it takes to protect them. […] . Saying things like “my child is more severe than you are” or “you can’t speak for my child because you’re not the same” isn’t helpful. We understand their experience even if it’s not the same as ours. And if you’re saying that me (a mostly speaking autistic person) isn’t the same as your nonspeaking autistic, you’re right. I don’t know that experience because I grew up speaking using my mouth words.But then why not connect with other nonspeaking autistics who do know and understand your child from that perspective?There’s so many types of autistic people in the world; you’re bound to find one that has a similar experience to your child.” M.S.
“They are not the ones with autism and that they have to help that person develop a system/ anything to move through life. I just feel like I was told how to feel most of my life and now I’m on my own idk how to process my actual feelings now that there’s ppl who want to listen. 🤷🏽♀️🤷🏽♀️” K.N
“Understanding that we aren’t doing ‘bad things’ for the sake of being malicious 99% of the time. I remember having meltdowns and being told I was ‘ungrateful’ and throwing a ‘tantrum’ when the reality was it was like something else had taken over me and turned me into an anger monster. I was never in control until I came down from it and I was blamed for ruining outings and embarrassing my parents. Same thing with not being able to or not wanting to do a task or go to an event. They took this as me being defiant. The reality is they never listened to what I was actually saying when I said no and instead framed me as a defiant child. Talking to your autistic kid on a more peer level will help you communicate better and they will tell you what they need. You just have to listen and learn your child’s language.” S.S.
“That it’s often a journey to understand our own feelings and symptoms. We don’t always have the answers, but that doesn’t mean others should speak for us.” C.T.H.
“What bugs me the most is the idea that something is ‘wrong’ with their child. This whole grieving how they expected their child to turn out or how they wanted their life to be or their kids life to be. Disabilities are not bad, don’t need to be fixed, your child doesn’t need you grieving the loss of the abled child you wanted. Secondly, stop exploiting them on social media to ‘help other parents’ or ‘spread awareness’. Thirdly, I wish they would realize that societal rules are completely made up. Your kid doesn’t need to speak, use fake pleasantries, have fun at amusement parks etc to be loved, respected, or to enjoy life.” C.H.
“That everyone is different. I really wish that was emphasized more. There is no ‘stereotype’, everyone still has their own personality.” S.G.
“That we aren’t unintelligent just because we can’t/don’t communicate the same way. I’ve noticed the same problem within the deaf/HoH community; if you can’t or don’t speak (or can’t speak well) people don’t take you seriously or assume you must not understand normal speech. I can understand you just fine even when I don’t know how to respond or am unable to.” B.N.
Advocacy movements are changing harmful norms, but they can’t do it alone.
Social conditioning is a lot like air, we hardly notice it, and yet it affects every aspect of our lives.
It’s defined as ‘the sociological process of training individuals in a society to respond in a manner generally approved by the society in general and peer groups within society,’ and it looks like going to school, interacting with peers (especially “fitting in”), engaging with pop culture, adapting to work environments, etc. These things shape the way we view the world and interact with others.
And right now, Americans are learning that our “air” has some fiercely toxic issues.
Though there have always been Black advocates speaking up, nearly a decade ago The Black LivesMatter movement finally brought national attention to the fact that we most definitely do not live in a post-racial society (which has been clearly reflected in demographic statistics for decades) — and yet our public schools essentially teach that the ’60s brought equality to our country. Generations were taught that we’re “a nation that doesn’t see race,” learning that ignoring our racial differences was helpful; and this conditioning has led to continued societal disbelief and inaction in regard to the very real racial disparities in the US. It’s horrifying.
Then the #MeToo movement busted onto the scene in 2017, exposing the harmful misogynistic norms that women have been dealing with in America all along — and making a lot of us pretty furious about all the “sugar + spice” conditioning that basically trained us to put up with harassment and abuse, all in the subconscious pursuit of trying to be the “good girls” society told us to be.
And though disability advocacy movements haven’t yet caught the nation’s attention, we’ve been yelling for a very long time. From extensive issues with accessibility (for wheelchair users and beyond), massively-funded nonprofits that actually work against us (*ahem, Autism Speaks*), to a society rampant with inspiration porn in place of actually informing people about how to work with our different needs; to excessive government focus on “preventable illness” and little-to-none on the myriad of conditions that can’t be, resulting in a blame-the-patient culture that’s really hard to survive —we’ve got a lot to be upset about.
While developments like oodles of (brilliant) intersectional entertainment, advocacy movements regularly trending on Twitter, and increased diversity in politics are helpful and encouraging; we also need our societal conditioning to change in a structural way, in our government and healthcare systems, schools, workplaces, and how media is sourced and distributed.
Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up. A paradigm shift is not only possible, it’s already happening.
For example, those same public schools teach young minds that Thanksgiving commemorates a peaceful celebration of unity between settlers and Native Americans when history shows that the opposite was true. And this propaganda is taught by teachers who are overwhelmingly white, with a lived racial experience that 4 in 10 Americans cannot relate to.
We need schools that teach actual, factual, history, and it needs to be taught by teachers who represent the demographics of the students in this country.
Now let’s pick on the media. Television and magazines propagate impossible ideals, corporate support/dependence, and harmful norms that serve to protect the status quo — which isn’t surprising since six white-male-ledcompanies control the vast majority of the media, often resulting in news coverage and bias that benefits those already on top.
The typical office space is also rife with room for improvement. The constraints of ‘acting professional’ usually have more to do with ‘not causing waves’ than treating colleagues with respect — and this conditioning serves us in the exact same way as the “sugar + spice” bullshite, helping to maintain the toxic status quo through unspoken demands like code-switching.
The effect of our present societal conditioning is that people are expected to “fit in” in order to move up in life, which is functionally racist, sexist, and ableist in application — ensuring that the people on top, stay on top. (And we’ve only talked about 3 offensive –ists harming our society! There’s plenty more.)
How to Help
Norms are changing on our screens, now it’s time to securely bring inclusive changes into the schools, offices, and community spaces of the United States. It’s time to check ourselves. And it’s time to speak up against harmful norms. Everyday.Everywhere. Luckily, the evolution of societal norms is often a direct result of individuals speaking up.
A paradigm shift is not only possible, it’s already happening. But it needs all of us.
Here are 6 ways we can help detoxify the effects of societal conditioning:
Learn, learn, learn. We need to educate ourselves in areas where we have societally-suggested knowledge gaps (or even misinformation), carefully ensuring that what we’re reading was written by amember of the affected group. This can take some effort, but it’s worth it to ensure that what we’re reading is truly the perspective of the community affected.
Inspect our language. Our culture is rife with popular terms that are actually offensive to our many vulnerable demographics, and even well-meaning can people offend. (We’re practically trained to, via societal osmosis.) And it’s important to pay attention to aspects that aren’t usually considered; such as more subtle aspects of discrimination (ex. for ableism, hurtful usage of words like ‘crazy’ and ‘stupid’), phrases like “that’s just the system” that subtly stand up for the status quo. And it should go without saying, but this applies to every space — not just those where minority groups are present.
Request change from the leaders of our society, especially politicians and corporations. Be it an email to your local political representatives about the harm of letting misinformation masquerade as news, no longer supporting an offending corporation due to sexist advertising, or calling out a celebrity for the societal ramifications of an ableist action; individual complaints add up and are often (eventually) appeased.
Request change. Again, individual input matters! When enough of us ask for changes in respect to well, respect, community and company leaders have to respond. And there are now training programs to help educate employees, students, and communities on how to better accommodate one another, so why not encourage one?
Speak up when you’re affected. We need to speak up when we’re hit by the negative outcomes created by societal conditioning, or it will seem like “we’re fine with it.” If a teacher only calls on the white kids, if women in your office are paid less than men, if you’re being treated as if your disabled needs are irrelevant, or anything else of that nature — now’s the time to speak up.
Learn to welcome the different. Even when we try not to let it, subtle-yet-constant conditioning affects how all of us see the world, often creating anxiety around allowing new experiences and people in. But in addition to being the inherently more kind thing to do, diversity has proven benefits; the more perspectives, the more coherent the collective understanding will be.
Inclusivity, attentiveness, and compassion in regard to our differences need to replace the societally-pervasive dinosaur mentality of “that’s just how things are done.”
If you visited a zoo, and a gorilla started talking to you, what do you think they’d say about humanity? Think they’d be cool with the modern state of affairs?
According to Daniel Quinn, author of 1992’s award-winning Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit — the answers are a whole lot, and hell no.
Ishmael features a man being taught about the world by a gorilla, one who divides humanity into two types: the Leavers and the Takers.
The first philosophy puts humans within the web of nature, working consciously to only take what they need; and the other puts humans as the world’s ruler, free to take whatever we can.
If the events of 2020 have left you questioning the way our society does things, or are interested in living a more conscious life — this should be your next read.
Here are a dozen (very hard-to-narrow-down) quotes from the book:
“The premise of the Taker story is ‘the world belongs to man’. … The premise of the Leaver story is ‘man belongs to the world’.”
“And every time the Takers stamp out a Leaver culture, a wisdom ultimately tested since the birth of mankind disappears from the world beyond recall.”
“I have amazing news for you. Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely.”
“The obvious can sometimes be illuminating when perceived in an unhabitual way.”
“You’re captives of a civilizational system that more or less compels you to go on destroying the world in order to live… I think there are many among you who would be glad to release the world from captivity… This is what prevents them: They’re unable to find the bars of the cage.”
“The world of the Takers is one vast prison, and except for a handful of Leavers scattered across the world, the entire human race is now inside that prison.”
“Donald Trump can do a lot of things I can’t, but he can no more get out of the prison than I can.”
“They put their shoulders to the wheel during the day, stupefy themselves with drugs or television at night, and try not to think too searchingly about the world they’re leaving their children to cope with.”
“Diversity is a survival factor for the community itself. A community of a hundred million species can survive almost anything short of a global catastrophe.”
“We’re not destroying the world because we’re clumsy. We’re destroying the world because we are, in a very literal and deliberate way, at war with it.”
“The mythology of your culture hums in your ears so constantly that no one pays the slightest bit of attention to it.”
“I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to feel scolded, more than to be made to feel stupid and guilty. They need more than a vision of doom. They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.”
Can you envision a version of yourself you find inspiring?
Normal is inherently othering, divisive, and reductive.
Originally published in the Medium publication, The Ascent. If you’re a member over there, I sure appreciate claps as that’s how we’re paid. (You can do 50!)
The word “normal” comes up a lot in our society.
We use it as an aspiration, “I just want to be normal,” or as a judgment, “that’s…not normal,” it’s even used like it’s a synonym for healthy, “that’s perfectly normal.”
I believe that all three uses are problematic for many reasons; but primarily because these homogeneous expectations have a very toxic effect on our mental health.
I feel that this is true even for those who feel they’ve achieved this mysteriously lauded act of mediocrity, but it’s especially toxic if you’re born in a body that excludes you from this supposed normality.
During my school years, the adult world told me that I was one of those lucky people, that I was normal, and that this was definitely a good thing — that I’d do just fine in life because of it.
I always knew it wasn’t quite true, and certainly faced much teasing despite this supposed normality, especially early on, and I certainly struggled to adjust to adult life more than my peers — but at 37 years old, I learned that I’m even less normal than I realized.
Last summer, I was officially diagnosed with Level Two Autism.
Society convinces us that we need to be less of ourselves in order to make more of ourselves. This is just bonkers.
This curveball brought many feelings, many of which were good, especially through the initial process of self-diagnosis; learning all about how my particular neurotype works while finally connecting to a community of people who quite literally think like me. There’s been much self-acceptance and empowerment since the diagnosis, it’s hard to explain the lightness that has come from knowing the physiological reasons as to why I am the way I am.
But, unfortunately, those weren’t all of the emotions. It was also really hard to learn that I was not only not normal, but that having tried so hard to pretend like I was had helped send my body and mind into malfunction.
After my diagnosis, I was tormented with endless painful memories slicing through my consciousness, each even sharper through this new lens; often making the other people involved seem cruel. Sometimes it even made me give up on humanity at large because most of them weren’t even “bad people” they were f**king normal people. It was horrifying, especially once I learned how high Autistic suicide rates are.
“Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Fitting in is being somewhere you really want to be, but they don’t care one way or the other.” ― Brené Brown
The combination of that emotional maelstrom plus not having anyone to talk to about it brought continuous Autistic meltdowns, which led to dangerous public scenes, seizures, a terrifying mental break, and neurologically-disabling Autistic burnout that I’m still fighting nearly a year later.
The most overwhelming upset was, and is, because Neurodivergent people are made to believe we need to spend our precious mental energy on acting “normal” to be accepted and survive. (FYI: Faking your neurotype doesn’t leave much energy for the important stuff.)
And we aren’t the only ones — in addition to systemic issues and individual biases, BIPOC communities are given the burden of code-switching, which has toxic effects on mental health. As a fellow Medium writer puts it, “Code-switching causes more harm than good because it creates tension between self-expression and social acceptance.”
There are many more examples of how already-disenfranchised communities have to bend and twist to squeeze into “normal,” and it’s not at all limited to those who’re in bodies perceived as different in some way — there are all kinds of ways we can be “too different,” “too much,” or “not enough,” and they rarely have anything to do with lacking integrity or kindness.
Additionally, when crises happen in people’s lives, they often feel as if they’ve been thrust from the safety of being perceived as normal.
Whether it’s with issues regarding abuse, finances, rape, or the many other ways life can unexpectedly go pear-shaped — people who’re already going through a lot often then also have to deal with shaming from the people in their lives, as well as fearing they’re perceived as “having baggage,” or being “too broken.”
We wind up feeling like we have to hide in some way to be safe, which often leads to going through difficult times alone.
In my case, others continually encouraged me to hide the (many) ways of being I know now are Autistic, and it took me over 25 years to see that the opposite is true — we must show up authentically to have any shot at finding true acceptance and belonging.
“If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.” ― Maya Angelou
We’re all being taught the wrong message.
In effect, society communicates that our whole selves aren’t enough; it actually manages to convince us that we need to show up as less of ourselves to make more of ourselves. This is just bonkers.
Plus, it’s just a scam! The idea that being seen as “normal” keeps us safe is just an illusion, a test to see how far we can bend before we break. And if you lookattheheadlines in recent years, it’s easy to get the impression that the time to snap is upon us…
If you ask me, we’re collectively losing our shit because we’ve been convinced that we must be something we aren’t to survive, that we must be “normal,” because everyone else is and that’s just the way we like it.
But normal isn’t a freakin’ thing. (And it never was.)
Screw Normal, Go Be Your Best You
Comparison is about conformity and its paradoxical message is to “be just like everyone else, but better.” — Brené Brown
While some folks might truly feel they are whatever is presently considered “normal,” it’s safe to say most of us find the expectations dictated by the concept to be FAR too tight (to say the least ) — so we have to squeeze ourselves into an uncomfortable mold, conforming to unwritten expectations that don’t suit, and, mental health-wise, there’s a heavy price to pay for this self-erasure.
To prioritize being normal is to decide that *who we are* isn’t safe. This is not an okay expectation! And it does not improve the lives of those working to oblige, it very often does just the opposite.
When we squeeze ourselves into whatever’s currently typical, when we spend our days trying to “be normal” — we wind up wasting our energy and focus on losing ourselves, rather than on becoming our best selves.
I love the way another Ascent writer describes the empowerment of tossing conformity aside, saying her whole self is “far more powerful than the Swiss cheese cutout I used to be.”
And of course it is!! We need our whole selves to thrive.
7 Reasons to Stop Trying to Be “Normal”
Let’s break it down, here’s 7 reasons to stop trying to be normal:
“Normal” is not a thing. I moved from city to city, hoping to find a place where the whole me was considered “normal,” and while I never found it, I did discover that there’s actually no such thing. While it’s most definitely possible to feel not normal, and some people do feel it more often than others, normal is just an illusion. Life isn’t that simple.
It upholds toxic norms and power structures. The concept of normal is a moving target that’s defined a million ways, but most influentially by — and for — the people in power; the people in charge of media, the people at the top of the ladder, the influencers of our world. It’s an ephemeral nonsense concept that serves to uphold the status quo through shame. It’s bullshite, we don’t need it, and we certainly don’t need to waste our energy pretending to be it.
The concept is inherently othering. As discussed above, “normal” leaves a lot of people out. There’s just far, far, faaaar, too many ways to be not-normal, and humans are a beautifully diverse species — and we’re stronger for it! Diversity is an evolutionary advantage, it’s a good thing that we’re all different. We need to start letting people share their full stories, and we need to start fully listening to perspectives and experiences different from ours. Working to understand each other better is the only way to improve things.
Fitting in is very different from belonging. My life changed when I started reading the work of sociological researcher, Brené Brown. I’ve already shared a couple of quotes of hers, but here’s one more: True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world — our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance. In other words, when we squeeze ourselves into normal-shaped molds, we give up our ability to know real belonging due to denying our authentic selves a voice.
Save yourself mid-life crises (or end ‘em). Trying to be normal is basically committing to the role of who we think we’re “supposed to be.” And if we look around, it’s easy to see that this often creates long-term commitments we can’t keep. How many of us wind up totally rearranging our lives halfway through because our original choices don’t really suit who we are as we start to really know ourselves? What if we could save all the fuss by simply living true in the first place?
John F. Kennedy said it sucks. In his more dignified words: Conformity is the jailer of freedom and the enemy of growth.
It’s not important, kindness is. Normal is often used in a way that suggests some associate the concept with integrity, with being good, “someone nice and normal,” but they are completely different things. They have nothing to do with one another at large, but especially in societies where marginalized societies report systemic ill-treatment. It’s easy to see that normal is very often a big jerk. Acts of compassion and understanding are demonstrations of integrity, not looking or acting a certain way.
When we simplify the human experience to one word, it reduces people to stereotypes and pits us against each other.
As a species, I think we’re ready to graduate from this Us vs. Them paradigm that leaves nearly everyone scared to be seen as “them,” and all of us competing against each other instead of working together. (And we’ve got some very real problems to solve.)
We have to stop trying to put each other in boxes, we’re all wildly unique people — that’s the beauty of humanity! It is not something to hide.