Saturday, June 20, 2020

Shut Up and Listen

It has bothered me over the years that when I tell somebody a story about something I've struggled with in my life, or even something traumatic, people think the way to make me feel better and validated (if that is indeed what I'm looking for, but it usually isn't) is to say, "That happens to everyone" or "That happened to me one time..." and then they tell an anecdote that is tangentially related.



It is a simple fact that those of us on the autism spectrum have problems with things that most people take for granted. So unless your experience is really that similar (and I doubt it is), then I don't want to hear your story.

So shut up and listen.

Here are some examples of when this sort of thing has happened:

When I was a kid in the 1990s and dealing with autism in an era in which it wasn't well-known, I found myself getting obsessed with movies and television shows. I knew this was weird. I told my therapist about this, and he said, "Oh, everybody gets obsessed with things. Some people are obsessed with... relationships."

Where do I even start with this one? First of all, it was considered "normal" to be obsessed with relationships, but not with movies and television shows. And I wasn't even in a relationship, let alone getting obsessed with one. And I don't use the term "obsession" lightly, and I didn't back then. The way most people use it has the connotation of "slightly preoccupied". With me, it had the connotation of "all consuming". So no, that didn't make me feel better. It just made me feel like my shrink had no idea what he was talking about.

Shut up and listen.

Over the years, before I got the job that I've been at for three years now, whenever I told people about being fired from job after job, or having a hard time finding a job, people often would respond by telling me about being laid off and unemployed, say, for a year and a half.

No, no, no! You don't tell someone who has been chronically employed for 14 goddamned years after finishing college about the time you were jobless for a year and a half. They have nothing to do with each other, especially since chronic unemployment is textbook for autistic people.

Shut up and listen.

Last year, when I was running a debate Meetup, I got into a conversation with one of the members. I told him that I was on the autism spectrum and made some vague allusion to the fact that college was "a difficult period in my life". This guy said, "Well everybody goes through a difficult period in their life."

First of all, no. I'm not going to go into a tangent about exactly what it was, but I promise that what I went through in college was fairly unusual. To add insult to injury, the guy who said this had some kind of connective tissue disorder that made him unusually short and, with no tactful way to say it, he looked a bit odd. If he had trouble with some physical task due to his condition, it would be pretty shitty of me to tell him that everyone has trouble with [insert physical task here] sometimes.

Shut up and listen.

Recently, at a writing group, I workshopped a personal essay I wrote about an obsessive crush that I had at age sixteen during my summer trip to Israel. As the essay made clear, this crush had been all-consuming and seriously disrupted my experience. I chased this guy around like I was Pepe LePew and did stupid things like waiting for him outside of buildings in the middle of the night. One night I was up until 1:00 AM crying over him. 

While we were discussing my essay, I said something about how 23 years later I'm still embarrassed by my behavior. Someone thought it would be a great idea to tell me that she had a crush on a counselor when she was a kid, and she tripped and fell in front of him, and it was soooo embarrassing. 

No, no, no, no,  fucking NO! First of all, did she even read my essay? Well, yes, she did, and that's why her reaction is even more ridiculous. My piece made very clear that I was dealing with something much more serious and intense than giggling over a "cute guy". Her story about being embarrassed about falling in front of a counselor she had a crush on is not in the same universe as my embarrassment about spending an entire god damned summer obsessively chasing my crush around.

Shut up and listen.

If somebody tells you a story about something they've struggled with, just shut up and listen. Don't pretend you know how they feel. Rather than making them feel better, it comes across as dismissive and invalidating. It makes the person feel even more isolated because they are seeing further evidence that you don't appreciate the gravity of what they have to deal with. I would never tell someone starving in Africa that I know how they feel because I was hungry when I skipped lunch one time, or even because I once fasted for a day. Nor would I tell a black person that I understand how it feels to be frightened around cops, because one time I was slightly nervous around a particularly nasty one. I'm not going to tell a quadriplegic that I know how it feels not to be able to walk because I broke my ankle 25 years ago.

Really, what is so difficult about saying, "Hey, you know what? I really don't get it, but I imagine it's rough."

Or better yet, just shut up and listen.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I especially hate it if the person saying this is pretty successful in their life. Because if they're standing there saying, "That happens to everyone," while they sit in their beautiful house with their spouse, children, car, friends, and gainful employment... its like saying I must be doing something wrong! A nicer thing to say might be, "I never thought of it like that," or "Tell me more."