As a therapist who specializes with adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum, I am often on a look out for online forums dedicated to such a population. Unfortunately, while the true intent of these forums is to provide support and validation for those on the spectrum who struggle to with adapting to the daily struggles of socializing in everyday life, there exist forums where the main theme appears to be who can throw themselves the largest pity party.
I have also witnessed this phenomenon with groups for depression and anxiety, and while I am a staunch advocate for freedom of speech and expression, I believe it is a dangerous situation of people supporting each other in unhealthy thinking. I also believe a big part of the problem is the victim based mentality that has become ubiquitous in popular culture. With this being written, there are three main mindsets people on the spectrum need to adapt, when seeking professional help or help from support groups.
Care is not Obligatory.
In the past decade, I have witnessed the rise of websites crowdfunding websites. As someone who adheres to libertarian principles, I can attest that the success of these crowdfunding websites is proof that most people are fundamentally good. There are no laws in place, or social pressures for that matter that mandate anyone go to these websites to donate money to people. There will always be people who are kind heart-ed, who desire to help those in need. So therefore, the idea that other people must care about your plight is an irrational one. Especially when a group of people come together and focus feverishly and complain about those people who don’t have compassion for their difficulties. This will always be unnecessary given that people who care already exist.
Seek to get Better.
A former client of mine once looked me in the eye, and insisted that his collection of symptoms and quirks were due to his brain wiring. I told him that I agreed with him. He then told me that what he needed was drugs and not therapy. I shared with him that after he had built enough tolerance to whatever was prescribed to him that he would be back in my office. After we had a good laugh, I then introduced him to the concept of neuro-plasticity, where the brain forms and strengths new pathways based on the thoughts and behaviors of its owner. It short, change is possible, and it all boils down to the practice of mental effort. So, when looking for a therapist or a support group, you are looking for help designed to help you move past your grieving process and put you into the process of thriving.
Ranking is Overrated.
Yes, we are social animals, and we have desire to belong to social groups. This is the chief complaint I habitually field with first time clients on the spectrum. Their feelings of not feeling welcomed or belonging to a group, clique or tribe. In truth, you already belong to a tribe, and you are already accepted. If this was not true, you would be dealing with several people actively trying to expel you from your respective community. In truth, what you are dealing with is a desire to rank well on the social hierarchy. As a therapist who has worked with over 800 clients, I have worked with all sorts of people, from high achievers to those who are content with a humble existence, and every one of them to some degree expressed feelings of alienation from the general populace and their respective community members. So, if you are feeling like a bit of an outcast, you are in good company. One does have to wonder if that tribe of people who are truly cohesive and all accepting of their member is a myth. Regardless, when looking for a support group, or therapist please keep in mind that it is not healthy is engage in an us versus them mentality. This is not healthy.
The number one obstacle for people accomplishing any measure of change in their lives is the belief that they should be comfortable. The problem with always feeling comfortable is that it takes away your will to strive for any measure of accomplishment, in getting your needs and values met. When you are comfortable, you no longer have a sense of urgency to address challenges in your life and make the necessary changes. This is not to suggest that you must always be in a state of urgency to accomplish change in your life, but it does mean that if there any changes you want to make in your life, it is a mistake to wait to get to a state of comfort before you begin practicing change. If you wait to get to a place of comfort, you will simply revert back to old behaviors.
Feelings of discomfort are actually an evolution advantage; in that they motivate us towards taking action. For example, a hungry stomach will motivate you to get some food for yourself, however if you are surrounded by delicious junk food which influences your health for the worse, once you have satisfied your hunger with the junk food, you become less motivated towards acquiring and preparing for yourself healthier foods that will benefit your health. This is because the latter is more time consuming and requires significant effort.
In order to exercise the change, you need in your life, you will need to adopt a mindset where you come to appreciate all feelings and sensations as helpful. This means that even when you experience feelings of discomfort, you come to see these feelings as messages from your brain and body. These messages can be about things either going your way or things not going your way. When greeted with feelings that communicate any measure or severity of discomfort, ask yourself why you feel this way and then make a commitment to attend to the message without seeking to alleviate yourself from the discomfort. Often times this commitment can be made in writings. Over time, you will become more tolerable of uncomfortable feelings and more skilled at attending to the daily challenges in your life which require you to exercise change.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and owner of Road 2 Resolutions PLLC.
Driving to my office this morning, I listened to some broadcast information, I found disturbing. A happiness guru was giving giving advice on how to be happy.
He started out with an example of a retail worker, who was not happy with her job, and went to detail how she could immediately begin experiencing happiness, simply by changing her perceptions. Listening further, he appeared to state that she would be able to experience happiness by practicing a number of cognitive exercises simply geared towards looking at her situation in a different light. The problem I had with his message was that the change in perceptions where not tied to any follow through actions.
That line of thinking is based on the old glass half full or half empty analogy. That is to say, that you can either see a half glass of water as either half full or half empty. The issue I have with messages like these is that they are based on half truths. It is true that your thoughts influence your level of happiness, however if you find yourself experiencing unhappiness, who is to say that your thoughts are wrong? Take again the glass half empty or half full analogy, in reality a glass of water at any level is either on it’s way to being emptied or filled. It all depends on what decisions you intend on following through on. Are you going to empty the glass or refill it? Perhaps both.
Let’s explore a concrete example using the story of the retail worker who is unhappy with her job. What if she does not earn enough wages to get her basic needs met? Yet she believes that there are no immediate opportunities she can pursue where she is generating sufficient income. Telling someone in this situation to think happy thoughts is deceitful and insulting. It reminds me of a high school English teacher I was working with, who stated, “thank God I don’t live in India”. As she said this, I couldn’t help but notice the gaping hole in her right worn tennis shoe. I am not one to be materialistic, but I decided that based on her statement, her daily appearance was not one of self imposed frugality but one of impoverishment. Further, her comparison of her current situation at the time, to her perception of life in India, was meant to generate feelings of happiness about her situation. Which amounted to nothing but a false positive.
Back to our fictional retailer, if I knew someone in that situation, I would immediately share with that person that her unhappiness made sense. Further I would share with her that her feelings of unhappiness was her brains’ way of informing her that her current line of employment isn’t working out. If so, what is a retailer to do? I would introduce the retailer to cognitive exercises meant for her to brainstorm realistic alternatives for generating income. From my experience, such a process usually leads the person to come face to face with her fears generated by unhealthy beliefs she developed during her early life experiences.
At this point the goal would be in assisting the retailer to discard her old unhealthy beliefs and adopt new beliefs that steer her in the direction of practicing the courage to pursue her passions. So it is just not enough to think happy thoughts, instead happy thoughts are generated by decisions we make and intend to follow through on in either pursuing meaningful change in our lives or continue practicing habits to maintain a meaningful and fulfilling life style we are already living.
In my opinion, the key to happiness is the practice of courage. I will write more on this on the next post.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and a life coach.