I care a lot about the people around me. I care about their well being. I care about how they’re feeling. I care what they’re thinking.
Caring is normally applauded in modern culture, but it can also have a dark side. Like when we care, but there is little we can do for the person we care about.
Or when we care so much that we replay and rethink past conversations.
Or when our caring gets in the way of enjoying the present.
Or when our choices result in someone being hurt, and we hurt that they hurt.
It is a normal thing to care as a human. As an AUTISTIC human, it is natural for my brain to take this caring too far.
Why is that?
Probably a combination of factors.
An autistic person’s nervous system is in a highly activated state, leading to the brain monitoring and taking in information around them. That means we are deeply aware of our surroundings, including the people in them. We can quickly pick up on when something is “off” or someone is upset.
An autistic brain has neural connections that fire more frequently and in conjunction with other pathways. This leads to the brain having multiple connecting thoughts at once. Thus, many autistics think deeply about others and the things they care about. It also means we’re more likely to ruminate or perseverate about something bothering us.
Autistic individuals frequently experience higher intensity and frequency of emotional ups and downs. These experiences can lead autistics to have great depths of empathy when another person is suffering.
Alright, so I just explained it as straightforward as possible, like I’m some kind of scientist who can stand back and make sense of it all. However, I’m not a scientist. And while I can do my best to understand it all, it is FAR DIFFERENT to experience the emotions of caring too much. It’s like all of my understanding and logic is tossed out the window.
For example, I recently met with my stepmother to talk about some plans for my upcoming marriage in India. During the course of the conversation, she mentioned that she was planning to take 3 weeks off for all of the celebrations in India. I explained to her that we aren’t planning to do all of the typical Indian wedding events and we will likely only do two days of events. She was devastated. I could immediately see it on her face and sense it in all of her being.
I tried desperately to explain why we made this decision. However, my awareness of her hurt caused me to fumble my words and not articulate with the clarity I would have liked. I did my best.
When I left, I hurt for her. She had envisioned a lavish trip through India to multiple villages and with multiple exciting events. I logically understood it was not my fault that she concocted expectations for my marriage without talking to me. I also understood that I could not change the plans simply because she was upset.
However, that did not change that I wish she wasn’t upset. It also did not change that I wish my words could have captured that better when I spoke to her. I’m pretty sure I came off a bit cold and flat.
That is common for autistics. When we are overwhelmed, we frequently don’t respond, speak, or behave in the ways we would like. It’s why many people think that autistics aren’t empathetic. It’s simply that we cannot always express our empathy in the moment according to neurotypical social expectations (I wrote a whole essay on this called Stop Saying Autistics Can’t Empathize).
The other thing I couldn’t stop was my head ruminating over what had happened and how I felt bad for her. Did this solve anything? No. Did this help me in any way? No.
It was like I could watch myself from afar. I could see myself caring, and I wanted to stop caring so much, but just couldn’t.
In traditional therapy, a therapist would encourage a client with such problems to dive into cognitive distortions or maybe beliefs around the event (for example, “I never do things right.”).
However, for a perseverating autistic stuck in the throws of emotional overwhelm, this does little good.
The best thing I can do is to acknowledge what is present and then distract myself. If I try to force myself to feel differently, I just get frustrated with the process and that I care so much. If I try to reach out to someone to help me, I end up getting upset all over again as I talk about.
The best thing I can do is distract myself. Like a puzzle. Or some art. Something to occupy and interrupt the ruminating thoughts. Sometimes, when the rumination is particularly bad, I need two things at once… like a puzzle while watching a show.
Usually after distracting myself and a good night’s sleep, I’m emotionally calm enough to review what happened. I can see what led me to being upset, where I misstepped, and what I should do next. It’s the chance I have to learn from what happened to maybe tweak my approach next time.
For example, next time I would like to directly acknowledge my stepmom’s feelings. I also spoke with my fiance about what happened and we decided I would direct anyone with wedding questions to him.
Sometimes though, there simply isn’t anything we can do. Acknowledging that is also helpful. Such as, “That didn’t feel good, but I did the best I could and it would probably look the same if it happened all over again.”
The reality is, most autistics have little control over how much they care. We will probably always care a lot about a great deal of things. There is some mourning in that statement. Sometimes I would like to turn down the volume on my caring. Sometimes it hurts to care so much.
Before I knew I was autistic, I tried for years to learn how to do that through therapy. I never could learn it though. That only made it hurt more. Not only could I not turn my caring down, I felt like I was broken and doomed to a life of misery.
Turns out I’m not broken, my brain just functions differently. And ironically, the more I accept that I have a high flow of emotions and learn how to work with them (like distraction or processing the day after), the better I feel across time. When I’m not fighting the caring, I am a far happier human.
I’m admittedly struggling as I conclude this essay though. I feel uncomfortable ending on a positive. Like it’s all for the better and I get “better” with time. Yes, roughly, I am experiencing less frequent emotional spiraling and lows. However, when I am in the middle of an emotional spiral, it doesn’t feel like that. It captures me and sucks me in. It’s almost like all hope is gone and I’m blinded to the long-term changes across time.
Furthermore, I don’t want to utterly change my way of being. I think it is highly valuable that I care.
I want to be open about my emotional experiences for my fellow autistics that experience the same. For the more we can articulate our experiences, the less shame we will feel. The less alone and less broken. We can know that this is how it is with autism. We can understand why it is challenging and also acknowledge the positives. We can then trust that it’s ok to be the way we are, learn what works for us best, and return to a far more homeostatic place once our emotions subside.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.