I didn’t know until my 30’s that I’m autistic. That made for a very confusing childhood. I did my best to fit in, and with that came listening to the rules and expectations set forth for me.
I grew up in an extremely religious Christian household, so I tried my best to be a “good” Christian. I also tried very hard in school, especially because it was the one area I felt I could excel. I was encouraged to do well in school, and I held myself to high standards. I normally worked so hard that I exceeded the expectations.
What I didn’t realize then was that I was trying to find belonging in the world by adhering to structure and rules. It took a lot of unconscious masking and camouflaging. Even then, I wasn’t successful. It always felt like I wasn’t good enough. I was always being told a different way I could improve. I continued to work really hard.
The unrelenting standards I had for myself had deleterious consequences on my social relationships. I was extremely judgmental of others. I thought they also needed to follow the rules and expectations that had been explained to me. Furthermore, I worked extremely hard to meet them, so it bothered me that others didn’t meet them either.
Although I can articulate these things clearly now, I certainly didn’t realize that was what I was doing. I am now a therapist and have the training, hindsight, and self-awareness to understand what happened in the past.
I understand why most people did not stay my friend. I would openly criticize if I thought someone wasn’t doing something right. If I didn’t openly say it, my passive aggressive actions and behaviors would convey it.
In high school, I tried to do all of the “right” things. I joined sports. I ran clubs. I was in all of the honors classes. I also avoided all of the “wrong” things. I never gave myself space to stop and think, “Does this feel good to me? What do you actually want to do?”
Everything I wanted also felt out of reach. I wanted to feel like I belonged. I wanted to feel like I fit in. That was impossible: I wasn’t allowing myself to be my true self.
I have compassion for my younger self. I do not think there was a way for me to figure that out given I didn’t know I was autistic and the strict religious environment I grew up in. If I wasn’t being my true self, it makes sense it was difficult to experience true connection and belonging with others.
Second, I was downright judgmental. I understand why that wouldn’t feel good for others to be around. I was capable of conversing and having deep conversations with others. However, I wanted everyone to follow the same set of expectations and values that I conformed to.
I’d like to say I naturally grew out of being judgmental. I didn’t. I continued to be relentlessly judgmental of myself and others through my 20s. I lost valuable connections with myself and others.
In my 30’s, my levels of depression and anxiety were so high that I finally sought help through therapy. This helped me to gradually address the complex mix of emotions and thoughts within me.
However, it wasn’t until I learned I was autistic that I began to unravel the judgmentalism. Learning I was autistic was like realizing I had been playing in a virtual reality world the entire time. I set down the headset and began to evaluate what I actually wanted and what rules and values I wanted to live by.
Some of those values were drastically different from what I grew up with, such as rest. I wanted less on my schedule. I wanted more naps. I wanted more time for art. I wanted more time to do nothing.
I also began to explore the expectations I had for myself and began to let some go.
As I’ve done this, I’ve begun to see others with new eyes too. I’ve noticed I’m holding others to strict standards less and less too.
When I notice something about another person that doesn’t fit the neurotypical norm, I no longer think “they shouldn’t be doing that” or “what’s wrong with them.” Now, it adds a bit of a smile to my day. I appreciate their difference.
For example, I went to a coffee shop where I could see the barista’s pierced nipples through her white shirt. In the past, I would have had extremely judgmental thoughts of her. This time, I looked at her with admiration. I was happy that she could dress how she wanted, and even impressed that her work environment let her. It filled me with the desire to be more confident in my choices.
The other change since learning I am autistic is that I am building friendships that are based on connection. I am presenting myself as I am, and enjoying who they are.
This isn’t a before and after essay though. This is not to say all of my judgmentalism is magically gone. It is isn’t. I am still dismantling self-judgment and working to see others with more compassionate, accurate eyes.
Even though I haven’t reached where I quite want to be, I can still relish where I am. Relish that I can see shifts and that they feel good.
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