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“[L]ook who they are and how many of them are saying it.”

October 27, 2009

I ran across a comment whose last paragraph got me thinking earlier:

I work to end all oppression and I work to keep my life together, but sometimes feminism is intimidating to me because there are so many strong and independent women (good things!) who seem to be hyper achievers and love work and working and I don’t feel like I am able to do that, though I have tried really hard. I *am* dependent to a certain extent, at least right now, and I feel bad for playing into a helpless woman stereotype. Sometimes I feel implicated for not being able to take care of myself. “Get to Work”? I can’t right now.

And a response:

That last paragraph you wrote could very well be me. I have fought so hard and so long about being dependent, about “needing” help from others when my brain screams at me “you don’t need help, you can do it on your own” and wanting to do things. The thing is, I can, but I find it exhausting and taking every last bit of reserve of energy I have (and then some). So, learning how to let others help me is one of the things i’m still very much learning how to do.

I have been running into a similar problem, and have been thinking about this complex of issues a lot lately. You may remember that I ranted about my frustration with some of these things earlier this year. It’s only been brought home more by some of the search terms which have brought people to that post: “i am a housewife and feel useless and worthless”, “being a housewife sucks”, “being a housewife and depression”, “can i get disability if i a a house wife” (in the US: not SSI unless your husband is absolutely destitute, and not SSDI unless you managed to accumulate a bunch of work credits before you became disabled, and applying as a disabled housewife instead of straight from leaving paid work will not help you–the system sucks), and so on.

I’m still a Housewife By Default, and am continuing to have trouble with it; recently I touched on some of the practical implications. I am particularly uncomfortable knowing that there is a too-frequent set of assumptions about women who do not have paying jobs: we’re lazy, maybe not too bright, probably spoiled, and content to let someone else take control of our lives in many ways.

Funny how that overlaps with common messages about disabled people. Harmful projection abounds in both cases, from people who assume they know what is motivating us more than we do ourselves. Naturally, I have to question the motives of someone who is making these assumptions, in the same vein as someone who assumes everyone else is lying.

The whole thing is wrong-headed. I can tell that it’s skewed and harmful. Still, it’s hard not to let it get to you.

As the author of the original post from which I drew those comments points out, about growing up with an ASD:

The “treatment” for this condition when I was a kid basically consisted of adults yelling at me to TRY HARDER STOP BEING LAZY I KNOW YOU’RE SMARTER THAN THIS YOU IDIOT GET YOUR FINGER OUT OF YOUR DAMN NOSE ALREADY AND QUIT MAKING ANIMALISTIC NOISES AND BUMPING INTO THINGS NO WONDER BOYS DON’T LIKE YOU. Yeah, that helped, thanks bunches.

When you ask for help, and other people assume it’s motivated by your being lazy or just a smartass, pretty quickly you learn to stop asking. If you started out wanting to please, and people around you keep jumping to negative conclusions about your motives, you may come to believe that you’re really a lazy smartass who could really do things without help (or clarification) if you tried.* If you repeately get told that you’re more than smart enough to figure out and do things on your own, you might start thinking this is so. If you’re told that you’re obviously too stupid to do something properly, you might believe it.

I really identified with some of Dave Spicer’s descriptions of how he learned to cope and make sense of things, growing up as an undiagnosed autistic. I’m quoting rather a lot, because it’s excellent:

Over time, I internalized others’ beliefs about me – that “there was nothing wrong with me”, that I only needed to try harder, that if I really wanted to do things differently I could. In order to deal with each of these premises, I had to develop an interpretation of them, to translate them into something I could (at least partly) understand, and then turn into my beliefs about myself.

So “there is nothing wrong with me” became this: “Don’t ask for help, because I’m not supposed to need any. Besides, if anyone looked really closely and still didn’t find anything wrong, all of this really would be my fault. It’s better just to have a small hope than to risk actually finding out.”

And “all I need to do is to try harder” became “The other people around me are succeeding while I am not, and it must be as hard for them as it is for me. So I am never to complain about difficulty or physical discomfort. If anything is physically at all possible to bear, it should be borne in silence.”

Finally, “if I really wanted to change, I could” evolved into “I am deliberately resisting having my life, and the lives of those around me, be any better. I don’t know why this is. But everyone feels this way, and they can’t be wrong because look who they are and how many of them are saying it.” In other words, I was deliberately making the people around me upset and angry. . .

From the inside, not knowing any better, I felt that whatever difficulties I had in relating to other people, in learning abstract material, or in coping with constant change and unspoken expectations were all my fault. If I could somehow “try harder”, everything would be all right. Since I could not, my difficulties were therefore my own responsibility, and I was trapped in them.

A person in this kind of situation has probably despaired of ever receiving support or understanding from the outside, and probably does not have much self-esteem either. And the stress level, internally, is very high.

What came from all of this was, for me, a state resembling post-traumatic stress. Tendencies toward isolation and passivity, not uncommon in autism anyway, were reinforced. My understanding of what was happening around me had to be faulty, because so many things kept going wrong. I lived with a great deal of uncertainty about what was true and what was not. Unable to rely on my perceptions, I instead constructed a model of what I thought the world was, then lived in constant fear that someone would rush in and tell me that it was wrong.

This is straight-up internalized emotional abuse, which he links directly to PTSD and learned helplessness. It’s not just some inexplicable, individual form of “craziness” any more than internalized racism is; hey, “they can’t be wrong because look who they are and how many of them are saying it.” Unfortunately, a large proportion of our society will say these things about anyone who does not fit into narrow prescribed norms.

Not surprisingly, this learned approach to life will make you less capable of dealing with the world around you. It is highly disabling.

This sort of thing also hurts people who are perceived as more “normal”; some of us just get it worse because we are sufficiently different from what is expected. Ettina points out some of how this works in The Social Value of Demand Avoidance. Alice Miller has written a lot about how this kind of thing affects people, and becomes self-perpetuating. Personally, I was absolutely horrified to realize–applying compassion to try to defuse my reactions to some past mistreatment–that some of the worst individual offenders were honestly trying to help their young victims learn to live in their own hideous, zero-sum versions of the Real World. They truly thought they were doing the right thing, providing an important educational service, by spreading the brutality.

I was lucky enough not to be singled out, because of my obvious differences, for an extra dose of this through ABA or other behavioral therapies–but many elementary schools operate along the same lines. It’s not good for anyone.

How does this tie in with the comment which prompted me to write today? Especially if (frequently for good reason!) you’ve developed demand sensitivity/resistance, it’s easy to interpret the “women should be able to support themselves financially” ideal as an additional demand, pointing out your personal shortcomings if you cannot do so. It’s additional social pressure you may not be up to dealing with if you are actually disabled.

Unfortunately, as a lot of other people have pointed out, feminist thinking is not proof against racism, classism, ablism, or any number of other destructive ways of thinking. Most of the people pushing independence don’t mean any harm, but have been insulated by privilege–and have bought into some models of the way the world (and human worth) works that I reject. In this case, a lot of people are not looking at how all of these destructive ways of thinking fit together and interact, and are trying to achieve equality within an economic and ideological system that relies on the existence of various types of inequality.

That’s one of the main reasons that, if pressed, I’d call myself an anarcha-feminist. Working along with a system which defines a person’s worth (and available options in life) in terms of “economic productivity” is banging your head against a wall, to begin with. “The master’s tools”, and all that.

It’s still hard not to let it get to you sometimes. “[L]ook who they are and how many of them are saying it.”

Edit: Bev at Asperger Square 8 just posted another excellent and very relevant cartoon: Square Talk: The Social Model

* If bad psychotherapy is also applied to your perceived strangeness–based on generalized assumptions about how your mind must work, and what must be motivating you–this can really screw you up. All kinds of harmful interpretations can be placed on why you don’t know, or refuse to admit, that you are a lying, lazy smartass who is afraid of succeeding (among other interpretations based on the professional’s projection). I am still trying to work around some of the training which can lead a person into, as Amanda described it, “Fear of thinking one’s own thoughts or feeling one’s own feelings, and constant questioning of whether they’re real or delusional.” I still fight the drummed-in need to scrutize why I’m really thinking, doing, and saying what I am, to a truly pathological extent.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 28, 2009 8:22 am

    Thank you for pointing out the difference between “horrible zero-sum versions of the real world” and the “real world” itself (it may be consensus, but it is not consensual).

    Your points on demand sensitivity and resistance were helpful. I did/do look at the Squalor Survivors site sometimes.

    Donna Williams said to her first husband: ‘It’s a beautiful head and no-one should hurt it’. It is from a time when she and he were going through their respective compulsions (internalised and the rest).

    And women with paying jobs face some of the ‘not too bright/spoilt/willing to have another take control’ assumptions and the others which go along with that. They also face ‘the impostor syndrome’. And guys have that assumptions. I will say that I was slightly pissed when people called – and my former significant other learnt to call himself – lazy.

    I am participating in a discussion about self-esteem in an Emotional Intelligence website based in part of the work of Steve Hein. It’s the service you might wish you had as a suicidal teenager, but it’s certainly not limited to that remit.

  2. November 1, 2009 2:02 am

    This is an amazing post! Thank you!!

    (I can relate to an awful lot of this stuff you and Dave Spicer talk about, too, even if I didn’t always experience the same things. My parents knew I was autistic when I was a child, and knew what that meant in terms of my uneven skill set and sensory issues, so I didn’t get a lot of people denying I felt what I said I felt. It’s just that I’ve historically had so much difficulty with language, I learned not even to *try* to express particularly complicated thoughts, or anything I felt, whether it was an emotion or a physical sensation, because I would probably fail and get really, really frustrated.)

    I also totally agree with what you say about the ideal of economic independence acting as an additional burden on people.

  3. January 16, 2015 8:37 am

    In my case, I *bought* the rubbish mentioned, at least at first.

    I then though, “if these people were TRULY intending to ‘help’ me, they would see this is not helping. They would see that I’m getting worse, and not better.”

    Yet they continued telling me I was lazy, stupid, etc.

    Having bought all of that, and being intimately familiar with my own efforts, I thought, “therefore, they are better, smarter, more capable, etc. compared to myself. Now if I – as RETARDED as I am (‘Retard was a common epithet in my case) – can determine a semi-effectual course of action, then these (better in every way) people should do at least as well.”

    Trouble is, they didn’t and don’t.

    Because they’re smarter than myself, they have less excuse for ignorance than I do. If I’m not ignorant about what I must – then neither are THEY.

    They KNOW what they’re doing, then – they know I’m suffering (after all, they have special insight into others, which I lack…). They can read MY mind. (again, something I’m not able to do.

    Everywhere, the same message:”I’m Bad.”

    The obvious corollary: “In contrast, they’re GOOD.”

    Never give a tormented autist access to the tools of learning. He / She may well sum two and two; and, being an autist, is likely to get FOUR. In my case: “if I case discern that I need to treat my many failings as I do so as to get results, and I’m as stupid as I’m being told… And these stinky Normies are better than me at everything, and nothing works when I do it their way…”

    Then they’re LYING to me. They have less excuse than I do. They know better.

    They are better – or so they say.

    Either they aren’t better, or their goal(s) are not helpful. Since they plainly do MUCH better, only one possible outcome remains.

    They are NOT intending to help. They are intending to hurt.

    Again, don’t let a tormented autist get access to information. He / She may well conclude that a large segment of the Normal population views his kind as is describe in Hare’s “Without Conscience” – namely, most Normies, given suitable circumstances, will duplicate Zimbardo’s
    finding in the Stanford Prison Experiment – and being autistic provide them with those circumstances.

    Hence, all Normies must be treated as if having a significant degree of Psychopathy (If one is autistic).


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