“Why didn’t you tell me?” – On why anxiety stops us from sharing our struggles.

Thinking alone

For many people with an Autism Spectrum Neurology, anxiety is a constant companion.  Confiding in others when our anxiety compounds– especially for a specific problem– can be difficult, even with someone we trust.

Thinking alone

For the last couple of years I have been in a relationship with a woman who is an excellent listener. She is objective, supportive, and empathetic. I can trust her that I can be open and honest without fear of backlash. So, you’d think I’d have no trouble opening up and sharing problems with her. And yet I still do.

In March, I was struggling with a big decision on whether to continue a university course I’d just started studying.  I was experiencing significant and debilitating anxiety over assignments.  Writing anxiety is not a new experience for me.  For example, in 2001, it took me most of the morning to write an email whereas my boss said it would have taken him 10 minutes.  That’s when I started to realise that I really was wired different. 

On this occasion, I had spent more than 20 hours across a weekend writing around 800 words for an assignment.  That’s less than one word per minute!  Writing something like that can be, for me, like trying to run a marathon with a broken leg. Consequently, I started to question if I should continue with the course if this writing anxiety was going to be a constant problem.

As further proof of this struggle with writing, I started this article that same weekend and have worked and reworked it numerous times, and I’m only just finishing it more than seven weeks later. 900 words in seven weeks! And even now, as I’m about to hit the publish button, I dread it may not be right and some bleedingly-obvious mistake of argument or grammar remains.

So, there I was struggling with the decision of whether it was worth continuing studying for another five years with the high anxiety of written assignments. And yet, I didn’t want to tell my partner, despite her being such an objective and supportive listener.  I imagined her afterwards asking, “Why didn’t you tell me? Why didn’t you tell me what you were struggling with?”

So, I thought about it.  What was blocking me?  Why do I not confide and seek help and support from those close to me when I’m struggling? And I’m sure I’m not alone in this struggle.

Here are some reasons I came up with. 

I don’t know what I want you to say.  

This was the first reason I came up with, which is interesting in itself.  I want your support, but I just don’t know with what yet. I don’t know if I want encouragement to continue or stop; for or against.    

I haven’t worked it out enough to start

Following on from that, I might not have worked it out enough in my own head to begin talking about it.  Sure, people will say talking helps with understanding and clarity.  But…

I don’t know how to start the conversation.

This is similar to the previous; however, I might know what I want to say, but just don’t know how to start.  Often, it just doesn’t feel like the right time. Or because it is a big thing, it really is hard to start.

Once I tell you, you’ll want updates.  

I might want to tell you things but in my own time.  If I tell, will you want regular updates?  Will I want to talk about it when you ask for updates?

I didn’t want to upset/disappoint/burden you.

Is this more my ego?  Is it that I didn’t want to look like a failure to you?  I know you had shown admiration and encouragement, so if I give up and don’t sound convincing enough, will you think a little less of me?

It sounds like BS when I tell other people.

It’s hard enough to convince other people I have a problem when I even doubt myself that it really is a problem.  

You might try and talk me into “hanging in there”.

In life we fight through many tough situations.  Afterwards we wonder how, but we get a buzz for having done so.  But when we’re in the thick of it, it’s common and easy to think and feel there’s no way through, no alternative than giving up.  When I’m feeling like that, I often don’t want to hear from someone telling me to “stick it out” or “hang in there.” 

Why would I want to do that?  Why would I want more of this anxiety?!  At those times, it’s really hard to believe in the “light at the end of the tunnel.”  Even if all this struggle with my study will be over in five years, and I will be proud of my achievements and excited about what I’ve learned… why would I keep putting myself through this now

We see all these promotions, ads, and self-help memes telling us to speak up, tell someone, and so on, but it’s not that black and white.  We do have reasons. Anxiety can and does undermine best intentions.

In my previous relationship, I thought it was because that trust was broken that I wasn’t sharing my struggles with her. Yes, of course, that was a factor.  But I now see even in a strong and healthy relationship with someone I trust, anxiety– and my manifestation of Asperger’s– can still make me withdraw and stop communicating.

So, if someone doesn’t talk to you about a problem they’re struggling with, don’t take it personally.  Maybe they have the same reasons I do. Maybe, and likely, they have other reasons, too.

And maybe for Aspies who experience Asperger’s/Autism similarly to me, who like to resolve things in our heads first, who process incessantly– which may be considered a form of echologia (such as excessively replaying arguments, scenarios, or conversations over and over in our minds)– that’s what works for us.

But most importantly, it’s not personal.

Note: This is the author’s own experience of Asperger’s and should not be interpreted as defining Autism or Asperger’s. Autism/Asperger’s manifests and presents uniquely in each person.

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19 Responses

  1. LOL. This site is full of articles proclaiming that autistics need to think, feel, and behave like NTs in order to be valid humans.

    If you feel anxiety about opening up to NTs, that is your instinct reminding you that NTs cannot be trusted, and you should heed that warning. NTs don’t see autistics as anything but defective monsters, and they will use any info you give them to sabotage you at every possible opportunity.

    Don’t take my word for it; keep trying to “be normal” and fuck around with NTs.
    You’ll see.

    1. LOL to that last comment, BBB! It’s ironic too, isn’t it, that NTs tell us we lack empathy yet often they don’t display empathy for us and our struggles, demanding instead we change to fit in with them. Interestingly, my current partner is almost certainly on the Spectrum… maybe that’s why she is more empathetic. 😀

      1. Yes, it’s a conflict I struggle with constantly. Recent example:
        I live in a mental health facility and most of the residents with pets neglect and abuse them horribly, and staff refuse to take any action about it. When I get pissed and start ordering the residents to care for their pets, the staff say I am being narcissistic for telling others what to do, and also that I can’t be autistic because I’m displaying “empathy” for the pets by insisting they be cared for properly.
        All I’m thinking is:
        “How much fucking ’empathy’ does it take to know that large dogs living in microapartments need fresh air and exercise more than once a week? And more importantly, in a building full of supposed Non-autistics and social workers, WHY AM I THE ONLY ONE WHO HAS ENOUGH BALLS OR SENSE OR ‘EMPATHY’ TO DO ANYTHING ABOUT THIS???”

        I am glad you have a spectrumy partner. I love autistic men but they can’t stand me because twenty years of self-guided marijuana therapy have turned me into the “talky and enthusiastic” type of autistic (as opposed to “silent and starey”), and autistic men find that a HUGE turn-off.

        What I really want is to find a therapist who is on the spectrum, but whenever I find one, they get mad at me for “seeing through their mask” that they *thought* they were cleverly hiding their Sperg under. All I have to do is mention my own autism to these hiders and their face instantly gets that scared-rabbit look (“OH MY GOD! Am I hiding it??? CAN SHE SEE ME!?”), and then the mask tries to go back up and they pretend they have no idea what I’m talking about, so I’ll go
        “Really? because you show some traits yourself. Maybe you should get tested.”
        Then they know I’m not lying about being autistic, and they also know their concealed shame has been exposed, so they pretend to “leave town” so they don’t have to take appointments with me.

        I see Autistics who pose as NT as traitors. Fuck them.

    2. Sorry you feel so strongly about NTs. There is no way that any of the NTs I know would think that Aspies are ‘defected monsters’ or would want to ‘sabotage you at every possible opportunity’. It’s rather an outdated perspective for anyone to take. But, I assume you have had a very poor personal experience and that is why you are saying those things about NTs. It is very unkind if somebody has wronged you in such a way. Not nice at all.

      1. If you spend your life taking everything NTs say at face-value, you will never know what they are really like.
        Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

        Read the Crime section of any news site if you want to know what they are really like. I recommend taking special note of articles filled with grinning Facebook photos of murderers and their victims, seeming so “positive” and “connected”, right up until the moment their true intentions became apparent and someone ended up dead.

        And while I appreciate the backhanded attempt to make me to blame for my perception of NTs by having “bad experiences”, one needn’t have had any “bad experiences” with NTs in order to see them for what they truly are. One needs only to stop trying to “fit in” with them by parroting their social propaganda long enough to actually detach and observe them honestly.

        Fragile people should avoid it.

    3. Your comment makes me wonder if you have actually bothered to read any article here, including this one, CAREFULLY. Because they must certainly are not about what you claim they are.

      1. Many are though, if not intentionally. Most autistics have just internalized the need to think, act and behave like NTs so thoroughly that it’s second-nature, they don’t realize how much effort they expend on it.

        Mask now; suicide later.

  2. Yes to all of your points in this article! Very well thought out and great descriptions. You’re saying what I’m feeling each time I want to open up to someone. And a great description of the effort it takes to write a short passage/article like this, as I’m exactly the same way.

    1. Thanks, Michael! It’s always nice to hear when other people have a similar struggle.

      1. Hi Chris, what a very good piece of writing. It helped me understand my partner a bit more. Unless AS people tell us NTs then we won’t know what’s going on. 🙂

  3. Chris, I absolutely relate to everything you have written here. It validates who I know I am. I hope it will also help NT’s learn our ways of being and communicating too. The more people share how things are, my hope is that connections can be made and new understandings can be reached.

  4. Very interesting, thank you. Myself, my 14 year old son and 18 year old daughter are all Autistic it I must say it doesn’t always qualify us to understand each other. As we have read a million times one person with autism is exactly that; one person with autism.
    My son is suffering terribly at the moment and it’s heartbreaking. He is very anxious and depressed and I really don’t know what to do. As you explained it took him a long time to even find the words to tell me because he didn’t know what outcome he wanted. He still doesn’t and the three of us together are anxious and stressed; we all ‘get it’, but fixing it is another matter.

  5. Pingback: Asperger's Blog
  6. While your experience may be related to autism in that you experience more anxiety because of it, I do not think that not wanting to open up to others is unique to aspies/autistics. It seems to me that it is a human thing, rather than an aspie/autistic thing. Of course, we probably think about it and agonise about it and analyse and reanalyse it more than NTs would on average, but isn’t everyone afraid of sharing our deepest feelings with another person, especially someone who is close, for fear that the reaction may either invalidate or reinforce those feelings (fear of the unknown)? After, all, even though you could not open up to the one closest to you, by writing this, you have revealed your feelings to the whole world (i.e. a lot of people you don’t care about and who do not particularly care about you), and that is easier than revealing your feelings to someone whose reaction truly matters to you.

  7. WRITING ANXIETY I did not know that was a thing other people experienced!! Even replies to a message from a close friend can take a few days before I have the energy to attempt, then take anywhere from 30 mins to a few hours, (leaving it and coming back to it because I have ME/CFS so very limited concentration now, but I was just as bad before and would spend solid hours crafting even a 3-line e-mail).

    There are times I doubt my suspicions about being a spectrumite because a lot of anxiety I’ve managed to let go over the past few years, and I’ve learned techniques that almost come naturally to me now – especially for empathising with others, though maybe emotionally I’ve gone too far the other way and opened floodgates rather than just allowing appropriate emotional intensity. But then things like this that I don’t face everyday (due to being virtually housebound and with no job, no real life because I’m currently so ill) are still monumental efforts, and to hear that aspies struggle … Well, it makes me doubt my suspicions a little less.

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