Kris Jones and I are discussing the obstacles to his self fulfillment. The first we discussed was social anxiety; the second I’m highlighting is handling being different and rigid/black and white thinking. This kind of “all or nothing” thinking impacts the way that he relates well to friends.

“Unlike so many in our society today, I feel that I hold myself to high principles. I have integrity and maintain my unique individualism despite what others think, but sometimes it’s harder than what it seems. Where I have never been one to go with the crowd, I have also felt a desire to fit in and have caught myself bending more than I care to do it. For example, I don’t really drink, but to fit in with some of the crowd of friends I have had over the years, I allow myself to do so, at times. Yet, I struggle with an inner conflict telling me that this is wrong, but I do it anyway. I feel like I sell myself out to try and fit in whereas I try to remain proud of my individuality and uniqueness despite what others think of me. The danger I walk in with that philosophy though is that it comes off self-righteous to other people and that’s where I have had a lot of trouble in life. People think I am a goody-two-shoes and full of myself and it irritates them.”

Kris’s principles and integrity are unquestionable. They are part of who he is, and to be honored.  However, the rigidity of his thinking makes handling his principles socially problematic. He wants to fit in and be accepted, but he feels his choice is all or nothing; he drinks or he doesn’t drink. Using this as an example, if Kris could think more flexibly, he’d realize he could fit in and maintain his principles at the same time. Many people are committed to sobriety for different reasons and have friends who drink. When their friends drink, they have a club soda or something unobtrusive and don’t make a point of not drinking. Similarly, vegans often have non-vegan (and even meat-eating) friends and it doesn’t have to destroy the friendship.

This then brings us to a second, more difficult point. Sometimes, people can’t  tolerate that others don’t share their principles. Kris refers to this as happening occasionally; for example, he sometimes worries that he can be judgmental and come off as “snooty.”

If people maintain their beliefs with a “live and let live” flexible attitude, this wouldn’t drive away friends. But if  flexibility is uncomfortable,  they might feel the need to point out the superiority of their beliefs. For some who see this inflexibility in themselves, this can present a dilemma. They  simultaneously believe that their beliefs are in fact superior, but sense that feeling superior is arrogant. For others, a belief is the only correct belief and and they communicate this idea to everyone.

Can people who have difficulty tolerating differences in beliefs, but who choose to have friends with different beliefs  (or have a need to get along with others who have different beliefs) develop cognitive flexibility? If they want to be more accepting, can they find a way  to accept that their principles and beliefs are their own and extremely important, but that they are different rather than superior to others?

This is a challenge to many neurotypicals as well, so this dilemma isn’t unique to people with AS. If one only wants friends with similar beliefs, that’s perfectly fine. But if one wants friends who are diverse, one must find a way to accept them, to have them be accepting as well, to put aside judgment so it’s possible to “agree to disagree.” This necessitates “letting go” of the sense of superiority.

How does anyone accomplish this? First, I go back to meditation. The act of breathing, focusing and letting go of thoughts as they come up teaches us that thoughts can be present without preoccupying us. It’s like working on a computer. One can magnify one program so it takes up the whole screen, or one can minimize it so it’s present but other programs are visible.

With regular practice, a person can recognizes the thought as a thought, and not as the whole truth.  For example, if he (or she) wants a friend with different principles, he  might think of something positive about that person and the thought, “I accept him as a whole person.” He would stop blowing up the disagreement to take over the relationship.

The only exception is if people force them to act against their ideas, or if their ideas result in harm or abuse. An example of this might be having a roommate who is a smoker. One can respect that person’s right to make that choice, but second hand smoke has been proven to have serious health consequence (harm). Someone who is a bully is abusive. These both shouldn’t be tolerated.

If Kris is able to accept presenting his principles in a flexible way, and the idea that his friends can have principles and beliefs that are different from his and that might be right for them, friendships would become much easier and less stressful. The “goody two shoes” trap would be much less likely. This would help him have friends, and help this aspect of self-fulfillment.

Photo by FailedImitator