Getting bullied is common for anyone who’s different. Many people bear the scars of bullying from when they were young, or get bullied as adults. People with AS or NLD are especially vulnerable (and frequent) targets; I think it has to do with characteristics of the Asperger’s/NLD profile.
First, people with AS tend to have expectations that are fixed and rule-based. One reasonable (but flawed) expectation is that people will be fair. When people don’t behave this way, it’s a curveball to someone expecting a straight pitch.
Second, those with AS tend to be very reactive to what’s unfair or humiliating, becoming hurt and angry almost immediately. As a result, they often respond in ways that get them rather than the bully in trouble. This is very gratifying for bullies; it’s positive reinforcement for behavior that seeks to have power over someone.
Third, people with AS tend to perseverate – they keep thinking about something over and over and can’t let go of a thought. This magnifies the impact of the bullying. Like Kris, many people with AS deeply internalize bullying and have it become self-defining and self-limiting.
Kris talked about the impact bullying had on him: “In Danville High School, there were people who mentally bullied others. Not physically but mentally. These were wealthy kids who actually thought they were better than you. And that tore at my soul and that’s a lot of my issues there because I never feel like I lived up and was liked by everyone. There was a need for me to fit in and be popular but not everyone liked me and that bothered me to my core.”
Bullies exist in school, and also in the adult world, at work and with acquaintances. Some adults continue to behave in a way that is mean and condescending. How does Kris clear his head of these ideas from the past, and how could he deal with bullies in the future?
Being emotionally reactive makes it hard for Kris to think clearly. His emotional reactivity made it hard for him to deal with the bullying at the time, and it is also maintains the impact of the bullying on him in the present.
It’s critical for him to have a repertory of self calming tools, whether it’s breathing, taking a break, visualizing something, counting or something else. Having a regular meditation practice gives a physical conditioned response that helps self calming tools be effective in the moment you need them. Trying to use self calming only in upsetting situations is like only having fire drills during fires. Here’s a brief description of meditation and how to guide: http://www.marciaeckerd.com/blog/2013/12/23/fred.
People with AS tend to perseverate – they get stuck thinking about what bothers them. Psychologically, dwelling on these experiences magnifies their impact. The Buddha is given credit for a wise saying: “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Physically, every time one thinks of a stressful experience, the body has the same physiological stress response in the autonomic nervous system as if the event was happening. In addition, there’s a structural impact on the brain: perseverating actually creates a neural network that continues to reinforce negative feelings.
Letting go of anger and self-defeating thoughts like “I’m not good enough” is a challenge for anyone, but especially people with AS. “I’m not good enough” is distorted thinking. One needs to learn the kinds of cognitive distortions and how to address them, both by recognizing the distortion for what it is, and by having a more realistic and positive thought to use instead.
Here/s some good links for learning about cognitive distortions and challenging them:
http://psychcentral.com/lib/fixing-cognitive-distortions/ and a list to have handy:
Kris’s anxiety in social situations not only reflects his persistent negative thinking, he also needs social tools to help him navigate social situations with confidence. He won’t feel better about himself or believe his positive cognition (“I’m OK”) if he doesn’t feel he knows what to do.
In social situations, just listening is OK. It’s not always critical to say the right thing. Checking with someone about perceived reactions can be important – “Was that OK?” shows sensitivity. And knowing problem behaviors like going on too long about a preferred topic is vital. I tell people to say one idea in a few sentence at a time, and then check to see if the listener still looks interested or asks a question. These examples are intended to show that strategies and skills can be learned.
Now, let’s address social tools to used at the time when bullying occurs. It helps to have some pre-planned responses. The first thing is to be assertive and say, “I really don’t like what you’re doing.” Assertive behavior is making a strong clear but calm statement that what the person is doing isn’t OK.
If a bully is persistent, people need to communicate that the bully simply doesn’t matter. This can be done by a shrug and saying, “Whatever,” or something that feels comfortable but that communicates the same thing. This calm reaction is often called fogging. The one thing NOT to do (beside reacting emotionally) is to get into a struggle for one-upsmanship. That keeps bullying going when the idea is to cut it off. Having the last word isn’t worth it, as hard as that might be to accept.
Here’s some links to response to bullying:
https://www.kidscape.org.uk/advice/advice-for-young-people/dealing-with-bullying/how-to-respond-to-bullies/ is a link with help for kids and teens, and https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/promoting-empathy-your-teen/201303/how-respond-verbal-bullying is a video demonstrating a response for adults:
Obviously, it’s important to look at the environment allowing bullying; that’s critical but enough for another blog.
Kris brings up his expectation that if he’s OK everyone will like him. He knows it’s not true, that we’re all human, with our strengths and quirks. Not everyone will like him, and he probably doesn’t like everyone himself. This idea of being liked by everyone is black and white thinking, one of those cognitive distortions. It’s necessary to use the calming and cognitive techniques to get rid of the feelings associated with the old thoughts.
Kris also has to accept the failure of an expectation that is reasonable in theory but not in practice. He believes that in school or at work, there should be inclusivity, and there shouldn’t be groups of people acting like they’re better. There shouldn’t be, but in the real world, there are. Exclusion is a common form of bullying. Like the Buddha said, he needs to let go of feeling upset about something he can’t change, the nature of people.
Kris needs to develop his sense of himself to more accurately to reflect his strengths and his more recent, successful experiences. He can recognize that he actually can handle situations well in the present and continue to develop his social skills. He needs to focus on what’s positive in his environment and relationships, rather than focus on what’s unfair and unfortunately out of his control. He can build on what’s positive to gain confidence in creating the future he wants.
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