Gender: An Opinion

I want to talk a bit about how I view gender. With pictures! 

First, the requisite prelude: gender is a social construct. To be clear, gender is still entirely REAL. People would still experience gender in some way, shape, or form if there was no society in which to experience it. However, the society in which we are raised and live plays a huge role in how we conceptualize that experience. To elaborate on this, I’m going to use some illustrations to help me.

This is my representation of gender absent societal influence. Each dot represents a possible experience of gender. The dots exist entirely on their own, but right now they lack a context or conceptualization.

Now let’s look at what gender might look like in “traditional” western society.

It’s the exact same dots (literally. I used layers!). But we have a gender overlay that divides the dots into two groups – men and women. It surely works for the vast majority of people, but there is an issue or two. A few dots in the middle don’t fall neatly into either category. And possibly some individuals existing very close to the line might not feel quite right in their assigned category.

This one is my personal conceptualization of gender. “Et al.” is me just broadly lumping non-binary genders together. The boundaries of “man” and “woman” are made rough and murky on purpose – I think that harsh lines always end up leaving some people existing on those edges, unsure of where they fit or feeling like they don’t fit anywhere. So I fix that problem by just not having harsh boundaries. Personally, I would say my gender exists in the lighter area right on the edge of “man.” Sort of a murky area where, yeah, I’m basically a man, but the division between my gender and non-binary genders is pretty weak. 

I also find it important to point out that my conceptualization of gender is still heavily influenced by the society in which I live. It comes from a combination of the man/woman binary concept of gender I grew up with, plus my time spend in queer communities, plus my friendships with non-binary people, plus my own gender journey, and probably more. The point is, it’s a construct. And while it’s the one I use and prefer, it would be incredibly arrogant for me to declare it the “correct” construct. It is simply A construct. 

Other societies have other constructs. For instance, the Bugis society in Indonesia, which has five(ish) genders. Their gender construct might look something like this:

Here we have five distinct boxes that correspond to their genders. Now, the Wikipedia entry on the Bugis concept of gender says: “Oroané are comparable to cisgender men, makkunrai to cisgender women, calalai to transgender men, and calabai to transgender women” This is an easy shorthand way for a westerner with a western concept of gender to get a basic grasp of how the Bugis view gender. But it is not an entirely accurate view. 

A while back I read the book “Challenging Gender Norms: Five Genders Among Bugis in Indonesia (Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology)” by Sharyn Graham Davies. Unfortunately, my copy of the book is currently in a box somewhere so I’m not going to be able to cite it as well as I would like. In any case, the author spent (I believe) a year among the Bugis in Indonesia, learning first-hand how they experience their genders. And she did, in fact, ask some calabai if they viewed themselves as women or wanted to be women. The answer was an emphatic NO! They are NOT WOMEN! They are calabai, which is its own gender, not to be conflated with womanhood. So we may say they are “comparable to” trans women, but that is as far as it goes. To do any more (and possibly even that) is to impose western society’s construct of gender onto a society that has a very different construct. 

Also an important note – I even did a little of that right here in the name of ease of writing. To say the Bugis society has five genders is not accurate, as the Bissu is not technically considered a gender. Bissu is, instead, a meta-gender, considered to embody the four genders into one person. According to “Challenging Gender Norms” the distinction is important within Bugis society.

Other societies have different framings of gender. I have definitely heard of many different ways societies conceptualize gender, and I can’t think of any time I have heard of a society without gender at all. Gender is pervasive, because it is real. And because we are human and categorizing is just one of the things we do, we find various ways to categorize experiences of gender in order to make sense of ourselves. As part of our stories of ourselves

As a final thing – sometimes I see people claim that there would be no trans people if we lived in some kind of magical society without gender. I truly do not believe that would be the case. My physical dysphoria has been very real and very intense in my life. I didn’t get top surgery because of some idea that “boys don’t have breasts.” I got top surgery because having chest lumps was so intensely distressing that major surgery was a good choice for me. Even without the societal concept of gender overlaying those dots, I would still experience dysphoria and be trans. 

Because gender is real. And also a social construct. It’s both.

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Hypervigilance

I want to talk a bit about hypervigilance and how it impacts me.

First of all, let’s get the definition part out of the way. Webmd says that hypervigilance is: “the elevated state of constantly assessing potential threats around you” It’s basically being on high-alert all the time, instead of just when something alarms you. 

I can remember when I first heard of hypervigilance. Someone was talking about this state of constantly looking at people and surroundings, analyzing all potential threats and trying to take in all information possible all the time in order to be as aware as possible of everything, and how utterly exhausting it is. I found it very strange, because that really described me, but surely I wasn’t hypervigilant! I mean, yes, I’m constantly watching and scanning and analyzing and all that, and yes, it’s entirely exhausting and seriously limits how much I can do, but there must be a different reason for me. I concluded that it must be related to my being autistic and moved on with my life.

… Yeah, I’m hypervigilant. And yes, it’s a result of trauma. 

I find it to be a weird, mixed thing. For instance, my friends have a tendency to describe me as “very thoughtful.” That thoughtfulness comes from constant observation, taking mental notes, and then remembering things at appropriate times. Little things, like knowing THIS person will want an extra towel, and THAT person prefers a specific pizza brand. It tends to seem perfectly natural to me to always be remembering all these little details about people and acting on them without prompting, but apparently not everyone agrees. 

But what I really find myself thinking about is how that hypervigilance intersects with the fact that I am autistic. For instance – those details. Being detail-oriented is also a trait of autism. I suspect that my hypervigilance is working with my autism to enhance my ability to be constantly aware of the details of things around me. 

I have also turned my hypervigilance into a tool to help me compensate for some of the social impacts of autism. As is typical with autism, I am not so great at picking up on social cues, nor do I have a solid grasp of how to interpret what I do pick up on. I’ve had people tell me that I shouldn’t analyze so much and just go with the flow. The problem is that I am completely blind to this “flow” thing people talk about. So no, I absolutely cannot “go with the flow.” The best you’ll get is a bunch of (metaphorical) social flailing in which I can’t seem to stop smacking people. I’ll stick with my over-analyzing habits, thanks.

So constantly analyzing social situations for literally everything also helps me consciously pick up on social cues that allistic (non-autistic) people feel intuitively. 

Of course, this is a double-edged sword, because of course it is. Being autistic also means that group situations are stressful and exhausting for me. The social dynamics of a group are complicated and extremely difficult to keep up with. 

Being hypervigilant in a group is also extra exhausting. There is a LOT going on. I feel an intense need to focus on every person individually and simultaneously so that I know what they are doing and what they are feeling and if I might be in danger at any given moment. Plus those social dynamics. Plus watching the environment we are in. 

So autism and hypervigilance also become a one-two punch making group socializing beyond exhausting. 

But being able to use it as a tool also means that giving it up would set me very far back in my social skills and development. Even my therapist has admitted that it’s possible that I will need to keep it. Yeah, the ultimate goal/hope is that I will be able to heal from my childhood trauma, but this particular trauma response might need to stay, even with the extra exhaustion it brings. 

I have no solid conclusion here; this really was mostly a small exploration of one little aspect of what I’m working on in therapy. I will say – you know how autistic people will tell you that our autism touches EVERYTHING in our lives? Yeah, this is an example of just that. 

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a trauma response

I mentioned recently that one of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is trauma, so I’m going to try writing about that and see how it goes. I mean… ok, I’ve already written about it a lot, but that was journaling. I’m going to try to write about it in a sharing kind of way, which is very different. 

So apparently I have complex trauma from Bad Things in my childhood. Things like emotional parentification, emotional abuse, physical abuse… etc. This is very strange and scary to put out there publicly. I don’t even talk to my friends about this, but I guess I’m going to try to tell an internet full of strangers. That’s cool, right? Sure. Yeah. 

Now, writing about this in a ‘put this on my blog’ kind of way means picking one particular thing to talk about. And, well, I think I have A Thing. It’s a pattern of thought that I have that’s come up recently in therapy. 

See, I am very afraid of admitting that something someone did hurt me. Anything. Ever. If someone does something and I feel hurt by it, actually saying so, bringing it up to talk about, any of that is TERRIFYING. I absolutely hate doing it. 

“What are you afraid will happen?” you may ask. Well, I’m glad you asked. I will elaborate. Here is roughly the response I expect to receive:

“Oh, I hurt you? Oh no! I feel terrible for hurting you! It feels so bad! You are hurting me by telling me that I hurt you! You are bad for hurting me! How dare you! Now I am angry with you!”

Now, no one currently in my life does this. It has been literal decades since anyone has had the power to punish me for this. Sadly, even in my adult life I’ve had (other) people in my life who did crap like that, but they are no longer in my life. It’s been years. Nonetheless, I find I remain forever vigilant, waiting for this to happen. 

Apparently this is a trauma response. Both in the vigilance itself, and in the fact that it sticks with me all the time. Like, it has nothing to do with whether or not a person has any likelihood of behaving that way. The level of trust I have with someone is simply irrelevant. 

If A Person, no matter who, hurts me, and then tries to talk about it, my first, instinctual response is to minimize everything. Oh, it’s fine, no big deal, I’m not bothered, don’t worry about it! What’s worse is that at first, I kind of even believe it. It can take days for me to fully process what happened and fully sort out if it was actually no big deal, or if it was, in fact, a Very Big Deal that I really am hurt over. 

And, like, then what? I probably already said it’s no big deal. Even if I didn’t, am I supposed to just TELL THEM that they did a thing that hurt me? That’s absurd! Better to just tuck it away somewhere and not bother them. Because otherwise they might get mad at me.

Otherwise I might be bad.

I don’t want to be bad.

Apparently not being bad means making myself small, and this is just one of many ways that I do that. 

So I find this leads into other topics it might be worth talking about sometime. For instance, I’ve been learning about hypervigilance. Apparently that’s another thing that I do. Or my eternal worry about being bad. Or how I make myself small. Hm. Possibly there is a lot here for me to talk about. I guess we’ll see. 

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Tentacle

I recently read Tentacle by Rita Indiana and now I want to talk about it. 

I can’t remember where I heard of this book, but I am really trying to read more books by authors of color, particularly women of color, and especially so if the author is in some way queer. Tentacle checked all those boxes, plus being written by someone from a different country than me which always makes for an interesting reading experience. 

And this was indeed an interesting reading experience. And by interesting I mean confusing. I was confused. A lot. The story takes place in The Dominican Republic – I place I have never been a know close to nothing about. The storytelling smoothly switches between past and present sometimes even within a single paragraph. 

After I finished reading it I proceeded to continue to be confused for a few more days, but eventually I pulled together various bits of it into something that had a lot of meaning for me personally. Before I get into that I do want to make clear – there is a LOT in this book. Really a lot. I am not trying to say what the story was about, only the meaning I pulled from it personally. 

Anyway. There are two characters who I found to be parallelling and contrasting each other – Acilde and Argenis. They are both queer characters living painful, closeted lives. They both struggle with their identity, who they are and who they want to be, and at least in Acilde’s case, trauma from their past. 

Then, they both find themselves with a community of people who are willing and able to support them, encourage them, and accept them for exactly who they are. 

What they do with that is where those two stories diverge. 

Acilde reaches out to his community. He allows himself to be helped by them, and simultaneously puts in so much work to follow his dream, to find his meaning, to become himself. 

Argenis, on the other hand, does not. He could, he has the opportunity and the support, but instead he spirals inwards and is consumed by his own bitterness. 

Acilde eventually reached a point where he was fully in himself, healed from his past trauma and able to let go of it all, choosing to live the life he had built for himself. Argenis was destroyed. 

And seriously, this speaks to me so deeply. For instance, I struggle with the importance of community, and I struggle with accepting help. I want to do everything alone. And I have, in fact, done many things more or less independently. Things I have gathered many people figure out with the help of a therapist, I figured out on my own. And now I am at a point where I am realizing I cannot heal from my past trauma alone, and I struggle with that. I feel like I should be able to. 

Except of course, community isn’t everything. No one can do your healing for you. All the help in the world won’t be enough if you aren’t willing to actually do the work. Which I can do – I am always trying to be better. I think anyone who knows me well could tell you that. 

Plus, just the acknowledgement that I can build my own life, from my own choices. And then, you know, I can live it.

This really is a remarkable book. I’ve read a few different blogs about it by different people, and what I’m gathering is that there is enough it in for everyone to pull something different from it. The meaning you get from it will almost certainly be different from the meaning I got. 

Maybe in a few years I should read it again and see how it speaks to me then. 

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I wrote a letter

So after the Supreme Court overturning Roe v Wade, I was crushed. Devastated. Just… I don’t even have words. Women, trans men, and non-binary people are going to die from this. There are huge implications. And at least two justices lied under oath.

I really wanted to do something. I feel so helpless – what can I possibly do? Well, the answer is to write to my CongressPeople. So that’s exactly what I did, and now I am sharing my letter if you want to do the same.

Dear CongressPerson:

As with many Americans, I am devastated at the recent decision SCOTUS made to overturn Roe v. Wade. An individual’s right to full autonomy over their own body is absolutely vital to maintain a just democracy. The implications of this decision are far-reaching, including matters of medical privacy, contraception, and more. 

Another matter of immediate concern is the sanctity of testifying under oath, and how absolutely unacceptable it is to lie under oath. Both Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch explicitly lied under oath during their Senate confirmation hearings. They both made statements regarding respect for precedent, which they clearly did not truly believe. 

Therefore, I am asking that you stand with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and move to impeach Justices Kavanaugh and Gorsuch. If a democracy is to stand, no one can be above the law. 

Thank you

I am supposed to feel patriotic this weekend, but I just don’t. I’m struggling, just in general. So if even one of you uses this letter, that would be amazing. Also, here is a link to help you find your CongressPeople if that would help.


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Just me being uncertain.

A few blog thoughts I want to share.

I’ve been finding myself struggling to write. When I first started my blog I had just been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (it was still in the DSM at the time). Autism was very heavily on my mind and continued to be for quite a few years. But as it turns out, things change over the course of a decade. I still think about autism, but not nearly to the degree that I used to.

Now I think about gender and trauma, as those are the things currently very heavy on my mind. So I’m struggling with what to do with my blog. The fact is, I really like to write. I write for myself a lot – all kinds of journaling that never get shared with anyone. I also like sharing my thoughts, hence the blog. So… do I go ahead and let my blog shift? Do I start a new blog intended to be more general, for various ideas I ponder and want to explore?

I’m just not sure. Any thoughts from my readers?

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I am a Story

I have a ramble about stories and storytelling wandering around in my head, but I’m not sure how to start it. I guess I’ll just do my best. 

I have been doing therapy work around unpacking and processing childhood trauma. One of the ways I conceptualize this process is that I am re-writing the story of myself. My entire concept of myself is of stories – I don’t think there is a huge difference (if any) between the concept of “me” and the story of me. I am the story I tell about myself. We are all the stories we tell about ourselves. 

Jumping a bit (and this is relevant, I swear) – let’s look at the concept of history. When I was young I thought “history” was simply events that happened in the past. But that’s not accurate at all. History is the STORY we tell about the past. Yes, it is about events, but it is also our ideas of which events were important. Who was the good guy, who was the bad guy, how did this event or that event impact who we are now. People who complain about “revisionist history” are missing the point. ALL history is revisionist. As societies grow and change, as our concepts of right and wrong shift and alter, the way we look at history changes as well. This is good and correct – it SHOULD change as we do. So the stories of history change as well, even while the framework of the actual events stays the same. 

The stories of ourselves are similar. I look into my past and I choose which events are Important enough to be part of the story that I tell, while other events fall to the wayside. As I grow and change, so too does my story. A villain may become a hero; a hero may become a villain. A memory that used to be connected to shame may change and become connected to pride. The events of my past do not change, but the way I understand the events does. 

I firmly believe that this is what stories are supposed to do – all stories. We tell and retell our stories – of ourselves, of our society, of our past, of our myths, of our beliefs, of our ideas, on and on and on – and over time those stories change and change again. 

My current favorite example is the Greek story of Persephone and Hades. The story that survives to us is a story of kidnapping, betrayal, and trickery. Within that story, Persephone has little to no agency and is largely a victim. Well, I have been seeing people retelling that story, giving Persephone agency and choice. A story of her falling in love with darkness and choosing to live with Hades. I have also seen people get very angry about this, because that is not the story! Stop adulterating the story! While it’s true that the original story (that we know of, who knows if the story we have is the “original”) is not like that, I actually LOVE the way people are retelling it. I don’t see it as forgetting the original story or romanticizing abuse – I see it that somehow this ancient story is still alive. It still speaks to people, and so we retell it in a way that shows what we love, what we value, what we need in our heroes, how we imagine our dreams ending. 

Which brings me to my next point – stories are things that we TELL. Stories are for sharing. This includes the stories that we create about ourselves. We all share our stories of ourselves any time we connect with another person. Yes, it can be literally telling stories of Important Events in our lives, but also in our songs, our fictional stories, our beliefs, our hopes – everything of who we are is part of our story. 

And like any other story, it is told collaboratively. People are telling their stories of Persephone to each other, and in each telling it changes. It becomes what people want and need it to be, and collectively people come together to create a story together. When an author writes a book, they share drafts of it, take the feedback and input, and make adjustments. Even with one author, the work has a strong collaborative element. 

Humans are interconnected and interdependent. So are our stories. We tell them to and with each other. Every person in my life has contributed to my story. Every person in your life has contributed to yours. The society in which I live shapes my story. The values I grew up with, even if I eventually discarded many of them, shape the Story of Me. 

Which means that if I choose to rewrite part of my story, that needs to be done collaboratively too. My story has always featured my own weakness and failure. I am trying to change it into perhaps a story of strength and survival, but the basic fact is that I can’t make those changes alone. The version of my story that was written when I was young got its start before I even took ownership of my story. Before I was even able to create my own story at all. I was handed a story of my own inadequacies when I was far too young to even realize it was possible to choose a different story. 

So that is what I am trying to do. And while yes, I am the author, like any author it is not a task I can undertake alone. Why would I even want to? 

Stories are important.

Stories are collaborative.

Stories change.

Stories are Us.

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I am working on being impulsive

I’ve written about this in the past, years ago, but I don’t feel like rummaging through my old posts to link them. Suffice to say – I’ve been working on this for a long time. 

Normally when I see people writing on the topic of impulsive actions, it’s about how to curb them. I’m lucky enough to be the opposite – I am not impulsive at all. Ever. Or at least, I didn’t used to be. I’m working on it. 

I don’t think I’ve ever read or heard anything about encouraging people to be MORE impulsive. The general societal idea seems to be that impulsiveness – especially if it crosses some invisible boundary into *too much* impulsiveness – is a bad thing. Except impulsive behavior is part of a larger category of behavior that very much IS valued by neurotypical society. It includes things like being spontaneous and adapting to last minute changes in plans. Basically, it’s a category of doing-things-that-were-not-planned. I’m sure absolutely no one will be surprised when I say that this category of behavior is a weakness of mine.

Sudden changes in plans are truly TERRIBLE for me. I have managed to develop some techniques that help me cope so I at least CAN function when plans change without warning, but I will never be a person who can happily just “go with the flow” (whatever that means). 

I am not spontaneous. Ever. I don’t want to be.  Right now I’m just leaving this one alone. I know it limits how much I can participate in neurotypical society, but I honestly just don’t care. Why would I want to participate if it involves doing something so unpleasant? Ugh. No thanks. I’ll plan everything I do, thanks.

Of course, that is closely linked to impulsivity, and that is something I AM working on. And yes, sometimes the line between the two is very very blurry. 

Years ago when I first started working on practicing being impulsive, I decided to try to make an impulse purchase at the grocery store. This was remarkably difficult, but I did manage it. I’m not sure how much it still counts as “impulsive” when I’m agonizing over my decision for at least 10 minutes, but still. Anyway, I got a sweet snack.

Can you guess what happened after that?

I made that particular snack part of my weekly shopping trip. Yep. Leave it to me to plan my impulsiveness. 

Eventually I figured out that if getting Snack was part of my weekly plan, that meant it wasn’t an impulse purchase. Whoops!

Anyway. Now it’s several years later and I’m trying again. I’m actually doing much better this time! This time around I make a point to NOT deliberate more than a few seconds on what I’m grabbing, and I vary what I get from week to week. It’s generally a salty snack of some type (look, I still need SOME structure, ok?), but which one will vary depending on what’s in stock, what I happen to spot, and what I “feel like.” Ok, that last one is a bit mysterious to me, but I’m still trying to use it. Do I “feel like” having some doritos? Or maybe some pringles? Maybe the fritos just look reeeaaally good one day. 

I’ve only been doing this for a few months, so this new attempt is, well, pretty new. I was SO damn proud of myself when I managed to be impulsive twice in two weeks. 

Now, I said I have no desire to be spontaneous, but maybe that’s kiiiind of not true. Some of my impulse practice is, I think, crossing that line into spontaneity. Sometimes I think “hey, it might be nice to go to the ice cream shop and get some ice cream!” And then! I do it! WOW! 

As for HOW I’m managing this incredibly difficult task – part of it is definitely support I’m getting from my nesting partner. They know I’m no good at being impulsive, so they provide emotional support and encouragement when I grab that bag of chips. I also arrange structure AROUND impulsiveness. My partner and I go grocery shopping on the same day every week, at roughly the same time. We have a specific pattern we follow. So I feel like I have firm footing, so to speak, when I try to do something less than planned. 

Those ice cream outings? They are always at about the same time in the evening every time. It’s always to the same ice cream shop. I always get the same flavor of ice cream. 

I will always need a lot of structure in my life. But it really helps to know that I get to make my own structure, in the form that works best for me. And I can create structure even around unstructured things – I can create boundaries around them so I don’t just feel unmoored and out of control. 

In the end, that’s really what I’m practicing when I practice being impulsive. It is highly impractical (and possibly outright impossible) to plan and structure every single thing in my life and every single thing I do. I used to try, and would seriously fall apart when those plans went awry. So I build my plans with contingency plans, and contingency to the contingency plans, and flowcharts, and plans that are more about working within some pre-defined structure than an exact itinerary, and I am working on making spaces for No Plan. 

And I’m actually doing it!

I am very proud of myself.

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I went and got a massage

Art from here.

So I recently posted a brief ramble about self care. In it, I mentioned that I’ve been having pain due to rather significant muscle tension, and that it might be in my best interest to get a massage. While some people treat that form of self-care as something froo-froo-y and silly, it’s actually a difficult thing for me to do. I’m really not a big fan of strangers touching me.* As in, I actively avoid shaking hands with people I meet if I can possibly help it. I don’t want to touch anyone (or have them touch me) in ANY way until I know them and am comfortable around them. A massage involves a complete stranger TOUCHING me. AAAALLLL over. 

In any case, I did get a massage because I was hurting so much it was impacting my ability to function. And yes, it was DEFINITELY uncomfortable for me. I chose to cope with that discomfort by leaning into it and embracing it. Trying to avoid the feeling or make it go away wouldn’t work, and almost certainly would cause an increase in tension. You know, the exact opposite of what I wanted. Accepting that it was uncomfortable and my discomfort was ok actually helped me to relax. 

After I had scheduled my appointment, I spent hours wondering exactly how much to tell my massage therapist. Do I admit that I’m nervous? Do I disclose that I am autistic? Do I explain that I am averse to touch? I really struggled with how much to tell. In the end, the decision was kind of made for me – turns out English was not her first language, and while she spoke it perfectly fine, I have some trouble understanding accents that I am not familiar with. So I admitted that I was nervous but left everything else out. 

She was very sweet about it and made it clear that her job was to give me as relaxing an experience as possible. So that helped. 

The only other issue was that it is incredibly difficult for me to ask for anything. At all. In any way. So while she said that if I wanted her to go firmer or more gently all I needed to do is ask, I mostly didn’t. Even when I wanted her to change something. Because I would need to ASK! Which is HORRIFYING! Ok, that’s just a me-thing, but I’m mentioning it anyway. 

For some people (possibly many people) going out and paying for a massage is nothing more than a pleasurable indulgence. For me, it’s a challenge that requires a Big Reason to justify doing it. I happened to have a Big Reason, so I gave it a try.

Oh, and it did help a whole lot. The problem isn’t fixed, but my muscle tension is far better than it was. What used to be significant pain is now simply minor discomfort. Now I need to decide if I want to go again in a few weeks to continue to take care of myself. It’s a tough decision.

*This reminds me of a story! It isn’t really relevant to the post, but I want to share it anyway. I was talking to a friend I once had, and at some point my touch aversion came up. I said that I hate any kind of social touch with strangers. He just rolled his eyes and informed me that everyone is like that – no one wants to have long, lingering hugs with strangers. I just blinked at him for a few seconds before stating that I was under the impression that most people are totally comfortable with shaking hands with strangers. Said friend replied that he hadn’t even thought of that as social touch. The conversation devolved from there. In any case, isn’t that such a thing? We try to explain something to an NT and they just minimize and generally don’t listen. It can be so frustrating sometimes.

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Another Empathy Ramble

Image by Tumisu, please consider ☕ Thank you! 🤗 from Pixabay

I know. Empathy is always being talked about on autism blogs, and here I am, also talking about it. Yep, I’m a cliche. It has been a while for me, though.

So one of my problems with the whole concept of empathy is how mushy of a concept it is. It means a wide variety of different things, and people often mean different things when they say it. Talking about empathy without elaborating on what one means by it is an exercise in futility.

For example, a therapist youtuber I used to watch would speak of empathy specifically as intellectually understanding what another person is feeling. He would refer to the concept of “feeling something with a person” as “sympathy.” Then there’s that popular Sympathy vs. Empathy thing by Brene Brown. She has a very different take than that therapist – according to her, “feeling something with a person” is empathy, and sympathy is… bad. (not really related, but I did not like that video for my own reasons, though I do understand that many people found it helpful) 

On a recent occasion I had reason to talk with my therapist about sympathy and empathy and, of course, needed him to elaborate on what he meant when he asked me if maybe I wanted empathy about a thing I was going through. In his case, apparently he means someone being “with” you in your feeling. 

So. Empathy means various things. That’s actually ok – lots of words mean different things – but it does mean that we need to clarify our intent.

For years now I have been using the ideas of cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Basically, cognitive empathy is what that youtuber therapist talks about – intellectually understanding what another person is feeling. The idea that autistic people lack empathy is specifically regarding cognitive empathy. I don’t always have a great grasp of what another person is feeling. I struggle to understand facial expressions. That kind of thing. Unfortunately, people often take it to mean that autistic people lack the kind of empathy that Brene Brown talks about. Or basically, that we don’t care.

That is affective empathy. It’s the emotional side of empathy. And autistic people tend to have that in spades (insert disclaimer here about how autistic people are individuals with individual variance, etc etc etc). I care about my friends. I care about my cats. I care about what they feel and why they feel it and I want, very much, to be a safe person for them to have those feelings near/around/with. 

Anyway. I was googling empathy again recently, I don’t remember why but probably in response to that conversation I had with my therapist, looking for sources about cognitive vs. affective empathy. Among the various other things I found, I saw an interesting article breaking empathy down into THREE types, rather than two! Fascinating! Now, I wasn’t the biggest fan of how the information was presented (this seems to happen a lot with me. Not sure what to make of that) but putting that aside, it was an interesting breakdown.

Basically, the author of that article takes what I think of as “affective empathy” and breaks it into two different ideas.

1 – Emotional Empathy. The “feel it with them” idea. 

2 – Compassionate Empathy. To care. More precisely, to care enough to want to help in some way.

This is interesting to me. I’m not sure I’m going to adopt this system over the two types of empathy that I’m used to, but at the very least it’s giving me something to think about. I enjoy taking broad concepts and breaking them down into concrete pieces that I can closely inspect. 

There is very little out there that will make me better at cognitive empathy. I have hypervigilance due to my own childhood stuff (which is to say, I am very observant), I have a general intellectual understanding of facial expressions that I have learned by rote. These two combined are enough for me to generally get by, on the cognitive level. Unfortunately, many people view cognitive empathy as the most “basic” form of empathy. So when cognitive empathy fails me, it is not uncommon for people to conclude that I must not care. Because if I don’t have cognitive empathy, how could I possibly have emotional or compassionate empathy? 

It doesn’t work like that. 

To diverge a little bit – I find myself wishing there were a word for a kind of empathy that understands that not everyone responds the same way in the same circumstance. The article I linked above talks about putting oneself in another person’s shows – imagining how you would feel in their circumstances. This is, of course, a really great practice. It just falls short sometimes. People imagining themselves in my shoes often seriously miss the mark on how I’m feeling, because they would feel something wildly different. This kind of falls under cognitive empathy, but then it ends there. By the article, emotional empathy would be impossible in a situation like this, which is just not the case. I can empathize with people just fine when they react to things differently than how I would, because I understand that different people respond differently and that’s ok. Their truth is still entirely real. I just have to approach it a little differently. 

Anyway. I’m not sure I have a huge point here; I just wanted to explore these ideas a bit. Do you have a model of empathy that you work with? Do you have any ideas for what to call “I cannot directly understand what you feel but I accept that it is your truth and care very much about how you feel” empathy?

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