The self-criticism machine
The self-criticism machine is sneaky. I can hear its gears slowly turning as words enter my brain and escape out of my mouth. I remember my first session with Dr. W (therapist lady) and the preface I expressed:
You’ll notice as we meet together each week that I interpret everything as criticism. No, seriously — everything. That neutral piece of feedback you provided, I will somehow interpret as “you are a deeply fucked up person who needs to change everything about herself.” This is how my brain works. I have no idea how to control its functioning.
Let me introduce you to the self-criticism machine: Insert neutral statement into its cogs and watch my automatic thoughts about myself (“I am wrong.” “I don’t fit.” “I’m going to get stuck.”) spin these words into a deeply critical treatise on how flawed I am. This will subsequently be reinforced by actually critical things people have said to me and I have internalized — the casually spoken remarks that have chipped away at my sense of self. Perhaps you meant to sound constructive. Maybe I even needed to hear what you had to say, but your words will stay in my brain as a deeply critical statement about my being:
“You are wrong.” “You don’t fit.” “You’re not trying hard enough.” “I can’t believe you missed that.” — rinse and repeat
Unsurprisingly enough, I’ve learned to slow down the self-criticism machine using a combination of cognitive-behavioral strategies and a series of affirmations:
“You are enough.” “That thing you’re doing is so hard. I know that, but look at you. You keep trying and working, even though it’s difficult.” “There is nothing wrong with you.” “You are known and loved — because of, not in spite of — yourself.” “There are people who care deeply about you. They’ve stated that both directly and indirectly.” “You can do this.”
In the midst of all of this, I wonder, “How did I become so critical of myself?” Perhaps in having to pass as relatively neurotypical (or at least quirky), I internalized a sense of shame about who I am — an autistic young woman who is visibly different. I’m so afraid of not finding a place where I fit — maybe because it’s hard to keep pretending to be normal (whatever that means). Passing is exhausting. I think I’m feeling the effects of this process as I enter my mid-twenties.
I’m learning to refer to myself as autistic in everyday situations — to mention my autistic traits in my day-to-day conversations — and I’m gradually shedding this internalized sense of shame. As I tap my fingers together in the local cafe, I’m giving myself permission to stim when I feel overloaded. When I send my PhD mentor or chaplain friend blog posts I’ve written about being an autistic woman in an NT world, I’m sharing the person I’ve always been. When I openly admit how hard it is to engage in small talk, I let myself acknowledge that I’m struggling.
It’s okay to struggle, and in these conversations, the kind people I know — the ones with whom I can share my vulnerabilities — remind me they’re proud of me. They tell me I’m growing and strengthening. I’m becoming the autistic woman I’ve always been. She is freeing herself from the gears of the self-criticism machine as she inserts love into its cogs.