Written by Selina P
I had so many ideas for topics, lived experiences I wanted to share, and messages I felt passionate about. It was finally my opportunity to shine!
I cleared my weekend schedule, set up my work space, and picked the topic (the easiest to write, based on advice from my ever foresightful psychologist). I was going to write a masterpiece!
And, of course, I froze.
The bathroom was suddenly cleaned and the pile of papers on top of the filing cabinet got filed away after months of stalling. I found renewed enthusiasm in previously abandoned personal projects.
I dragged myself back to my desk and hesitantly wrote a sentence here and there, only to delete them in exasperation. The words did not flow. I was stifled by self-doubt. By the end of the weekend I had changed to a different topic in desperation. Still, the words wouldn’t come. The few that did felt forced and sterile.
Many bad feelings were felt as I struggled unsuccessfully to make sense of the situation and regain control. I felt like a failure.
How did this opportunity that I was so excited about turn into – not just a chore – but a very real threat to my precarious sense of safety?
The awareness of someone’s literal or figurative gaze on me can be totally disabling. The simple knowledge that there is an expectation to perform to some standard against which I might be judged, can and often does trigger an all-consuming threat response. A response that keeps me frozen in inaction. I never choked in the exam room but I couldn’t start studying until I had convinced myself and those whose opinion I valued that I was going to fail. Only when expectations are at zero can I thrive.
Let’s take a closer look at this imaginary auditorium of hell where I am frozen onstage. We can divide the audience into distinct sections:
At the very back is the generic “rest of the world”, watching and judging me against a neurotypical standard I have spent most of my life trying to figure out and conform to. Next is the Autistic community. My neurokindred. The people who hold in their hands the keys to my sense of belonging. At least I know their standards, but they are high. Closer to stage are seated the people at Reframing Autism – ever understanding and supportive, yet whose opinion matters more than anything.
And right up front staring directly at me, taking up the metaphorical space of an entire section, is me. In silent appraisal, passing judgment on every second of awkward frozen silence. My biggest and harshest critic.
This time she told me whatever I wrote would be awful. That I couldn’t do justice to the topic I had picked, or that I would misrepresent my lived experiences. That my incompetence would be plain for all to see. She said to me, “Okay so we’ve just made peace with the fact you have poor verbal communication when under the spotlight, and that’s the reason you freeze up in group situations. We accepted it because you said you thrive behind the scenes. What can be more behind the scenes than writing, and on something you’re passionate about? If you can’t even do this, then what are you good for?”
By Monday evening I had accepted defeat. It hurt to be a flake but if I was going to disappoint people, I would rather have some control over the situation. And once I rip off the band aid, once they knew I couldn’t deliver, I would probably end up producing a brilliant piece in my own time that I can send in down the track.
The relief was immediate. As soon as the decision was made, a huge weight lifted and my brain started to come back online. I started to write an apologetic message to Reframing Autism explaining the predicament. At this point, I finally regained the capacity to make sense of what was happening internally instead of just searching for escape routes (but only because I was half way to the exit). I kept writing and writing. I could barely stop the gush of words as my internal reality poured onto the screen. In my peripheral vision was the realisation I might actually be delivering, but I couldn’t focus on it or I would be lost again.
I had to make sense of what had happened and what was happening now.
My inner critic was still there, as she will always be. But the more I began to peel back the layers and understand myself more fundamentally, I noticed another figure in the front row. I didn’t know she existed until recently and she is still an indistinct, elusive construct, often overshadowed by the domineering and ruthless voice of the critic. She watches me too but it is with unconditional love.
I know because it is the way I watch my kids when they take their first tentative step towards a long-held fear when they think I’m not looking. It is how I comfort them when they inevitably make a mistake. When they do or say something hurtful (even though sometimes I can’t show it in the moment).
She knows what it took for me to get up on that stage, and she is immensely proud because of that alone, however I perform afterwards. Her total acceptance is unwavering. Self-compassion, self-love, my inner healthy adult, whatever you want to call her, she is the one gaze that is not a threat but the very definition of safety.
To know – without doubt – that one is unconditionally loved is to come home. And from that safe harbour, the threats that felt so menacing lose their power and what comes into focus are the endless possibilities.
To feel unconditional love is to feel safe. Without safety we are stuck at sea, at the mercy of the waves, always reactive, using all our resources for survival.
Our parents show us unconditional love so that we can learn to unconditionally love ourselves. So many of us missed out on that. Fostering and practicing it as an adult is neither easy nor quick. It will be a lifelong process that I can’t do alone. There will always be high seas but I venture forth carrying my safe harbour within me, however fragile and elusive it is.
I don’t know if I will always need an escape route from perceived expectations in order to function. But the next time I look out at the audience and feel paralysed by the sea of gazes I will try to look out for her. I will be okay.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.