One of my teaching tactics of last resort when I had issues with student’s behaviors I couldn’t change was to ask them what they wanted.
I asked them to tell me about what would be their idea of an ideal experience, in life and in my classroom.
In retrospect it likely shifted something in their thinking by the sheer shock that some adult was genuinely asking them what they wanted.
I suspect that most of my problem students were not getting what they needed no matter how much it appeared they had.
The inability to have needs met is not just painful it can become self perpetuating helplessness.
Because my students trusted me, a simple and authentic question might have given them a glimmer of their power back.
Sometimes I’m brave enough, or just at the point where more disappointment has less of an impact in the overall sense of disappointment, that I ask myself the question.
What do I want?
It might take a while to get past my surface wants to the real ones.
Although it can be very painful to realize that what I want isn’t probable or possible, that pain was really already there, just in a different form.
The form of unmet needs.
Knowing what I want, even when I can’t get it, provides a sense of clarity of purpose.
I can both acknowledge my pain of being unfulfilled and devise a plan to get what I need.
Yes, The Rolling Stones’ song does play in my head at this point. (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”)
What I want, or think I want, really is only a clue to what I truly need.
Long Analogy from my own life follows.
I want a way to organize my life that helps me make decisions; tiny decisions and huge ones; some overarching purpose that ties everything together.
I need a replacement for the old motivations that drove me that were so unhealthy and so damaging.
To find what might work now, I have to unpack and appreciate the purpose that the old way served.
When I was masking my autism I had an absolute goal of feeling like I belonged, or like I was connected and not so isolated or alone.
My efforts, my actions, my choices and decisions revolved around achieving that sense of finally finding that way to ‘be’ that made me feel I was enough. (Excellence and perfection would assure that)
If I was good enough others had to accept me, right? (No, but that is for another story)
Jumping from persona to persona when one after the other failed to achieve this acceptance for me was my resilience and determination in action.
I was seeking to fulfill a need for belonging by being accepted.
Rejection or indifference became my ultimate fear and the ultimate punishment.
Knowing I wanted acceptance and a sense of belonging only brought me an intolerable pain in the face of a reality that I could not control.
Autism explained the reasons I couldn’t have this need met by the neuromajority, it didn’t give me the alternative way to have that need met that I first thought it would.
I thought I would find a sense of belonging by being accepted into the ‘autism community’ with all my flaws and realities. I thought I would suddenly be playing by all the rules that got me a safe place to just be me.
Belonging, at its essence is to have something in common, be in a rightful place, but psychological belonging wasn’t so simple.
In many ways I did feel more like I belonged, I had things in common and it felt like the right place, but autistic people are still people and prone to their own likes and dislikes, if not more rigidly.
Every rejection, every disagreement and every point of contention etched away at this precious ‘belonging’.
This is due to my black or white, all or nothing way of seeing the world sometimes. If there were autistic people who really did not like me, really did not understand me and really mischaracterized me I saw it as not really belonging to a community.
I was right back where I was before I discovered the community, fearing every thing I did or said would be cause for someone to reject or hurt me.
Understanding my want clarified how I wasn’t getting it and also outlined what part of that want was actually also a need.
I sought belonging, it’s what I wanted above all, but what I needed was connection.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” Brené Brown
When I first began to recognize that it was possible to have my need for connection met, if in some small measure, I thought it was contingent on unconditional acceptance.
It was very confusing to think I had found true connection in the shared experiences of other autistics and still have it end in humiliating rejection.
I realized that if some people, regardless of neurology, didn’t accept me and value me as I am, or even know who I really am, it wasn’t a true connection at all.
It meant that they could believe things about me that hurt or want to hurt me for things they believed, just as everyone always had.
The connection in shared experience, and some shared perspectives was nice, but not enough.
There was nothing in these new connections to survive misunderstandings. There was nothing in these new connections that ensured I wouldn’t be judged.
Connection did not mean absolute connection to everyone, it meant meaningful connection to the people with whom I had enough in common.
What was missing was the deeper connection of shared values, shared understanding and shared beliefs needed in order to thrive, to derive sustenance from the relationship.
In all of this was still the fact that I was still looking outside of myself for validation.
I was still relying on other people to show me I was enough. Every rejection took away from that.
I sought out and worked toward making closer connections with people who had the shared value that if we did not understand each other or we perceived something in a way that hurt us, we would know that the other person would never intend such a thing and to find a way to work out that misunderstanding.
That is true connection. Having the few people that I know will weather the challenges of a deeper relationship is priceless because it made me realize that it is possible at all to find true connection.
Through these true connections, I feel valued, I feel validated simply by the fact people I respect will stick with me even when it is not easy.
Connection, belonging and validation are not the all same thing but they can feel like they are.
Studies show that autistics are rejected because non-autistics immediately sense there is a difference. This denies connection and belonging and can invalidate.
Being autistic meant I would face my worst fear constantly. It also meant I had no idea of what it felt like to have what I needed or even recognize what It looked like.
Finding like minded people gave me a part of connection and belonging but it wasn’t all of the picture.
I learned from a book by Brene Brown that true belonging was a state where I belonged everywhere and nowhere because I belonged to myself.
It took me what seems like forever puzzling this out, how to feel that I belonged to myself. Yet it was my original state of being before the world told me I did not fit, before I was told in so many ways that I was wrong and my oddness meant I did not belong. I was happily self-contained as a child until I needed something; until my needs were not met.
There was a time that I was happy just being me, but I was alone. I did not have connection and subsequently did not feel that I had value. A common pain I remember distinctly is that if I went away no one would notice.
While it was a huge revelation to realize that this belonging I had always been so hellbent on attaining wasn’t outside of myself at all, it still did not get me what I needed.
Re discovering this state of belonging to myself didn’t get me the connection I needed but it stopped me from looking for it in the wrong places and in the wrong way.
I could know I belonged and still crave connection to others.
The quest became to find out how I found connection.
Brene Brown’s definition above has a continuation. In order to find connection we first have to show up and be seen.
I had spent decades being a construct I created instead of being authentic because it was the only way I got any small part of what I needed.
Remember that my authentic autistic way of being only got me rejected. I did not have anyone who understood me or who appreciated me.
It was reasonable for me to work to change all the things about me that caused me such pain.
Belonging to myself would not erase my fear of rejection because I still needed connection.
Belonging to myself did stop me from looking for unconditional acceptance from everyone.
True Belonging is only a part of the whole of what I need.
When I first achieved that feeling that who I am, how I am is enough simply because it is who and what I am authentically, and I truly want to be the best person I can be it unlocked so much more.
I could risk being authentic with the people who had the common value of looking for the best in a person before writing them off when things became challenging.
It was not really a risk, because they would not see how I was being as anything but what it was, me. Being able to test being authentic this way gave me more confidence to keep being authentic and knowing that the people I had the most chance of really being connected to would be the ones who stuck around.
Everything was in reverse. I did not have to change who I was to be accepted, to belong or to have connection, I needed to be who I was, and accept myself and allow others to see me.
I saw rejection as meaning something was wrong with me instead of seeing that the people who rejected me either had it all wrong or did not have the same values I do.
I wanted to feel safe from rejection and isolation. I thought that this sense of security had to originate with others. I thought if I had enough proof of my value to others it would fix everything. While this security and validation does come from acceptance, connection and belonging, it isn’t for others to give to me, it is a natural by product of self-acceptance, belonging to myself, being authentic and allowing myself to be seen. Appreciating what I want from life leads me to understand what I actually need.