As somebody who has lived with Asperger’s Syndrome for almost 48 years, I have experienced more than my share of trials and tribulations. I have been bullied, both physically and verbally, more times than I can recall. I have heard people say unsavory things about me and ridicule me to my face and behind my back (so they thought). I have been left behind, on one occasion at school in front of my classmates. I have been singled out and embarrassed in front of my peers more than once. I have been stood up on more than one date and been told “yes” and then “no, I’m sorry”. Until I met my wife, I was unable to sustain even a single intimate relationship. In school and at work, I have always had to work probably twice or three times as hard as most others to achieve a similar result. I have had to put up with my own haphazard, roundabout ways of doing many things, with often getting it right the 2nd or 3rd time instead of the 1st time, and with all of my many sensitivities, anxieties and compulsive behaviors. I have had to face the consequences of taking too many things literally or at face value. And this list could continue, but I’ll spare you at this point!
And yet, despite all of this, my sense of self-esteem is intact, I am proud of who I am, and I can honestly say that I love myself! How did I manage to pull this off, and how can you achieve the same if your life experiences resemble mine? The answer is, I have made lots of good choices, I have listened to lots of good advice from loved ones and from good, intelligent people, and I have worked very hard for a very long time to improve myself.
As a result of my experiences and my successful efforts at coping with Asperger’s and at self-improvement, I have many thoughts to share with fellow Aspies who are interested in learning to love themselves. All of the following have worked out exceptionally well for me. Perhaps some or all of them will work out for you:
- You are special. Understand that there is nobody exactly like you anywhere in the world. This is as it should be, so don’t try to be like somebody else.
- You are not the only one. Understand that everybody has challenges and hardships and that other people have some or many of the same challenges and hardships as you do. If you feel as though you are the only one whose life is difficult, know that this is absolutely not true. Isolating yourself into that kind of corner will keep you from achieving self-love.
- Acceptance. My father-in-law, who passed away long before his time due to a terminal illness with which he was eventually able to make peace, often said that we are all dealt a deck of cards and that it is important that you play the hand you’re dealt. In other words, accept your Asperger’s diagnosis and its symptoms, understand that there is so much more to you than your diagnosis, and do all that you can to make your life better. For example, be good to yourself, don’t be afraid to advocate for your own needs (doing so is not a selfish act), be good to others and feel proud of yourself for doing so, spend more time doing the things that you are good at and that you enjoy, etc.
- A half-full glass of water is always half full, never half empty. You can and should choose to be an optimist. You can choose to extract positivity and value from frustration and disappointment. If you have had a bad day, don’t let that depress you. Instead, say to yourself that, in all likelihood, tomorrow and the next day will be better days. If you are pursuing a goal and get sidetracked, don’t quit. Get back on track by believing that you can still attain your goal, then relentlessly pursue it until you have attained it. Instead of letting your mistakes and failures get you down and keep you down, look at them as learning experiences that can help you grow and make you stronger as you cope with them. Abraham Lincoln did just that after losing many elections before becoming one of the United States’ greatest presidents.
- Be aware of the personalities of the people with whom you associate. Seek out smart, happy and successful people. These types of folks will set good examples that are worth living by and will expose you to behaviors and attitudes that can help lead you to self-love. Conversely, do all that you can to distance yourself from people who are negative or depressed. These types of folks tend to want everybody else to be just like them because that would justify and legitimize their attitudes and behaviors. As a result, they may try to bring you down to their level. Don’t let them!
- Do not enter into an intimate relationship if you still feel down on yourself. Likewise, do not enter into an intimate relationship with somebody who is down on him/herself. Simply put, you cannot love or properly care for someone else when you don’t love or care for yourself. If you disregard this reality, you are in for a world of grief that can be avoided if you work first on yourself, get yourself to a better place, and then pursue intimate relationships.
- Figure out who you are and be who you are, at all costs. Knowing who you are, being who you are and loving yourself are inseparable. You need to define what you believe in, what is important to you and what you stand for. Do not let others do so for you.
As I mentioned earlier, your Autism Spectrum Disorder is not all of who you are, though it is inevitably a part of who you are, so don’t deny it, and don’t hide from its symptoms. Instead, embrace the diagnosis and its symptoms and either make peace with them as they are or work to diminish or conquer some or all of the symptoms if you choose. It’s perfectly OK, and often a good idea, to listen to other people’s advice and criticism, and to ask for these, though it is always up to you as to how you use that advice or criticism.
For many years, as I was growing up and had not yet been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, I had little self-awareness, mostly because I had always been obsessed with pleasing other people. This habit stemmed from my fear of confrontation and of not being liked, fears that many on the Autism Spectrum feel and which persist in me to this day, though thankfully to a considerably lesser extent than during my youth and earlier adulthood. Little did I know, back then, that when you continue to make too many choices based on what you think others want or what others expect of you, you end up neglecting to perform the essential task of developing a sense of who you truly are. Eventually, a therapist helped me become aware of this issue, after which I was able to begin the hard work of self-discovery and of developing the courage to be me.
A word of caution: not everybody who knows you will accept you for who you are. Stay strong and don’t compromise yourself in order to please these people. You cannot and will never be able to satisfy everybody, but you can certainly find the strength to rise above all of the hostility, judgement and negativity that inevitably exists in life and that would otherwise bring you down. Finding that kind of strength is not easy, but it can be done. I am living proof of it.
- Seek help and advice from people who care about you, from clinicians who work with folks on the Autism Spectrum, from organizations whose mission is to improve the lives of folks with Autism Spectrum Disorders, from books about Autism and Asperger’s, etc. There is no truth to the myth that many folks in the Autism community unfortunately believe, that once you graduate from high school, you have “aged out of the system” and are on your own at that point.
- Your behaviors towards other people impact your inner sense of self. For me, reaching out to others in need and being good to the people around me make me feel important and proud of myself, and, without question, have helped me build self-esteem and discover self-love. What goes around, comes around. Being good to others will result in good things happening to you, which, in turn, will help you learn how to love yourself.
- Be patient! Significant personal change does not happen overnight or by flipping a switch. It requires hard work, being able to tolerate setbacks and then getting back on track, never losing sight of the ultimate goal, and never quitting. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I “woke up to reality” and discovered, on my own and out of the blue, how down I was on myself and what I needed to do about it. Without delay, I turned to my mother and asked her for help in finding the best therapist who could put me on the road to salvation and self-love. And so the journey began, and it would continue for many years, past when I got married, past when I learned of my Asperger’s diagnosis (not until around age 40) and through all of the work I have done with numerous other therapists. It doesn’t happen overnight. Keep at it!
- Have realistic expectations of yourself and ease up on self-criticism. We all make mistakes and we all have character flaws, whether neurotypical or on the Autism Spectrum. Accept these realities rather than beat yourself up over them. If you surrender to the latter, you will not learn to love yourself, so work towards acceptance. I did. Besides, most mistakes that we make and for which we end up getting upset at ourselves are not Earth-shattering and can either be fixed or mitigated more often than not.
- Have realistic expectations of others. For the longest time, particularly when I was living in my own sphere of blindness and self-unawareness, I used to expect everybody I knew to cater to my sensitivities, to not be critical of me unless I was doing something that I knew was wrong, and to always take my interests into consideration. What did I know? I should have known that the more you expect of others, the more you are setting yourself up to feel let down and depressed. Not a helpful habit if you want to build self-esteem and reach the goal of self-love.
Come to terms with a few realities. Life is often hard and unfair for everybody, other people have their own problems to deal with and therefore will not always be able to do what you expect of them, and all people, to varying degrees, are critical and judgmental. When you learn to put yourself in other people’s shoes, you begin to understand them better and take their situations into consideration. As a result, your expectations of them will become more realistic, you will become stronger and less dependent upon others to feel happy, and you will move that much closer towards self-love.
That pretty much describes how I was able to learn to love myself. Good luck with this. You deserve it!