Confessions of a Praise Junkie

Following on from my introduction to the topic in Insidious Thing, I’m going to write a bit about compliance, Behaviourism, and how it’s affected my life.

I was never formally diagnosed. There are a bunch of reasons for that, check out Barriers to Autism Diagnosis for a list of reasons why a person may not have been diagnosed. Some of them apply to me, some don’t. In the end all that matters is that I didn’t have access to the supports that diagnosis might have offered, but I was also not subject to the Behaviourism based “therapies” popular in “treating” autistic children. Not formally at least.

Like most adults my age, I was raised in a household with praise and punishment. It all felt very arbitrary. Rather than any kind of definitive set of rules, I can only really recall one – don’t upset Mum. It might have been my autism preventing me from picking up the unspoken rules, but whatever they were I failed to divine them, and I was punished. Telling-off, spanking, grounding.

Let’s talk about spanking for a moment. I remember being spanked, clear as day. I do not recall what I did that the spanking was punishment for. In terms of learning the rules, it seems to have failed if I cannot recall what the rules were and which ones I was punished for breaking.

There was also seemingly no hierarchy of punishments or rules, at least none that I could figure out. I had no idea which rules would get me told off when broken and which would get me spanked. Combine that with not being able to tell what the rules were or why I was being punished and you can imagine how stressed I felt. At any particular moment, I might be unknowingly doing a Bad Thing for which I might be punished. That’s not good for a child, seriously.

Praise was equally intermittent and unpredictable. The only pattern I could discern was that I was mostly praised for school performance and academic effort. I figured out I could get praise by excelling at school, so I worked hard. I wasn’t satisfied with less than a top grade. I had to maintain my “gifted” status. You might think that this would be a good thing, but it caused problems.

I worked to the exclusion of everything else. I let it consume my life. I spent nearly all of my energy finding and memorising facts to impress teachers and family with. Attempts at expanding my social skills fell by the wayside, and so did any chance of learning to fit in with my peers. I was confused. Being smart made the adults like me, why did it make my peers hate and ridicule me? I was bullied a lot.

As the work got harder, my status fell from “gifted” to “above average”. Starting University, it was average, and within a few months I was below average and struggling. With my sense of worth built on my intelligence and academic achievement, my self-esteem suffered badly. I left with a BSc of 2:1 in Computer Science, a grade I still beat myself up over.

In addition to an unhealthy relationship with praise, I had emotional problems as a result of my childhood confusion with rules and punishment. Particularly with regard to feeling and showing emotions. When I was upset, I would be talked at as if my feelings were the problem. I felt I was shown little sympathy, that my crying was simply a distressing inconvenience for those around me. The tone of voice, the gaslighting. I started to adapt by not showing my emotions. I was depressed, all my sadness and fear and frustration turned inwards. I turned to self harm.

I hated crying. I had absorbed the idea that it was bad, that I shouldn’t do it. I was ashamed of it. I discovered that while I was self harming, I physically couldn’t cry. It was a release valve for emotions that I didn’t feel I was allowed to express in other ways.

When my self harm was discovered, I felt punished again. My parents’ concern came across as another telling-off. I was put into counselling.

The last outlet for my feelings had been taken away. I fell deeper into depression, carefully hidden to avoid further punishment for being depressed. Music helped a little, carefully piped through headphones and listened to in a quiet, lethargic stillness to conceal the feelings. Music with swear-words in wasn’t acceptable, so I lived with my headphones as a lifeline, plugged in, my life-support.

It’s only in the last few years I’ve begun crying again. I still hate it, I still feel ashamed, but I no longer bottle it up and wait until night-time. I no longer hide my emotions in the dark of a 3am bedroom, snuffling under the covers.

My relationship with praise is still difficult. I need regular reassurance that I am doing good, worthwhile things. I ask Otter for reassurance that I am a Good Fox several times a day. I still feel like a Bad Fox when I have feelings and needs that might inconvenience others. I apologise for crying.

I am a victim of Behaviourism.

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