Spoons!

I have recently discovered… Spoon Theory!

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I want to start by providing a link to the Soundgarden song, Spoonman. Nothing to do with Spoon Theory, but it’s a great song and it’s got ‘Spoon’ in the title!

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So Spoon Theory.

It originated here:

‘The Spoon Theory written by Christine Miserandino’

… and while it originally was intended as an analogy for describing the amount of energy needed to get through each day, for someone with a physical illness*, such as Lupus, it has also been appropriated and can be used by people with various mental health conditions: e.g. autism, social anxiety, depression… or even perhaps someone who would be considered ‘neurotypical,’ but is ‘going through some stuff.’

For those who prefer not to click on links until they have finished reading the main article, here is a summary of what it’s all about:

Imagine your energy quotient for the day is represented by an arbitrary unit. Let’s say ‘spoons.’ You start the day with a certain amount of spoons (say twelve). Depending on your ‘condition’ (or state of mental or physical health), different activities cost different quantities of spoons. Just getting up in the morning might be costly, especially if you didn’t sleep well. For me, as someone with Social Anxiety, sitting on a busy train, on the way to work, might cost me one or two spoons (depending on how ‘mindful’ I am feeling) – whereas for an NT (neurotypical) person, such an activity might be ‘free.’ My work day might then cost a varied amount of spoons – depending on the interactions that have taken place, changes to my routine, etc… then there’s the train journey home (including the Walking Dead-like exiting of the carriage, to a slavering crowd of high school students)… and whatever interactions might take place at home… etc.

I mentioned an arbitrary starting Spoon Quotient (‘SQ’!) of twelve, but this can vary, depending on sleep, whatever else I might be going through at the time, state of physical health, etc – and these things can also affect the spoon cost of a particular activity or event, which may vary from day to day.

So that’s the simple explanation.

I might talk more about this in future blog posts, but at least now you’ll have an idea what I’m on about!

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* Although we mustn’t forget that ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ illnesses (or conditions or whatever) are intrinsically linked, such that there is often a very blurry defining line between them.

A couple more links:

‘Spoon Theory & Autism’

‘Spoon theory’ on Wikipedia

A couple of extra bits:

I just wanted to add a couple more points, following some comments I received upon sharing this on Facebook. Firstly, I think it is important to mention that people who appropriate the spoons analogy have a finite amount of spoons to get them through each day. Once the daily spoons are gone, they’re gone! This might lead to meltdown or depression or whatever… unless one can borrow from tomorrow’s spoons!

Following the above comment, someone asked if it is possible to add extra spoons. Can a particularly rewarding interaction, relationship, etc, give you an extra spoon? I admitted I hadn’t thought of that, then suggested that more positive experiences can be less spoon costly – but I asked if anything other than sleep can actually ‘regenerate’ spoons. Someone else further suggested that something uplifting, like a piece of music or spending time in nature, may regenerate spoons. To which I responded that they had a point, but said that perhaps, since the spoons analogy was originally intended for people with more directly physical illnesses, this is where it falls down with respect of mental conditions.

I then said I would put the above to the neurodiversity group I am a member of!

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Chaos & Control

It has occurred to me that one of the things that gets me the most stressed is when things don’t go according to plan. Control freak? OCD? Maybe. I don’t mind being busy, having a list of jobs to work through and working through them; but when there are deviations from that list or random things come up that need attending to… 😡. To some extent, OK, because that is, you know, life, but too much randomness and unplanned-for stuff creates whirlpools of tension in my soul.

Kind of ironic, because I’ve read quite a bit of stuff lately on accepting the chaos and unpredictability of life. Or maybe not so ironic, because why else would I be drawn to reading this stuff if it wasn’t an issue I need to deal with? But how to deal with it? How to actually accept the chaos and unpredictability of life?

It’s hard. I spoke above of busyness. I said I don’t mind it, but I do prefer not to be busy. I am not one of those people who has to be busy all the time – but when I am busy, I prefer to be in control of that busyness. I tend to be ‘in control’ most of the time at work – less so at home. In an ideal world, I control my own space, my workload, when I relax and play and when I don’t, when I spend time with family, when I talk to people, when I am left alone… This ideal world doesn’t exist, it can’t exist – well maybe partially, but then that wouldn’t be ‘ideal,’ would it? I know, logically, that I cannot control everything in my life, but it is my default to try.

Maybe I need to find a way of changing my default. To reprogram.

Time for a little googling: ‘how to accept the chaos in your life’ – or something.

I’ll report back if/when I find some answers.

‘Social Paranoia’

From a little light googling, it would appear that ‘Social Paranoia’ is not a thing. Although social anxiety has been linked with paranoia. It is, however, certainly a thing for me, and I expect also for others with social anxiety and other types of anxiety and paranoia.

Social anxiety and paranoia are friends. They support each other, bolster each other, give each other energy – which is lovely for them, but not so much for me. In social situations, I am aware (or feel like I am) of every nuance of speech and action. By ‘aware,’ I don’t mean ‘able to correctly interpret,’ but my socially anxious/paranoid mind goes ahead and interprets them anyway.

Why did that person just look at me (in that way)? Do they hate me? Did I do something weird or socially inappropriate? Did I just say something weird or socially inappropriate? Am I talking too much/not enough? Have I inadvertently looked at them in a weird way, which has made them think I hate them?

And then, of course, through being social anxious and paranoid (‘socially paranoid’), and probably a little spectrum-y in respect of social appropriateness, I am more likely to do weird or socially inappropriate things. Which creates a vicious circle.

People say to me things like…

You shouldn’t think about things so much.

Or…

You shouldn’t care what people think.

But social paranoia is my default. Overthinking and caring what people think is my default.

But I’m working on it.

All of this, of course, translates into the social media sphere. I find myself engaging in this kind of thing:

Why has no one ‘liked’ my post? Why has no one commented on my post? If someone has ‘liked’ what I have said, do they really mean it or are they merely acknowledging they have read it but have no particular opinion about it? Why has that person not responded to my private message, or why have they only responded in a certain way?

I can tell myself there are reasonable, logical reasons for all of the above. Likely reasons. But the paranoid person deals in possibilities, not likelihoods. If there’s a chance, even a small one, that my socially paranoid mind can interpret someone’s response or lack of in a negative way, then by golly, it will do so!

But I’m working on it.

On the flip side of this coin is my need for self-validation. Like me! Love me! Accept me! Approve of me! – all that kind of stuff. The problem being that, while I need to be validated, my social paranoia precludes this from happening. People may say they like/love/accept/approve of me, but since no one knows what anyone else really thinks or feels, they can be lying; at best, to save my feelings; at worst, to make fun of me. Best, then, to avoid seeking validation altogether.

But…

I am working on all of the above.

Writing helps. Analysing, creatively expressing… and I hope that anyone reading what I write, who may feel similar things, can positively self-reflect.

Mindfulness also helps at keeping me grounded and going some way towards keeping those intrusive thoughts at bay.

And sharing is good. Also learning, clarifying, getting positive feedback (and believing it!), training myself to be positive or at least realistic, and pouring the vast wealth of knowledge that is the Internet into my mind. Or at least some of it.

I’ll leave you with some of that knowledge:

Some stuff on paranoia and (social) anxiety:
https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-deal-with-social-anxiety-paranoia/
https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/paranoia/causes-of-paranoia/#.XLjOHi2ZP4o
https://www.betterhelp.com/advice/how-to/how-to-stop-paranoia-and-anxiety/

‘How Not to Worry About What Others Think of You’:
https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/sapient-nature/201603/how-not-worry-about-what-others-think-you

An interesting and amusing article about autism and ‘appropriateness’:
https://autisticnotweird.com/why_do_autistic_people_struggle/

Telling the Class

To follow is an almost verbatim re-telling of my recent Facebook status update, lightly edited and names removed, due to the more public nature of this blog:

11apr19:

Another Social Anxiety milestone today! During a lesson in which a fellow TA and ex-teacher was giving a presentation on autism to our class, part of the presentation was about things that people with autism also often have. One of these is Social Anxiety. I was sitting there, enjoying the presentation, keeping the kids in order and doing other things that TAs do, considering whether or not to tell the class about my personal experiences with SA. Bearing in mind that I have blogged about my SA, spoken about it on Facebook and spoken to a small number of people individually about my SA, I have actually never got up in public and spoken about it before. But I decided that in this context, it was too important and too much of an opportunity to miss, so up I got and told the kids about this thing which most of them and I shared… and which I have largely overcome or found strategies to compensate for.

I felt emotionally drained by the end of those few minutes, but I’m so glad I did it! I couldn’t entirely discern, at the time, the kids’ reaction to my exposé, but I was later informed that the kids were rapt and seemed to appreciate my honesty. I really hope they can learn from my getting up there and telling them how I got where I am today, despite the barriers I have had to overcome.

Beginning

Yesterday I started a conversation. Specifically I spoke to a lovely lady at Croome Court, with whom I discussed the possibility of forming links between the National Trust and the special school where I work. I was with my family, my partner was talking to another National Trust person and I just went up to the lady in question and started talking. I didn’t think anything of it – we had a nice chat and I came away with some potentially useful information. Actually not quite true – I thought something of it, but not enough to stop me walking up and talking to her. This wasn’t a big deal. But the fact that I have been writing about social anxiety (here & here) made me think about what a big deal it used to be.

Think about the kind of advice we give to people… if a friend wants to talk to someone they fancy; or your child wants to make friends:

“Just walk up to them and say, ‘Hello’.”

Just walk up to them and say hello! As if that is the easiest thing in the world. Nowadays I have trained my mind (more or less) to blank out all the possible negative consequences of doing such a simple thing.

What if they don’t hear you?
What if they hear you but don’t reply?
What if they reply, but it is clear that they don’t really want to?
What if they say “hello” back, but then you don’t have a clue what to say next?
What if, by some miracle, you manage a few simple exchanges (“Hello,” “Hello,” “How are you?,” “I’m fine.”), but then the conversation dries up and you are left feeling awkward and terrified and don’t know what to do next?

In fact all of the above will render you feeling awkward and terrified and not knowing what to do next. And then of course, with the primary exchange going tits up (pardon my vulgarity), the person you were trying to have a conversation with now hates you and you have zero chance of resurrecting any hope of getting to know that person (or whatever the reason was for trying to have a conversation with them).

And so, with such a high probability of failure, best to just not try in the first place.

Or so I used to think.

I just walked up to that lady at Croome Court and I said, “Hello”! In fact I said a little more than that. Someone I had never met before (okay, I had met her earlier in the day). I opened the conversation, she replied; we had an interesting, useful and pleasant chat. I said thank you and goodbye and off we went. I came away feeling good.

It has taken decades of training to get to this point. And to do it sober, with a complete stranger and feel happy about it! I feel sad for the years I have lost to social anxiety… but I look forward to all the happy, pleasant, interesting, funny conversations to come.

In Celebration of Social Anxiety

Following this…

‘(Not So Much) Social Anxiety’

… I was overwhelmed by the positive response I got from the people I tagged when I shared it on Facebook – that is, the people who were at the two social occasions I mentioned. Originally it was intended as a ‘Thanks for being lovely’ kind of post, but it sort of morphed into a ‘Coming out as someone with social anxiety’ post. There were likes and there were positive comments, along the lines of, ‘Well done for sharing/being honest,’ ‘I didn’t realise you felt this way,’ and, ‘I feel/felt that way also.’ I will share below some of the comments (minus names, as approved by the commenters).

Not to be too dramatic about it or anything, but… I feel like I have awakened! And it seems, if I have perceived things right, that I may have helped one or two other people to positively share their own anxieties.

From a personal point of view, the ‘getting it all out there’ feels liberating. Those who are closest to me, by which I mean one or two people, already ‘know’ me and the feelings/anxieties I have had to deal with pretty much all my life. I have hinted at such things in stuff I have shared on social media, and in snippets of conversation, but I don’t think I have ever metaphorically stood up in a semi-public place and said, “I have social anxiety.” Well now I have! I have no doubt that the semi-euphoric sense of liberation I now feel will settle and normalise, but while it is still calmly buzzing around my emotional aura, I want to make the most of it. So…

Much has been said about social anxiety. Some of what’s been written has helped me to get to the point of acceptance and honesty where I’m at now. In particular I want to mention the highly recommendable works of Matt Haig, whose Reasons to Stay Alive, Notes on a Nervous Planet, and his substantial social media presence have certainly helped me to work through some stuff (Matt talks about his personal experiences with depression and anxiety, and he gives advice on fighting these demons in the fast-paced, stressful world in which we live; he also writes some damned good stories!). I could get bogged down with research and talk about how social anxiety is defined, but really the only perspective and experiences I have are my own (if you want a definition/description, however, this NHS article does the job: Social anxiety (social phobia)).

I have suffered from social anxiety for as long as I can remember. I don’t really like the word ‘suffered.’ ‘Experienced’? No, that downplays it – I’ll stick with ‘suffered.’ But the last thing I want is to overdramatise. I know there are people who deal with debilitating depression, with panic attacks, with extreme forms of anxiety which make it difficult to step outside their front door. I have experienced these things, to varying degrees and at different points in my life, but it is the social anxiety which has had the greatest and longest lasting impact. Most people who now know me would, I expect, be surprised, as I appear to function reasonably normally, but it has taken me decades to build up resilience and strategies to cope.

If you had known me as a child, you… wouldn’t really have known me. I was the quiet, shy one in the corner. I was socially awkward, avoiding social contact where possible and generally preferring to be alone. I left school for university and discovered the anonymity of nightclubs and all that is inherent therewith – not to any extreme degree, but the intoxicating mix of music, dancing, booze and semi-hypnotic lighting was know to alternately dissolve social barriers and enable me to immerse myself in a miasma of sensation. And there were a few select people who managed to break through my self-imposed barriers and ‘bring me out.’ One of those people is my partner – the mother of my beautiful, complicated daughter – who I am still with nearly three decades later.

My social anxiety is always and has always been there – but it manifests to varying degrees, depending on the situation and how I am generally feeling at different points in my life. If I am sad or depressed or low or stressed, it kicks in more, but happiness and positive events bring out the confident and gregarious me. I used to be accused of being or coming across as arrogant or aloof, for my inability to make eye contact, defensive body language and apparent disdain for fellow humans. I can now make eye contact! But it still, at times, causes a physical pressure in my eyes. I have trained myself to appear (relatively) relaxed and confident, to the point where, given the right circumstances, I am now often not even pretending.

I now like human contact!

If I had travelled into the future, twenty or thirty years ago, and heard myself saying this, I wouldn’t have believed it was me. But then I learned how to act. At first this had to be fuelled with booze, but while I still enjoy a drink or two, I have reached the point where it is not necessarily required for social occasions to give me pleasure… and I can even look forward to them! They are still often exhausting and preceded by anxiety, but as per my previous blog post, I am now at the point where, rather than often seeing them as a necessary evil which I prefer to avoid, I crave more of them. The pay-off is worth it!

So back to the title: the ‘In Celebration Of’ part. Rather than just being something I have learned to deal with and, to some extent, overcome, how has social anxiety improved or enhanced my life? One of the biggest things it has given me is… WRITING. Through finding spoken, face-to-face communication difficult, I have learned to hone my skills on the page. I don’t claim to be Shakespeare or Stephen King, but while it’s nice to receive positive feedback, that’s not the reason I do it. Well not the main reason. It’s a release – emotional and creative. It entertains me – you can’t beat the feeling of constructing a satisfying story! And as per some of my reasons for blogging, it helps me to sort out what’s going on in my head.

Also…

For those who don’t know, I am a teaching assistant in a special school. This may seem like the last thing someone with social anxiety should be doing, but I can honestly say that I don’t think I would be doing this kind of work if I was more, to use a technical term, neurotypical. The social pressures of an office have, at times, been excruciating for me. And while I don’t claim to be an expert on the complex range of issues, conditions and personalities I come into contact with daily at the school where I work, I feel that my social anxiety gives me a little bit of an ‘in.’ A tiny doorway to empathy. Not to mention the fact that, on a more personal level, in a place where you have to be sociable, patient, appropriate, etc, this has necessitated me refining my skills in these areas, which I can then take into the rest of my life. Probably most importantly, my work is meaningful and satisfying, which gives me the impetus and motivation to work through the difficulties to the incomparable rewards.

Thirdly, a little about social media. Where would I be without it!? There are issues with this, of course – some would have it that it is the bane of modern society – but being someone who doesn’t naturally fit into ‘real’ life (I could talk at length on what constitutes ‘real’ – but not here…), I have, since it’s emergence in the world, endeavoured to make the most of what the likes of Facebook have to offer. Honing my social skills, my communication, my writing; making and keeping in touch with friends/family… all in a pretty safe arena. Thank you, Mark Zuckerberg!

As promised, here are some of the comments responding to my previous post:

“I completely get this, felt the same, glad we all survived.”

“I also was extremely anxious, but it really was great fun and left us all wanting to do more ‘awkward socialising’ together.”

“He almost didn’t come because of being so anxious, but I told him that none of you would expect sparkling conversation from him and that he could just be himself.”

“I didn’t realise the extent you felt this… Good to see the world through your eyes. I didn’t notice any social awkwardness… Keep on being honest and getting over the trapping of the anxious mind.”

“Learning about you all the time… Well done for putting it out there.”

“I never knew… I have had depression and anxiety, so good to break the social stigma of talking about it… Well done you.”

😍😋🥂

Thank you to the authors of all of the above… and more. You have helped me to be who I was always meant to be. 🙂

(Not So Much) Social Anxiety

I recently went on two family visits in the space of a few weeks. I was anxious about both these visits, as generally happens with pending social occasions – especially when the second visit was approaching, being a wedding, when I felt the almost intolerable weight of social expectation.

What also ‘generally happens’ on these sorts of occasions is that they aren’t as ‘bad’ as I fear they will be. In fact, I tend to quite enjoy myself! Always, however, in the days, weeks, leading up to the visit, I have a tendency to twist myself up in knots, wondering what I will say, how I can escape if it all gets to much, who I might offend, etc. Things this time, however, were somehow… different.

There was some alcohol involved. Alcohol tends to helps. But there wasn’t always alcohol. There was also some walking, some nature, some sitting around in pubs, living rooms and areas of the wedding venue. Scanning my memories of the events, there were no doubt some times when I didn’t know what to say, some awkward pauses, some social faux pas, but overall I don’t remember these things particularly mattering. They happened, I put them into context, I moved on, I was happy. And amongst it all, there were some interesting conversations… and fun!

Not to mention my discovery of the delights of Prosecco and ice cold Guinness… 😋

Why were these occasions ‘different’? Why did I come away from them being, yes, socially exhausted, but not thinking, “Phew, that was nice, but I don’t want to do it again for a while”…? Why do I now feel like I crave more socialising and want to take more social risks?

I think the answer is quite simple…

The company was good. 😊

Now pour us a glass of fizz… 🍾