Navigating Life with Autism: A Personal Perspective and Insights from 'The 10 Dumbest Mistakes Smart People Make'
Part one: My Unique Characteristics and Coping Strategies
I am autistic. Because there is no behavior that is specific to people with autism and does not occur in people without autism, it is difficult to describe what all people with autism identify with as their "unique" characteristics. So I can only speak for myself.
I'm timid in social situations and have a certain reserve. When in social situations, I get stressed easily. After I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, it was explained to me that I get stressed because my brain struggles to assess how much it should rely on its own model versus sensory information. I deal with prediction errors in an absolute manner, making the world seem full of surprises and uncertainties, leading to hypersensitivity and overstimulation. I have difficulty predicting changes, which leads me to cling to routines and resist changes in my life. Cognitive behavioral therapy and relaxation techniques help me in managing stress and improve my well-being.
Importantly, when I feel comfortable, I show less withdrawn behavior. The stimuli I do expose myself to are therefore the things that suit me, such as going to a concert or a football match. I currently get weekly autism coaching at work and at home, which helps me to put things in perspective and to keep my agenda predictable while not running away from every social gathering.
During my life, I have visited a psychologist three times. This gave quick results to lower the stress because I was handed some concepts that I could use to stop the negative thoughts that I had. These negative thoughts constantly come up because I don't filter signals and add all negative signals - conveying danger and causing stress - to my mental models. Being autistic, I’m a rule-based thinker and I’m unable to flexibly adapt meaning to context. In every situation, I scan my brain for earlier similar experiences and for the appropriate behavior to perform. Because I’m dependent on rules, I have read a stack of books that help me navigate through life. One of the things I’ve learned - through trial and error - is that thoughts, though they are just words in the head, actually cause physical sensations and emotions. I regularly need to overcome the tendency when emotionally aroused to take my thoughts and feelings literally or at face value just because they occur. When my predictions don't align with reality, I experience cognitive dissonance, which can lead to catastrophizing, assuming others' thoughts, personalizing situations, inflating self-importance, inventing criticisms, striving for perfection, comparing myself negatively, worrying needlessly, imposing "shoulds", and focusing on the negative.
Part two: Summary of an important book
One book that has stuck with me is “The 10 dumbest mistakes smart people make – and how to avoid them”, which I summarize below. This book has been very useful to me. I have used it when I was panicking over things that turned out to be perfectly okay.
Aaron T. Beck practiced psychoanalytic psychiatry in the 1950s and early 1960s, but developed cognitive therapy after a patient expressed frustration with the slow pace of the traditional method. Beck discovered that people's unhappy or angry feelings were often caused by specific, definable patterns of thought. Cognitive therapy corrects these thinking patterns in order to improve emotional well-being.
In this book by Beck’s student Arthur Freeman and writer Rose DeWolf, the focus is on ten specific mistakes in thinking that cause problems and lead to negative emotions such as anxiety, misery, and stress. Cognitive therapy emphasizes the role of thinking straight in relieving emotional suffering. While each of the therapeutic theories has its own strengths, cognitive therapy holds that emotions (or emotion concepts), thoughts, and behavior are all important, and that change in one can lead to change in the others.
Spotting thinking mistakes
Everyone makes mistakes, no matter how smart they are. Some mistakes can lead to further mistakes and emotional suffering. Smart people often make mistakes and do things they regret, despite knowing better. This is because they are often basing their actions on emotional thinking rather than logical reasoning. Life is a mixture of good and bad experiences and many people experience more pain and stress than they need to because of their thoughts about life events. While the world can sometimes seem negative, there is also good information and positive reinforcement available. The way a person thinks about a situation can greatly impact how they handle it and can make it easier or more difficult to deal with. Psychologists have found that the way a person thinks about a situation can also affect their experience of pain. Common thought patterns cause difficulties, distress, and discomfort and are relatively easy to avoid if thought about in a clear and reasonable way. Reflecting on how your thinking abilities may have deserted you when you needed them most, is the suggestion the authors make throughout the book.
Changing your stress threshold
Changing your stress threshold can either increase or decrease your control over events in your life. Lowering the stress threshold can cause someone to react differently to stressors that they previously handled well. The stress threshold is thus not set in stone and can be lowered by various conditions and situations, such as hunger, anger, loneliness, fatigue, pain, and major life changes, like losing a job, or a death in the family.
10 dumbest mistakes
The book then lists “the ten most common mistakes in thinking”, according to Freeman and DeWolf:
- Chicken Little Syndrome: This refers to the tendency to catastrophize, or to believe that every small problem will lead to disaster. It is named after the story of Chicken Little who believed the sky was falling.
- Mind Reading: This refers to assuming you know what others are thinking without any evidence. It can lead to misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
- Personalizing: This refers to the tendency to take everything personally, as if it is a direct reflection on you. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
- Believing Your Press Agent: This refers to having an inflated sense of self-importance and overestimating your own abilities and achievements.
- Believing (or Inventing) Your Critics: This refers to assuming that others are criticizing you when they may not be, or inventing criticisms where none exist. This can lead to feelings of insecurity and a negative self-image.
- Perfectionism: This refers to the belief that everything must be done perfectly, and that anything less is unacceptable. This can lead to stress, burnout, and feelings of failure.
- Comparisonitis: This refers to constantly comparing yourself to others and feeling like you are not measuring up. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.
- What-If Thinking: This refers to worrying about things that may never happen. It can lead to stress and anxiety.
- The Imperative Should: This refers to the belief that there are certain things that you "should" do, and that not doing them makes you a failure. This can lead to feelings of guilt and stress.
- Yes-Butism: This refers to the tendency to always focus on the negative and discount the positive. It can lead to a negative outlook on life and an inability to enjoy positive experiences.
These mistakes can be combated using the techniques of cognitive therapy, which according to the authors have been proven successful in dealing with emotional extremes and avoiding common thinking mistakes. This is not just a matter of rationalizing behavior but of making better use of our ability to reason. Individual schemas or perspectives on the world affect the likelihood of making certain “dumb” thinking mistakes. Harmful thinking habits can be broken and replaced with new, more helpful and healthy habits, but this requires effort and practice. The book offers 25 specific techniques to help individuals deal with their mistakes, both separately and in combination, and take greater control of the events in their lives. Below, a couple of them are described.
Understanding what things mean is a crucial step in managing your emotions. It's like asking yourself, "What does this word or event mean to me?" The meaning we give to words and events is personal and can vary from person to person. The words we use can often be like shorthand, hiding the true meaning behind euphemisms. This can lead to misunderstandings, especially in communication with others. We use the same shorthand in our thoughts as we do when speaking to others, which can result in an emotional reaction that only makes the situation worse. Especially in times of stress, loss, or crisis, taking the time to understand what we really mean when we think or say things, is the first step in coping with these emotions which can lead to finding more effective coping strategies.
Assigning responsibility and acknowledging one's role in past events
Assigning blame can often be black-and-white, with people assuming complete responsibility or blaming others entirely. Instead, it’s more constructive to carefully consider all factors and to assign responsibility fairly. It’s important to take responsibility for one's own future and not dwelling on the past. In a marriage, for example, considering the faults of both partners and accepting responsibility for the future is more helpful than to keep blaming oneself or the other one.
Comparing advantages and disadvantages
Making decisions can be tough because often the choices available are a mixture of good and bad, or involve taking a big risk. To help make the decision-making process easier, it is useful to write down the advantages and disadvantages of each choice. Divide a piece of paper into two halves and label each half with the two choices you are weighing. Write down the advantages and disadvantages of each choice, and then assign a numerical value to each one to reflect how important it is to you. This exercise will give you a better perspective on your choices and help you make a conscious decision based on pros and cons. This is easier to live with and can increase your sense of self-efficacy.
Identifying thinking mistakes
It's important to be aware of specific thinking mistakes, such as personalizing or falling victim to the "Chicken Little syndrome." When you recognize that you are making a mistake, it becomes easier to stop making it. Naming the mistake can help you challenge it and make a better decision. This, in my experience, is a hard one. For example, when having a conversation you’re not always conscious of the mistakes you make. So, often it’s not until you reflect on the conversation that mistakes can get identified.
Turning Adversity into Advantage
A saying goes, "If life gives you lemons, make lemonade". This means that even in tough situations, you can find a way to make the best of it. But this is easier said than done. It is important to keep in mind that life experiences are rarely wasted and can even be beneficial. A study by psychologists found that people who lost their jobs three times due to plant closings actually had an advantage. These individuals had more confidence in finding a new job compared to someone who had always worked at the same place and suddenly found themselves unemployed. By overcoming adversity, you gain the advantage of knowing that you can do it again. Similarly, individuals who have overcome alcohol addiction and then help others break the habit have turned their adversity into advantage. Adversity can also motivate people and push them to strive for success. One helpful tool is to deliberately think about how your adversity can be turned into advantage. For example, if a relationship ends, it can lead to the opportunity for a new relationship that is healthier and more fulfilling.
Imagining successful outcomes instead of unsuccessful ones
Mental preparation, or imagining successful outcomes, can also be beneficial. This is commonly seen in sports psychology, where athletes imagine themselves making successful shots or ignoring distractions. This technique can be applied to all aspects of life and can help improve one's performance. Instead of imagining failure, try imagining success and see yourself succeeding. Remember, anything you're thinking about that isn't actually happening is a fantasy, so why not imagine positive and successful outcomes instead of negative ones?
When you're feeling upset, it can help to interrupt your negative thoughts by distracting yourself. You can do this by bringing in a new, positive thought or activity. For example, let's say you're feeling angry about carrying a heavy suitcase at the airport. Instead of focusing on the negative thoughts, you can try counting the number of steps it takes to reach your gate or focus on your breathing to relax. You can also think of positive things, like the body of your partner, to take your mind off the negative thoughts. Another technique is to argue with yourself and play the role of a defense attorney. When you find yourself being too hard on yourself, think of ways to forgive yourself as you would with a friend. This will help you see the situation in a more positive light.
Keeping a written schedule
A written schedule can help individuals take control of their life and allocate time for necessary actions. This is particularly effective for people who have the tendency to think negatively. Writing down a schedule can also help minimize procrastination and increase efficiency in the use of time. It’s recommended by the authors to make at least 14 copies of a 24-hour schedule that marks off the day in 15-minute increments, and to keep track of how you spend your time for at least one week to gain a clearer perspective on how to use your time effectively.
The rest of the copies can be used to draw up new schedules for the future. When people make appointments, they generally keep them. If something comes up that interferes with the appointment, they rearrange the schedule. That goes for work appointments as well as household chores, sports and parties.
Planning experiences for mastery or pleasure
People often neglect to plan pleasurable activities due to stress or a preference for spontaneous events, but planning is crucial during times of stress. Building self-esteem through successful experiences is important, and practicing new skills or activities is necessary to improve. Practicing leads to enjoyment and mastery, and this is true for all human endeavors, not just physical or technical skills. Planning practice should be incorporated into one's schedule if they want to improve in a specific area.
Writing a script
Writing a script can help you prepare for a role you want to play. While it may not be possible for others to follow the lines you wrote for them, writing a script can increase your confidence by preparing you for what you might say. Just like playwrights describe what characters will wear, you can plan what you will wear in advance. Role playing can be used in many different situations. For example, if you need to make a sales call, you can pretend to be an enthusiastic salesperson who loves making calls and is not discouraged by rejections. You can write a script for what this salesperson might say to someone on the other end of the line. If you're unsure of what to say at a party, read a newspaper and pick out a couple of stories that interest you. Write down some things you might say about them and ask for people's opinions. Also, when you need to handle a delicate confrontation, having a script can help you remain calm during the situation. You can also try out new behavior by practicing your script, whether it's practicing a smile, saying hello, or even a job interview with a friend. Additionally, relaxation can also be an important part of your preparation. If you're feeling stressed, anxious or fearful, doing something to make you relax can be a helpful step towards making any action easier.
Harmful thinking habits can be broken and replaced with new, healthy habits, but it requires effort and practice. Freeman and DeWolf concluded the book by writing that the techniques in the book are tools for life that can be used over and over again. It's important to incorporate these techniques into your life and make an effort to use them, as they will not work unless you actively use them. As I have an inclination to “over-think”, ruminating about negative thoughts costs me a lot of energy. It helps to categorize my thinking mistakes and to put the thinking to rest. An important challenge for me is planning. It helps me to avoid the build-up of chronic stress and to pursue activities for mastery and pleasure. These give life positive meaning which helps me not to dwell on the negatives. I have personally found that it helps me to report to someone else on the progress of the tasks I have planned. And, most importantly, I have found that taking time to reflect on my life has made the biggest difference. What made this happen was planning spare-time, in which I was not distracted by social media. Incorporating these techniques in my life as an autistic person is challenging, but of vital importance.
So, the book has been of value to me time and time again and I recommend it to anyone who has read this far. It is written very accessible. It is a book that can be of use to everyone, not just if you are autistic.
Link to the book at the publisher: https://www.harpercollins.com/products/10-dumbest-mistakes-smart-people-make-and-how-to-avoid-them-arthur-freeman?variant=32117467185186