Emotional Intelligence has been my special interest for as long as I can remember, but it didn’t always have that name. When I was younger I’d have described it more in terms of human behaviour, motivation, thinking styles, how our brains work, etc… but now that Emotional Intelligence is a thing – thanks Daniel Goleman – I now have a word that, more or less, describes my area of fascination.
Very often Autistic special interests are accompanied by greater than average skills in those areas. This was not entirely true for me. While I could explain a lot intellectually, for a long time this didn’t actually translate into practical skills I could use in real life.
I’ve divided my EQ journey so far into three distinct stages. Each stage represents the discovery of a new strategy and a corresponding increase in the speed of my learning. I started off frustratingly slowly. I had all your typical struggles trying to figure out what was appropriate, how to regulate my own emotions so that I didn’t get in trouble with others, and most of all learning how to make friends or just generally interact with other human beings. This all changed when I went through two key turning points that took my learning to a new level.
How did this special interest develop?
Who knows how or why a person becomes fascinated by any given topic. I’ve always thought that my interest in this area developed out of necessity. I perceived a problem – namely that I didn’t understand the people around me – and I promptly went about finding a solution.
It’s natural to learn about other people by assuming that they are similar to us. This strategy works well for most of the population, but it did not work for me. It was very clear, very early, that if I were to assume that other human beings thought like me or acted like me, I would be quite wrong. I couldn’t rely on my instincts. They were too different to everyone else’s. I had to find another way.
EQ Failure: One of my earliest memories
From my earliest memory I found other people to be difficult, unpredictable, and confusing. I remember trying to play with other children in kindergarten. I would have been about 3 years old. I watched what they were doing and wanted to find some way to join in. The game was to climb to the top of the play equipment and say “I’m the king of the castle and you’re the dirty rascal”. This phrase was repeated while preventing anyone else from climbing up too. I desperately wanted to play but it seemed that I was never able to climb up. One day, I was determined and was first out of the blocks when we were let outside. I climbed straight up to the top and when another girl tried to follow me I pushed her back while saying the required phrase. She fell to the ground and started crying. I was in trouble. Another attempt failed. I guess I’ll go back to the drawing board. I was dejected but not discouraged. I would try again, determined to one day learn how to play with these humans.
Growing Up Different: A Barrier to Self-Awareness
Aspergers makes it hard to be normal. The thing I found most difficult (and still do to a large degree) was following the crowd. It seemed I’d somehow missed the memo. They knew all the steps off by heart and I was constantly guessing. This actually had a significant negative effect on my own emotional awareness. From as early as I can remember I’ve been ignoring my own emotions and intuitions, for the sake of trying to do what everyone else is doing. A lifetime of being told that my emotions are ‘wrong’ and that my impulses are socially unacceptable led me to automatically suppress virtually everything. I have an extreme amount of self control. Nothing gets through without express permission. Only now, in the past 5 years or so, have I made a concerted effort to rediscover the sound of my natural impulses.
I remember one of the hardest things about making friends in high school was walking around together. I was trying to stay with the group but always ended up walking too fast or too slow, coming too close or staying too far. Fish naturally swim in a school. They just follow their instinct and end up flocking together. Without this instinct I was spending a huge amount of my mental energy trying to ‘figure out’ where I was supposed to be walking. How close? Do I stand in the middle? Do I walk ahead or behind? For many years, it seemed I could never get it right.
Stage One: Observation
The first strategy I employed to try and understand the world and especially the people around me was observation. I was not naturally included, so often I would just sit and watch, and imagine what it must be like for others. I had a handful of friends here and there, mostly through common activities, like playing competition tennis. Unfortunately there were also large periods of failure to make friends at all. My first year of high school is a good example. I made no meaningful connection with any of the others at my all boys’ school and ended up changing schools at the end of the year (to one with significantly more girls!).
During this observation stage I made steady but very slow progress. I felt as though I were looking for ‘the secret’ but no-one could tell me what it is. I would study the actions of those who seemed to be good with people. I knew all the ‘rules’ of what I was supposed to do, but for some reason it never worked for me. Following the rules kept me out of trouble and meant that I wasn’t completely ostracised, but I was also far from included.
This was another problem of ‘instinct’ the ones who were good at it just did it naturally and unconsciously. This meant that they could not share their secret. Advice like, ‘just do what you feel’ or ‘just be yourself’, never worked out. I needed more specific instructions but no-one could give them to me.
Turning Point #1: Practice and Dreadlocks
My big breakthrough came at the age of 16. I was slowly learning and I’d reached the point where I had a handful of school friends. One day we went out to a concert together and met some others from another school just down the road from me. One thing led to another. We started hanging out together and I radically changed my look by getting dreadlocks. This was the new start I needed to begin practicing all the skills I had only ever imagined in theory. (Most of my steps forward have involved a ‘new start’ of some description.)
All of a sudden I was being invited to parties where I hardly knew anyone. I was meeting friends of friends and, thanks largely to my hair, I was somehow making a good impression. Well, good enough, to get a chance at a second impression!!
This step was absolutely massive. Previously, if I ever got a chance to make new friends, my lack of experience would lead to a less than desirable first impression, which would lead to an uphill, ultimately unwinnable battle. This time, people were actually nice to me! I wasn’t starting off on the back foot. Quite the contrary, my new look meant that others already liked me before we even met! I still had no idea what I was doing, but I was in an environment where small mistakes didn’t really matter. In other words, I was given another chance.
Learning via trial and error only works if you have SOME success. Previously I’d only had failure. It’s hard to learn what success looks like if you’ve never seen it. Now, while I was far from perfect, I was getting it right enough of the time to continue to be accepted (and invited). As long as I stayed a part of the group I had the opportunity to keep learning.
I was finally on the inside. People were talking to me. My dreadlocks gave me an instant cool talking point. People would ask me about them. Girls would want to play with them. It all felt insanely repetitive and superficial. It felt like I was having the exact same conversation with every new person I met. This turned out to be a really good thing though. I was learning so much from the predictability of it all. It did wonders for my confidence to know what to expect. I’d been here before. I knew what to do. I knew I could handle it.
By the time I got to university I was so comfortable that I joined a 3 day orientation camp with over 100 other first years and by day one on campus I couldn’t walk 2 minutes without bumping into someone I already knew and having a quick chat. The dreadlocks seemed to cover up all my natural weaknesses. When I got them my social life exploded virtually overnight, and I’ve never had trouble making friends ever since! (Keeping friends is another story, but that’s a topic for another day!)
This practice stage taught me all the basics. I was thrown in the deep end, but it wasn’t long before I felt quite comfortable in virtually any situation. I quickly learned that others don’t know what they’re doing either, and that if I were confident (as my appearance already suggested), then nothing could go too badly wrong.
By the end of the practice stage I felt like I ‘knew how to play the game’. I had refined my skills of ‘fitting in’ and being ‘accepted’ by society. The problem though, was that this often required a large amount of effort on my part. It felt like I was wearing a mask in many situations. Eventually this led to a feeling inside that if anyone saw the real me, then everything would shatter. I’d created a perfectly socially acceptable character, but the more I played it the more anxious I felt that I may one day be exposed as some kind of fraud. I was not being myself. Did I even know how to? I had an amazing ability to control my emotions, but did I have the ability to express them?
Turning Point #2: A Theoretical Framework
Like many others on the Autism Spectrum, before I can fully comprehend a thing, I really need to know ‘why’. I remember when I was first learning about electromagnetism in primary school. I was asking questions like. “WHY does a moving electron create a magnetic field?” No-one could answer me. “It just does.” They would say. Needless to say this answer was insufficient for me.
So when I started learning more about what emotions are and how they behave everything else started to fall into place. Previously unanswered questions started having answers. Questions like, “why do I need to look you in the eye?”, and “what is small talk for?”
Many small social things that are expected are required because of certain unconscious effects. We do them, they work, that’s all most people need to know, but this was never enough for me. I needed to know why. Once I started getting answers to these fundamental questions, I was able to properly understand everything else as well. I was finally overcoming the barrier of people not being able to explain their own intuition. No-one could give me an answer, so I had to find one myself. It just took over 20 years.
This discovery turbo-charged my learning. Now I not only knew what worked, but also why it worked. I was able to dedicate my practice in a new way. I knew what to look for and what to ignore. Ironically, I had previously been far TOO sensitive. For example, if someone yelled at me I might conclude that they don’t like me. In reality, how other people treat me is often determined predominantly by their mood, and not my actions.
The key was to understand the emotions. Once that foundation stone is laid all the behaviour is easy. Without it, behaviour seems random and unpredictable. Now I was observing the right thing. Behaviour was only important insofar as it was a clue to what a person was feeling. I now know that much of the motivation behind a person’s actions is unconscious. Therefore, instead of asking a person to explain to me their own motivation, I would instead ask them to explain to me their emotions. Emotions are a much better predictor of behaviour than thoughts or beliefs.
For a good example of how I used this knowledge to ‘beat the system’ (yes everything is a game to me), check out my previous blog post on “Turning a BAD DAY into a GOOD DAY”. Part 1 is about regulating my own emotions. Part 2 is about dealing with the emotions of others.
The Journey Continues:
When I was younger the world was overwhelming and confusing. When it came to people, nothing made sense. Now, I have a framework where everything fits into place. Understanding emotions means that people are no longer scary and unpredictable. I finally see why things are happening around me and it’s no longer any cause for unnecessary stress or anxiety.
Learning Emotional Intelligence is a lifelong journey so this is by no means the end, but sometimes it’s good to pause and celebrate how far we have already come 🙂
My Latest Venture: Teaching Emotional Intelligence Online
Following my passion for this topic I’ve recently started an online business called EmotionsExplained.com.au.
When I was a child I was looking for answers that no-one had. Now that I’ve found them, I want to share those discoveries with others (especially others on the Spectrum). Emotions are not complicated. We just need them explained in a simple way. I feel like I learned the hard way so that you don’t have to. It represents everything I wish someone had taught me 20 years ago.
It’s early days but the response so far has been phenomenal! I hope to continue to find new and better ways to share what I’ve learned and to help people understand emotions.
The direction of this endeavour is being led by you. I have about a billion ideas (give or take) of things I’d like to do, concepts I’d like to share, courses I’d like to teach, so to focus on what would be most useful in your life I would really appreciate any feedback or suggestions.
So if that sounds interesting to you please visit EmotionsExplained.com.au, check out what’s on offer, get involved, and let me know what you’d like to see in future 🙂