The auto-pilot problem [seeking adv, long read]

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Post by Hirundo Bos on Sun Mar 08, 2015 7:44 pm

I have a list, actually an exhileratingly short list of scary things, of things I think I should deal with before I look more seriously for (physical)  intimacy. On that list is 3) some aspects of socializing I want to get more practice with, and 2) getting a clearer picture of what I actually want with that kind of intimacy. And then there is 1) get a handle on my tendency to go into autopilot and rely on external cues when things become stressful, complicated, or confusing, and also related: the problems I sometimes have with disengaging from a behavorial plan.

Socially or interpersonally, this could mean I go along with things without really thinking or without feeling able to voice my objections, it could mean I take on social roles that sometimes go against my values, it could mean that respond inadequately to a soft no, or that I say yes to things I don't really want.

Agreeing to things I don't really mean
What prompted me to go into this right now was the thread about the boyfriend who lied about watching porn, and the discussion about lying and not following through on promises... the discussion later got into cases where that would be okay, but for myself, it's something I am afraid of doing in cases where it would not be that okay. Maybe less with things I agree not to do, more with things I agree will be my job... One example concerned agreements about housework.

I can see myself saying "yeah okay, sure," when the other person lay out their preferences, actually intending to follow up on it, but then it grows and starts to feel insurmountable, and I know I should say so, raise the topic, find a solution, but that, also, feels too hard, I can't find the words for it.

I did get some good advice in that thread, particularly that I should talk about this early on, make it something we can work on together, and that will probably help a lot.

It actually reminds me of something I learned some years ago... with people in helping professions, like therapists or doctors. They would tend to underestimate my problems, scratch the surface a bit, then send me along with a "so I guess we're okay here then". And I would go into autopilot and say "yes, sure, okay," because I did't know what else to say... one time I remember the autopilot thing felt so real, as if my mouth was talking and my consciousness was just along for the ride. But once I learned to raise that issue in the beginning – how it's easy to underestimate my problems, how I'm likely to go along with it if I'm dismissed – things finally started to change in my life.

Taking intiative, suggesting activities
This feels related somehow... when I'm making plans with someone, it's hard for me to suggest what to do, or where to meet. I always prefer to wait for cues to what the other person would prefer.

And in a great lot of situations, it's hard for me to be the first one to speak... that's one of the problems I've had with searching for a place of my own, because then first I'd have to respond to an ad... it's the problem I had with keeping in touch with friends before you people here helped me find a framework for doing that... and it's the problem I can see happening with socializing and flirting when I start doing more of that.

These are actually fairly simple, measurable expressions of the autopilot problem, things I could systmeatize and get some practice with.

Responding to a soft no
I'm beginning to get the concept of soft nos, implicit rejections, "mmm"-ing and "sure"-ing when people aren't really interested in the topic of conversation... that's one thing I've learned from this place, DNL Prime and the forums. Before I would miss out on some soft nos, and would get angry about some of the ones I caught. I had the idea in my head that a soft dismissal meant I wasn't worth the effort to make it explicit. It was the source of almost every argument I had with my mom. But well, I almost never do that anymore.

A thing that can happen, though, is that when I'm not sure if someone is withdrawing from me or not, I continue to make small approaches, not blatant ones but still... to get confirmation, to resolve the ambiguity, or with the hope that maybe I've got it wrong... and the way this happens in my head, it feels almost like a compulsion. Something I don't want to, but might do anyway when my self-control slips. Cognitively, it's as if the soft cues to disengage are overridden by situational cues to proceed, because this is the kind of situations I believe people proceed in.

I don't think I’m powerless against this as it is, but I do think it’s important to get an even better grip on it.

Keeping my wits about me in sexual situations
This is where I'm most worried about the autopilot problem... and why I want to try and solve it before I go around looking for sex. Sex is an activity where communication is particularly important, but it's also an emotionally heated situation, which is when communication skills seem to be at their lowest.

I worry that in the face of a soft no, while I’ll probably stop what I’m doing, I mightkeep testing the waters, in a way that is effectively pleading or pressuring... I say "effectively" because I know pressuring won't be my intention, but my intentions don't matter a lot if pressure is felt by the other person.

A solution here may be to ask directly if I'm not sure. But uhm... may there be a limit to how many "is this okay? are you sure you're okay with this" I can get out before that just becomes another kind of pressure?

I worry that in the face of a clear no, the effort of disengaging, turning off the autopilot, may be visible in a way that comes across as disappointment... or that the effort of disengaging takes away the mental resources I need to manage some strain of disappointment, that I'll end up being less cool about it than I want to.

And I'm worried about my own boundaries, capacity to say no, even safety... because the last time I had physical sex with someone else (more than eight years ago now) I was so on autopilot I even felt unable to raise the topic of protection. I thought about it, but again, that thought was only along for the ride, while my body did its thing. It wasn't until after the act she assured me that she could't get pregnant and that she was tested for diseases.

What am I asking for here?
The problems are likely to have both emotional and cognitive roots, and they may well turn out to be influenced by autism... I don't think they are unique to autism though, most people I talk to see something of themselves in them.

The emotional roots have to do with interpersonal anxieties, what I talked about on the old forums, with the fear of asking for things. The sense that it would be imposing on others to even express what I want, or that if I do, nobody wil pay attention anyway, or that they will push back in ways that are socially overwhelming... I used to have an extremely external locus of control, although there has been a lot of improvement over the years.

The cognitive roots have to do with changing mental tracks. It takes effort, probably more for me than for others, to disengage from one plan of action and lock on to another, and when the effort + anxiety becomes too much, that's when the autopilot tends to take over.

Now, these worries are mostly built on old experiences. I have worked a lot with disengaging and asking for things over the last year, some of that work has been done on the forums... I don't know exactly where I stand, though, don't know how I'll hold up in heated situations. So I guess I'd both want to improve my skills with this, and get a clearer idea of my capabilities. Possibly also improve my confidence around them, something that will in itself make it easier to speak up.

Tl;dr
In situations where I ought to use my words, I can have difficulties finding my voice. Sometimes I want to speak up but am afraid to, sometimes I feel like I’m on autopilot, locked on to a predetermined set of actions, my consciousness just along for the ride. While I’ve made a lot of progress, I’m worried about how this will play out in heated, intimate situations. I’m looking for a better understanding of the issue, for how other people deal with things like this, for excercises I can practice with, for anything that might expand my perspective.
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Post by kleenestar on Sun Mar 08, 2015 8:56 pm

Wow, this is a really thoughtful post. I don't have the time to respond to all these things, but I'll start with one I struggle with - taking initiative in suggesting activities. I get really caught up in my own head and start telling myself stories about how the other person will hate all my suggestions, and then it gets really stressful. This is especially problematic because I am usually the one to suggest getting together, so I am constantly making myself face this issue whether I want to or not!

I use two strategies to reduce my difficulty with this issue.

First, I research in advance a list of options. Coming up with something good on the spot is tough, but if I know that "this list of five restaurants will always serve us a good meal" or "this list of three cafes is convenient to public transit" that reduces the amount of flailing I do. I'm happy to go elsewhere if someone else suggests it, but I never propose anything that isn't on one of my lists. That rule helps me not endlessly search for the "perfect" option or overthink what the other person is looking for.

The other thing I do is make it a collaborative process. I explicitly make suggestions that require input from the other person, with a default if they don't want to make a choice. For example, "I'd be happy to meet at either 12:30pm or 3pm, whichever is better for you. If you don't care, let's do 3pm." That way we don't get stuck in an endless loop of deferential politeness, but I also don't feel like I'm prioritizing my convenience over theirs.

Do these seem like helpful strategies?
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Post by Caffeinated on Mon Mar 09, 2015 2:34 pm

Hirundo Bos wrote:
Taking intiative, suggesting activities
This feels related somehow... when I'm making plans with someone, it's hard for me to suggest what to do, or where to meet. I always prefer to wait for cues to what the other person would prefer.

I think, if part of the problem of suggesting what to do is that you're concerned about pushing the other person or suggesting something they don't want, it may be helpful to consider that they may feel the same way. They may also tend to wait for cues about the other person's preference. The thing that got me into a habit of making definite suggestions for plans was finding myself in a situation with certain friends where we'd go back and forth and back and forth trying to get the other one to state preference first, and I realized it would make it much easier on both of us if there was something on the table to accept or reject or modify. The back and forth dance started to feel worse to me than the possibility of the other person not liking my suggestion.

Hirundo Bos wrote:
Responding to a soft no
I'm beginning to get the concept of soft nos, implicit rejections, "mmm"-ing and "sure"-ing when people aren't really interested in the topic of conversation... that's one thing I've learned from this place, DNL Prime and the forums. Before I would miss out on some soft nos, and would get angry about some of the ones I caught. I had the idea in my head that a soft dismissal meant I wasn't worth the effort to make it explicit. It was the source of almost every argument I had with my mom. But well, I almost never do that anymore.

A thing that can happen, though, is that when I'm not sure if someone is withdrawing from me or not, I continue to make small approaches, not blatant ones but still... to get confirmation, to resolve the ambiguity, or with the hope that maybe I've got it wrong... and the way this happens in my head, it feels almost like a compulsion. Something I don't want to, but might do anyway when my self-control slips. Cognitively, it's as if the soft cues to disengage are overridden by situational cues to proceed, because this is the kind of situations I believe people proceed in.

I think, in situations where you think there's a soft no but are not sure or are feeling confused by the ambiguity, it's ok to ask. Something like: "I feel like you're pulling away, am I reading that right?" or "I feel like you'd like to change the subject, am I reading that right?"

Sometimes if you ask for clarification, the other person might be uncomfortable because they prefer a more ambiguous communication style. It's not wrong to prefer more clarity, and it's not wrong to prefer more ambiguity, but sometimes a conflict between preferred communication styles can mean it's harder for those particular individuals to have a good relationship (any kind, not just dating) with each other.

Hirundo Bos wrote:
Keeping my wits about me in sexual situations
This is where I'm most worried about the autopilot problem... and why I want to try and solve it before I go around looking for sex. Sex is an activity where communication is particularly important, but it's also an emotionally heated situation, which is when communication skills seem to be at their lowest.

It might be helpful to talk about this a bit with a potential partner before the situation arises. Like, mention that in highly emotional situations you can find it harder to communicate. I think a lot of people can empathize with that to a degree, because it can be harder to varying degrees for a lot of people to communicate in emotional situations.

Hirundo Bos wrote:I worry that in the face of a clear no, the effort of disengaging, turning off the autopilot, may be visible in a way that comes across as disappointment... or that the effort of disengaging takes away the mental resources I need to manage some strain of disappointment, that I'll end up being less cool about it than I want to.

It's not wrong to feel disappointment when someone says no. It's also not wrong for that feeling to be visible to the other person. It would be wrong to try to force the other person to change their no to a yes, or to force the other person to do what you wanted regardless of their no. But you have the right to your feelings, even if the other person would rather you felt a different way.

Hirundo Bos wrote:
What am I asking for here?
The problems are likely to have both emotional and cognitive roots, and they may well turn out to be influenced by autism... I don't think they are unique to autism though, most people I talk to see something of themselves in them.

The emotional roots have to do with interpersonal anxieties, what I talked about on the old forums, with the fear of asking for things. The sense that it would be imposing on others to even express what I want, or that if I do, nobody wil pay attention anyway, or that they will push back in ways that are socially overwhelming... I used to have an extremely external locus of control, although there has been a lot of improvement over the years.

The cognitive roots have to do with changing mental tracks. It takes effort, probably more for me than for others, to disengage from one plan of action and lock on to another, and when the effort + anxiety becomes too much, that's when the autopilot tends to take over.

Hmm, maybe a thing to try would be to rehearse something that would let you get back in touch with yourself when things get overwhelming. Maybe plan out a phrase to say to the other person, like "I need to take a minute and process things". And then an internal ritual that could involve maybe some deep breaths, a mantra or set of affirmations, something to let you break out of doing things automatically and get in touch with your ability to make decisions and think things through.
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Post by Hirundo Bos on Tue Mar 10, 2015 4:13 pm

Thank you both of you for responding... I've kept thinking about the auto-pilot problem since I posted, and I've seen even more how many aspects of my life it plays into, and how much progress I have already made. I can name occasions only in the last couple of days where I have spoken where I would have problems before. It will be interesting to see what happens when I master it.

I have also looked more into the emotional roots, how powerless and angry and invasive and brushed aside I used to feel, especially growing up... how giving voice to my will feels like too much and too little at the same time.

Kleenestar, your suggestions are very interesting. I think I have come a bit along already... When it comes to cafés and restaurants, at least, I'm familiar with enough of them to have some options ready to use. Do you have other categories you could suggest, types of places/activities to research if we want to do something other than sit and talk?

I've also already begun to find ways to collaborate on finding time and place... I put a time out there and add "or something else, if that's better for you"... because anchoring simplifies decision making a lot. The something on the table that Caffeinated refer to. But for my part... I have a lot of time on my hands, so almost any time is good for me, I think I'll need to tell myself that I'm allowed to have preferences all the same.

And that preferences don't have to be well thought through, or be something I can defend with reason in a debate.

One thing I've noticed to be particularly scary, is to suggest going to a specific event, where both time and place is set in advance. Like "do you want to go with me to this or that concert, or this or that open lecture"... I'm not quite sure what's so hard about it, I'm not exactly afraid they won't like it, it's more... how it feels like a step into the unknown, does that make any sense at all?

Caffeinated: Talk beforehand about my tendency to go into auto-pilot, prepare some lines I can say on the spot when things feel like they're moving too fast, some way to disengage explicitly, then get my bearings... are good ideas. And keeping in mind that people who would be comfortable with this are the kind of people it would be best for me to get close to.

"Lines to say on the spot," is that what's sometimes referred to as scripts? I think I could use some of those, for 1) general social situations where I can't find my voice, 2) heated, intimate situations where I can't find my voice, 3) when I'm uncertain whether something is a soft no or not... if I could learn some such phrases by heart, they could become a setting for my autopilot, rather than having to compete with it... does anyone have any suggestions here?
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Post by Hirundo Bos on Thu Mar 12, 2015 5:42 pm

Excercised my voicebox a bit today... Heard a piece of music that I liked, hesitated for a while (because I have a strong fear of talking about music), but then went and asked about what it was. Person was happy to tell me, she was excited about that artist too. Bought it on iTunes, listening to it now. Small thing, but small things are often good places to start...
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Post by Hirundo Bos on Tue Mar 17, 2015 7:14 pm

This could go in my moving out-thread or in this thread, because I heard from a relative today that there's an apartment for rent in the block where a friend of hers live, and that place is just around the corner from my mother's, and even closer to my sister's – I hardly have to move at all, so it would be perfect, if I could get it. But that means I'l have to call. By phone. And ask questions. And excercise my voicebox again. And it's scary... but I think I might be capable of it. So, ehm, wish me luck?
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Post by Enail on Tue Mar 17, 2015 7:15 pm

Much luck!
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Post by Werel on Tue Mar 17, 2015 7:16 pm

Good luck! You got this!
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Post by reboot on Tue Mar 17, 2015 7:17 pm

Luck! You got this
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Post by Werel on Tue Mar 17, 2015 7:31 pm

If reboot's 1000th post is used on good wishes for you, you get a luck multiplier x1000. Wink
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Post by Autumnflame on Tue Mar 17, 2015 8:04 pm

Good luck! Grin
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Post by Hirundo Bos on Wed Mar 18, 2015 10:50 am

Thanks for all the good wishes, they were a big help when I made the call. Which I made. I went to my mother's office to have her as a backup, wrote down some phrases in advance, and it all went nice and smooth, I didn't even tell half my life story before I got to the point.

Having simple phrases to express common but complex series of events is probably a big part of overriding the auto-pilot. Like now, my mom suggested the phrase

"I heard through so-and-so that you have an available apartment",

and that worked out so much better than

"I spoke with so-and-so the other day, I know him through a relative, and yeah, I'm looking for a place to live by the way, because I'm living with my mom now, but I would like a bit more personal space, so yeah, so-and-so said that you have an apartment available, so, yeah, I might maybe be interested in that"

which was the kind of conversation I was imagining when I wrote the above post.

One of my problems with communication is that I don't always know where to start. What to include, what to leave out. Simpler them to turn on auto-pilot, turn off my voice, and just follow other people's lead.

So I'm thinking... maybe I should work up a store of simple phrases for the kind of social scenarios I want to go into. Caffeinated already gave some good suggestions. Anyone else have something to add? I might also come back later with some particular things I'd like some help to express.
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Post by Hirundo Bos on Fri Mar 27, 2015 6:13 pm

In the last few days, there's been instances where I've been asked about my opinion about a decision that had to be made. The first case, I just went along as things were laid out to me. "Sounds good... that's nice... no, we can't do that... oh, you wanted to that? let me think about it. (after thinking) well, I don't have any strong objections, but maybe we – oh, we're doing it, great, good decision."

The second case was about my new apartment, the landlord asked if I was satisified with the cleaning, I pointed to a spot I was unsure about, he said it was supposed to be that way and I said okay.

What's common in both cases was that I really didn't feel I understood the matters I was being asked about... I don't know what a clean apartment is really supposed to look like, don't have a deep understanding of the issue we discussed in the first case...

I think this could be the case more generally. I either believe I don't know or actually don't know enough about a thing to feel that I have much to say, or I believe nobody's going to listen anyway, or I don't believe it's any of my business, and those might be some of the reasons why I default to auto-pilot instead.
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