Since I graduated from University in April last year, a lot of interesting stuff has happened. However – this has also been a time with many changes, and those can be tough to handle. The most difficult change has been that I could no longer keep my mentor after graduation. My mentor has helped me plan my week and keeping me on track, as I have some difficulties with executive functioning, i.e. planning, monitoring my progress, making sure I stay on track, managing time and deadlines, and more (you can look it up, or take a look at this great video by Amythest Schaber from “Ask an Autistic”).
Even for the non-autistic, too much change (both good and bad!) is stressful. Some illustrative examples include: a wedding, moving into one’s dream home, or starting a new and highly desired job. For the autistic person, changes in routine often become stressful at a much earlier point than for those who are not autistic.
When change produces fear and anxiety
In my case, the many new things I had to deal with (both professionally and personally), along with the now missing mentor, has meant that my anxiety levels and depressive symptoms have been increasing steadily. I have experienced more frequent crying, feelings of despair, ‘knots in the stomach’ and insecurity. This has in turn led to increased social fobia (the fear of being judged negatively by other people), as well as incidences of being ‘stuck’, that is, wanting and trying very hard to progress on projects, but being so overcome by fear and anxiety, that I end up sitting still in place and not getting anywhere. I might get to the office, and then get stuck, or I might not be able to leave my home that day.
This is not lazyness or simple procrastination (although in certain ways it has similarities with procrastination, when understood as something that is a symptom with a complex psychological origin). I do not wish to be stuck. And I can sit, tears streaming down my face, and try to tell myself “come on now, just try, you have done similar things before and you can do this too, it seems worse now than when you have gotten started” and so on. And can put in all my will to do it despite the fears. And yet – I am stuck. It is deeply frustrating.
The search for solutions
Now some good news. In my period of ‘stuck-ness’, my brain is often still active. It searches for solutions. It will not accept that these troubles determine my future and my happiness. And so I accept that many hours on many days will go to waste in preoccupation with anxiety, but I will fight back! But to fight back, I need to rebuild the confidence in myself.
Being stuck has had the consequence of my having to miss deadlines, having to write to collaborators and explain my psychological troubles, and ask for extra time and understanding. And the responses have thankfully been postive. Over the years, my experience has been that the times where I come forth and explain myself, result in much better relations with people, than the times where I hide and ignore the problem. People actually prefer bad news to no news (probably because it gives them something to consider rather than keeping them in a position of uncertainty by not knowing what is going on).
Being stuck also means I experience an inability to ‘do something’ – to get things done. And as a result I loose confidence in my own ability to do the tasks I must to do progress with my plan, and so they get harder to do. I have even more anxiety and fear to overcome in order to move on.
The solution: choosing very small tasks, that are unrelated to the anxiety-provoking ones that cause me to get stuck, and mastering them so show myself that I am able. Able to do something I decide to do. This approach is inspired by Robert Twigger’s book on “Micromastery”.
What is micromastery?
Micromastery is about learning a very specific and narrow skill, and really becoming an expert at that. It could be just learning one dance move, or just one martial technique, or being able to recite just one poem, play one melodi on the guitar etc. It is about taking “the time to cultivate small and quantifiable areas of expertise” (quoted from the book’s page that I linked to above).
Twigger’s own example is about making a really good omelette. In his book, he explains that he once heard a cook say, that skill in cooking could be asessed by a simple omelette. And so Twigger decided to turn the skill mastery progression on it’s head: instead of embarking on a 10.000 hour journey of mastering cooking, he would just go for making that excellent omelette.
And learning narrow cool things such a making a great omelette is rewarding. The time spent really pays off. It may encourage you to try other dishes, or you may want to try building cool micro mastery skills in a completely other field. The cool thing about it, is that is focuses on a very concrete skill, and so it makes it easy to experience the progress. It focuses on learning being fun, rewarding and making you excited about something.
But there is more
Micromastery is in fact not the only thing I am doing to fight back against anxiety, fear and depressive symptoms. Last night I made a huge collage of sorts, where I visualised all of my problems, the strategies I use at the moment, what they helped me with and what was not yet being adressed. I also included the methods needed for a more stable situation long term, and what options I had at the moment, as well as those that could not pay off until after several months maybe even years (but would likely increase over time and thus slowly get better and better). My list of strategies (categorized as either ‘long term’ or ones that can be done ‘now’) are:
- Finding a way to get a mentor again (long term)
- Having my future workplace accomodate me in specific ways (long term)
- Meditation 10 minutes daily (now)
- Affirmations that things get better and better (now)
- Breathing exercises (now)
- Making an appointment with a coach (I actually phoned one!)
- Monitoring and correcting how I speak to myself ‘in my head’. (E.g. commenting in my thoughts that I am “being stupid” or whatever is followed by a mental “delete” and then the sentence I wanted myself to have thought/said to myself.) (now)
- Spending time with dogs (or other animals), as this is something which brings me lots of happiness (I looove dogs, but sadly don’t have one in my home – yet!) (now)
- Speaking with ‘safe’ persons, i.e. some family and friends. (This is to not keep too many thought in my own head, but rather get a fresh perspective on them from someone I trust.) (now)
- Micromastery (you already know this one from the explanation above). (now)
It is my hope that some of you may be able to use these strategies to handle your own problems and difficulties. Also, if you have other ideas for helpful strategies, you are very welcome to add them in a comment.