Fighting Frustration Together

At times anger or frustration can get the better of us. Recognising and naming emotions can be hard for many people. For those on the spectrum, who feel them so intensely it can be even harder. Often how we deal with intense feelings can have a deep impact not just on us, but also on those around us.

Four Steps to Freedom

Unfortunately, dealing with intense frustration is not a single action. It actually involves four steps:

1. Recognising the source
2. Naming the emotion
3. Formulating a response
4. The final response

But for those on the spectrum this amount of processing takes a very long time, exacerbating the frustration. We will look at all four steps in order. You will notice that there are a lot of things that you can do when you are NOT overwhelmed by emotion which will be helpful at times when you are. For example we may get frustrated during a conversation. For many it is impossible to do all the above processing in the split second available to us. I have found it useful to have step 3 prepared in advance. You may therefore want to work on this first.

So dealing with frustration step by step...

1. Recognising the source

Early teaching on autism generally held that people on the spectrum lacked the ability to empathise. However the Intense World Theory suggests people on the spectrum may pick up strongly the emotions of others, but cannot recognise what these emotions are or where they come from. This leads to a sense of overwhelm. This can happen to NTs too but they are mostly able to recognise when an emotion is external to them.

Be aware, if someone walks into the room and you are suddenly overwhelmed by an emotion it is probably theirs. Be equally aware that at that moment that person has needs of their own, and saying something like “stop being stressed – it hurts me” will make the situation worse.

2. Identifying the emotion

Because some emotions actually feel very similar they can be hard to identify eg. excited and scared are very close, as are frustration and anger. Author Cynthia Kim has written some great posts on how she has identified some of her emotions.

Creating a mood constellation like this in a quiet moment might help you to recognise emotions and name them more easily.  Another good way to “measure” or describe emotions is by using colours as suggested by Maxine Aston in The Asperger Couple’s Workbook. Take time to discuss with your family what colours mean to them and come up with a colour chart that is meaningful to you all. Do this at a time when you are all calm. The chart here is for youngsters, but the system can easily be adapted for adults.

3. Formulating a response

There are actually two responses to think about.

It is useful to suggest that you need time to process things. You can have some sort of code or stock, scripted response, which will enable you to get this across.

This requires sitting down with your family/friends/colleagues before these situations arise and explaining that you will sometimes need time to process what you feel and may have to give a quick response indicating you need time out. Work out between you what that response will be. It takes NT’s a long time to get the hang of this. Believe me I’m one of them. But you will get there.

The second thing to think about is what, if anything, you will say when you come back together. NT’s can feel sad, angry or confused if they think their AS partner/friend is angry with them.

For many years I believed my AS husband was angry when he would describe himself as frustrated. The anger I perceived was born out of the frustration he felt. Often he was actually frustrated with himself or something external.

It may be helpful to explain what situations you do, and do not, want help with. A “stand back” or “don’t help me” code could be useful. It may be hard for an NT to stand back and watch someone struggle to open a jar when they feel they could do it, but their intruding on the ensuing frustration could lead to meltdown.

When naming these feelings it can be useful to differentiate between angry/frustrated with you, angry/frustrated with myself or angry/frustrated with something/someone else. In a coding system these three directions of frustration can all be given different colours, or codes, helping NT’s to understand you more easily.

4. The final response

When you do get back together your partner may want an apology, even though you feel you have done nothing, or even that they are at fault. This is very hard to do, but “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” is probably a good start. A pre-arranged agreement that both will apologise when one is upset can be useful.

You may want to explain what happened or talk it through, naming the feelings you identified. If appropriate you can use the codes or colour systems you have pre-determined.

It is not always useful to go back into the “who said what first”. We seemed to spend years doing this, and almost always found that each discerned a different starting point to a disagreement. We found it best just to say “I felt sad/angry/red when this happened.” and leave it at that. My request as an NT is don’t go over it too many times. Once is quite sufficient. Your NT has got it.

NT’s please take note you won’t win by unpicking an argument with an Aspie, and you probably won’t get the last word. Sometimes I would use “I’ll try not to do that again” but my memory is so terrible I couldn’t hold on to all the things I was supposed not to do. My OH has taught me that “Oh!” is an OK ending to a dispute. In a family an even better one is “It’s OK. I love you anyway.”

We can learn to deal with our frustrations, and but being prepared for them is one way to make a start. Do this together with those around you and all will benefit.