“My Reprieve from Forced Smiles and Small Talk”
I am good at my job and I have friends but a long history of undiagnosed Asperger’s and ADHD make forced smiles and small talk painful. Time away from the physical office — and people reminding and imploring me to smile all the time — has helped me better understand and advocate for myself.
I am a journalist, designer, belly dancer, Jiu-Jitsu junkie, and occasional model. Typically, people don’t associate these roles with being a shy, anxious, or socially awkward introvert. But that is precisely who I am.
My eye contact is all or nothing. What I feel internally doesn’t come across externally. My voice doesn’t change tone much. I get my point across in as few words as possible and I rarely sugarcoat. As a result, people sometimes think I’m rude or distant. I hate cues, lies, mind games, small talk, and any otherwise social niceties. Growing up, I wanted to be social but didn’t know how, and these “differences” made it hard to form the friendships I craved. Sometimes they still do.
Missed Signs of ADD and ASD
I was in my mid-20s before I understood that I might belong on the Autism spectrum, and have ADHD. I document my journey by writing about it, hoping to make a difference in even just one person’s life. Here’s mine.
Memory, age 9: I was visiting my extended family in India, as I did once every three years. I was walking around with my cousin at a party. She told me to smile when introduced to new people. I didn’t understand WHY to do that, so I didn’t.
Memory, age 20: I confided to my college bestie that I was seeing a student clinician at the university’s psychology clinic. I was receiving exposure therapy to cure my shyness. I told her that it was helping and she agreed, but she said I should smile when I meet people for the first time.
Memory, age 22: I went through about 15 job interviews during my senior year. I prepared doing mock interviews with a trusted acquaintance, felt more confident when going into offices, and wondered what more these companies could possibly want from me and what I did to deserve this. At some point, someone advised me to smile more. So I did.
My Problem with “Just Be Yourself”
When I smile, make eye contact, and force my voice to inflect when socializing, I feel I’m not “being myself.” This is just the front I was taught to put on by the student clinician from my university’s psychology clinic. It’s not that I don’t like the person to whom I’m talking. It’s just that social stimulation doesn’t make me outwardly emote. Without the presence of anxiety, my emotional reflection is not nonexistent…but it’s less than that of the average person. Even when meeting celebrities, my starstruck feelings have only displayed once or twice.
After reading all this, I’m sure you wouldn’t believe that there was ever a time I would smile naturally and majorly. But according to my mom, I had an “understanding of social situations” until I was a few months short of turning two. From that point on, I apparently had no desire to interact with others. My brother has a similar story. The difference is in our language and cognitive levels.
For years, my parents wondered what they did wrong with their kids. Yet only one of us was tested for brain injury, followed by an Autism diagnosis, followed by a test for epilepsy, speech therapy, psychiatric medicine, and Special Ed at school. That kid wasn’t me. Consequently, I had no answers for years when I wondered why I am how I am. This resulted in massive loneliness and no professional help.
Life Since Lockdown
I have worked remotely with my work team since my state’s lockdown went into effect. Though I struggled to wake on time initially, I am kept in check by calls and virtual meetings — daily with my boss, weekly with the team, and as needed for assignments. My performance has not declined.
To me, this confirms that remote work is for me. It is a balance between not having to deal with social stimulation overload, but also getting occasional “exposure therapy” like doing a presentation. Thankfully, my short and direct communication style is appreciated in this setting.
No Longer Do I…
No longer do I have to give acknowledging nods or forced smiles to passersby in the hall. No longer do I participate in office politics and banter, or forcibly giggle when team members sarcastically joke around and I have nothing to say. No longer do I scramble for things to say when someone engages in mindless small talk about the weather, or my weekend, or other things I don’t care about.
No longer do I run out the door to get to work on time, which further reduces anxiety. I simply roll out of bed and practice a short yoga series — for energy and motivation — which further contributes to boosting my mental and physical state of mind.
I’m With You
But alas, this will not last. I understand people have mixed feelings about lockdown and that this isn’t all about me. As I hang by a thread trying to cherish the “here and now” of this point of my life, I fear my social anxiety will worsen due to the “avoidance” I’ve inadvertently practiced.
To the ones who work best solo and must recharge after being around people, I’m with you. To the ones who struggle to listen and “process” when communicating, I’m with you. To the ones who fear job loss due to not fitting in, I’m with you. To the ones who are tired of getting told to talk more, smile more, or “lighten up”, I’m with you.
To the ones who scramble for things to say, while maintaining a stoic front during “small talk,” I’m with you. To the ones who maintain a social “mask” for survival or acceptance, I’m with you. To the ones who dream of a time where “being yourself” does not cause difficulty connecting with other humans, I’m with you.
This article first appeared in Mrinal Gokhale’s blog, www.aspergrl.wordpress.com on May 14, 2020. The author has granted reprint permissions to ADDitude.
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