Throughout my life I head many people refer to me as a walking encyclopedia, a robot, and a Vulcan. These comparisons stem from a variety of things, such as the massive wealth of trivial information I know to, what seems like, being unemotional. Today I want to talk about this idea of being compared to a Vulcan. Some autistics take umbrage with this term, but it’s often more accurate than people think, but for some of the worst reasons.
For those not up to speed on their Star Trek lore, allow me to give a bit of a break down on Vulcans. Vulcans are an alien race that are very well known for their ridged adherence to logic. Logic is deeply woven in to their culture. They value logic so much that they spend a great deal of their childhood learning to suppress their emotions. For the remainder of their life they engage in activities, like meditation, to ensure they can maintain control over their emotions.
The reason the Vulcans have adopted this way of life is because they are extremely emotional. They are so emotional that they nearly destroyed themselves in a war. A Vulcan philosopher by the name of Surak introduced the idea of a society based on logic and emotional suppression, though some Vulcans contest the emotional suppression claim. Surak thought that the survival of Vulcans required that they be guided by their mind and not their emotions.
How does this play in to autism? Well, many autistics, like myself, are very emotional. When I was young, my emotional expression was often criticized because I didn’t express them “appropriately.” Often my emotional expression could be considered too intense. Through out my childhood I was often received negative reinforcement for expressing my emotions. It wasn’t uncommon for that negative reinforcement to come in the form of physical abuse. When the abuse wasn’t physical, it was psychologically abusive. At one point in my childhood I had been told that I was trying to be deceptive by expressing my emotions, even if just giving a facial expression. I was told “Children don’t have emotions.” I had to learn to keep a completely stone-cold face while being yelled at or hit, because any show of emotion would make things worse.
I developed PTSD because of my childhood abuse, and in my early adult life I was a train wreck. My emotional expression became destructive. It seemed like everything I touched I burned to the ground. Trying to navigate jobs and the adult world, I had even more pressure on me to control my emotional expression. No one was really interested in helping me, they just didn’t want to see my emotions.
Because of the negativity in my childhood toward my emotional expression, the need to be able to hold down a job or be promoted, having a child, etc… I had to learn not express my emotions. I don’t understand what the “right” level of emotional expression is. Frankly, it seems to change depending on who you ask and the situation. So, it came to be, that I learned to suppress my emotions. I still feel them, but I don’t really express them. I will express some emotion if I am comfortable with the people around me, but I still monitor it.
The idea of expressing my emotions frightens me too. I worry about the destructive nature of my emotional expression. So long as I keep myself in check I make better choices. I practice secular Buddhism and work a lot on mindfulness and meditation. A great deal of my energy is spent on emotional regulation and suppression.
I’m also hyper empathetic and I absorb other people’s emotions. But, like everyone, empathy is an approximation based on how the empathizing person has felt in the past. Well, my emotions are intense, so when I empathize, I feel those emotions intensely. It’s wearing and hard to control. It takes a lot of focus and energy. Couple that with not always knowing what the right response is to the situation, and what you get is an autistic who seems stone-cold. What is happening on the surface is not what is happening below the surface. But, I don’t have the energy and capacity at the time to express that emotion. I’m a terrible shoulder to cry on.
Given the need to control my emotions, I have been left with having to rely on logic to guide me through life. I’m extremely logical. I’m more apt to offer a suffering person a solution to their problem than to just listen and be there for them. In my mind, if I solve the problem, the source of the pain goes away and thus the pain goes away. It might not go away right away, but the person can begin to heal. So, solving a person’s problem is my show of empathy. It’s the best I can do.
As with most things, there are upsides and downsides to this. That list would be extensive, so I am going to stick to some that I think are important. By regulating my emotions and emotional expression I am often seen as being the level-headed person in extremely emotional situations. I also tend to make better choices that drastically reduce the amount of self-inflicted suffering I allow into my life. It has allowed me to navigate the work place more seamlessly even if I am considered a bit odd at times. It has also made me less prone to allowing my emotions to dictate my world view instead of logic and evidence.
Some of the downsides are that I generally feel emotionally isolated. I am fighting a never-ending war against myself to suppress part of who I am. When people make assumptions about my thoughts, feelings, and intentions it’s done so with the other person thinking that I am cold and calculated. This often means they are extremely wrong. Their behavior toward me tends to cause me even further distress that I also must keep in check. It’s exhausting and hurtful.
I’ve heard many autistics explain a similar experience. Our emotional journey is often misunderstood. We are like Vulcans living among humans in many cases. We are treated as alien and inhuman because of how me must manage our emotions. But I think it’s important to understand that necessity is large in part because of how society has treated us. It’s because our emotional expression is also alien. There is no good choice for many autistics. We must choose from the least bad choice and no matter what we pick it’s never good enough to make non-autistics feel comfortable. Many of us suffer because non-autistics can’t handle the discomfort of something different.
Even more confusing, is how I must control all those intense emotions, yet, it’s perfectly acceptable for the people telling me how I should, or shouldn’t, express my emotions to express their emotions as they see fit. I should not question it and I shouldn’t suggest that they are over reacting. When someone else expresses their emotions, they are entitled to their emotions and the expression of those emotions. The double standard is galling. So, if you have a Vulcan in your life, keep in mind there is probably more going on than you think. If more people understood, maybe they would see the human standing in front of them, instead of the alien.