How to cope with grey areas
July 25, 2014 11:24 PM   Subscribe

I have Asperger's, and so I have a tendency to be more comfortable with things that are black and white, rather than things that are grey, figuratively speaking. I want to change this, as this tends to affect more than one aspect of my life.

For example: I have/had this friend. At first, I thought things with this friend were going well-- we were talking on the train a lot, we communicated via Facebook and email, etc. But then today, he and I had a huge talk. Basically, our definitions/visions of the friendship weren't the same, and he felt I was expecting more out of it than he was. I'm not going to go into it, but he did have some valid points (i.e., there were times when I went overboard with messages). What he wanted to do was be friendly (and I guess his definition of friends), but not be as close as we were, as he wasn't comfortable with that level of engagement. This was very confusing for me, and so I asked (and am asking) a ton of questions. Usually people blow me off when they don't want to engage. My friend said he almost did that, but didn't because he didn't want to be a jerk. I want to try and make it work, not just for him (because honestly, he could have just left), but because maybe someday in future I'll be friends with someone who doesn't want to be super close and while I don't mind that with some people, I want to learn how to not mind that so much with others.

Another example: at work, I was trying to get my vacation dates approved. My boss is the only one who can do that, but he was very busy with a case he was working on. It took a while for him to finally get back to me, and in the end, I got the dates approved, but before there was there was just a period of uncertainty that I was really uncomfortable with, and so I ended up emailing him a few times. I consider uncertainty to be the temporal version of a grey area, and I think it's not too dissimilar from the situation with my friend.

I'm speaking to my therapist about both of these situations, as well as other similar ones. I seem to have a hard time grasping the idea of a grey area. I want to get around this, because, again, I feel that not doing so would be very self-limiting. But I'm not sure if I ever can-- because of my Asperger's, I wonder if this is something I can ever really do. I think about this for a while, and then I get sad, because I really want to have friends of all sorts and not be plagued and made anxious by uncertainty and not knowing all the time, but I can never be normal. I'm not sure if this is something the community can answer, but I thought it wouldn't hurt. Help?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
For me difficulty surrounding uncertainty and grey areas is very characteristic of anxiety in general. I expect this will be a highly personal process for you but I want to say two things. First, learning to live in the grey area, or the 'emergent' space, as my therapist and I call it, has been the fundamental theme of my therapy. It comes up again and again, through intimate relationships, friendships, career, everything. It's a big job and it takes time and work, in my case unraveling emotions, feeling things that have been buried, and slowly learning to trust my own resources and capability even when outcomes are not known; there are no tricks or quick fixes. Second, more positively, this has been the sort of thing that gradually gives way. Somewhat paradoxically you can think about black-and-white thinking in black-and-white -- either I will always see things in black and white, or I will be always be able to see things in grey -- but actually the reality of it for me is that sometimes, in some circumstances, it will be okay to let a little grey in, and other times I will default to black and white. More threatening, more dangerous, more chaotic, and me being less resourced, all generate a desire for certainty and control which manifests as black and white thinking. Some situations are much simpler and much easier to conceptualize in nuanced, emergent ways. You probably already have some areas of your life that are like this. So rather than imagine flipping a switch, think about noticing where this exists in your life, and conceive of the project as a long term effort towards gradually expanding those spaces.
posted by PercussivePaul at 12:19 AM on July 26, 2014 [9 favorites]

It sounds like you'll have to take a leap of faith regarding whether or not you'll be able to change your instinctive reactions. I say go for it.

I put a lot of stock in accurate problem identification. So that when you say "I seem to have a hard time grasping the idea of a grey area," I think you are in fact grasping the idea of a grey area quite well, and maybe more accurately having a hard time handling or dealing with it. I think this is something that a lot of people struggle with. Awareness of the problem is just the first step. Some people don't even get that far. But at some point you will have to be willing to try to do things differently. Writing down what I can't control has helped me out a lot and freed me up to do things differently. Having an illness that exacerbates these problems can create a lot of emotional pressure. If possible, try letting that go.

These things take practice and optimism. Waking up every day and trying again. If you make a big mistake, you need to let it go. Sounds like you have a good friend on your hands. It's interesting how you juxtapose "friendliness" with "closeness." It's a little hard to parse what exactly you were bringing to the table that was so intimate and uncomfortable for the other person. If you are seeing patterns and "people making valid points," this is great stuff to write down and bring to your therapist. You can for example start listing your grey areas; situations that cause you to feel anxious. You will soon find an upside to patterns. They will recur, but they are finite and can be dealt with. You may even find you have the ability to act uncharacteristically. That is growth.

Self-care and self-love is always going to play a critical part in recovery, growing up, and just living. Good luck!
posted by phaedon at 1:33 AM on July 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are you sure these phenomena aren't something that is experienced more broadly, like anxiety or issues with interpersonal trust? Just because, if you approach it as a cognitive problem related to grasping ideas and it isn't that or isn't entirely that, you may have less success in improving your interactions with others than you hope.
posted by XMLicious at 2:17 AM on July 26, 2014

It doesn't sound like you don't understand the concept of a grey area. It sounds like uncertainty makes you anxious. And you recognize that you're anxious and why, by your own description.

Unfortunately, maybe, or not, I dunno, the skill one can learn, really, is not so much not-being-anxious, as being-able-to-tolerate-being-anxious. I might talk to your therapist specifically about anxiety and coping mechanisms thereof were I you.
posted by PMdixon at 2:39 AM on July 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Practice messaging and emailing less often when you're waiting to hear back from someone. "Living with ambiguity" is a life skill (that I'm still learning and practicing).
posted by vitabellosi at 5:11 AM on July 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

Unfortunately, maybe, or not, I dunno, the skill one can learn, really, is not so much not-being-anxious, as being-able-to-tolerate-being-anxious.

This. Some people are extremely blessed to not get anxious about things, but most people get anxious about at least some stuff. You need ways of soothing your nerves, and that's something that tends to work out to be different stuff for everybody, but it's usually easier to find once you stop looking for the magical thing that's actually going to prevent the anxious feeling from ever appearing. The same with friends. When you have more friends, one person not wanting to be as close doesn't feel like as big a deal, but generally, it's never going to be fun. You just develop ways of surviving it, preferably methods that don't inflict your fears/sadness on the other party when they haven't expressed that they're up to handling that. There is a huge difference, though, between times when you shouldn't necessarily express your anxiety/sadness to a particular person (like your boss) and it not being okay to feel anxious/sad in that moment.
posted by Sequence at 5:27 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Work on distress tolerance skills. Your therapist (if you have one) can point you to some resources for these. You might never like uncertainty (most people don't!) but you can learn to tolerate it without acting. The acting is the bad part, and it will, indeed, really drive people away from you.
posted by the young rope-rider at 5:53 AM on July 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Here's something that may help you frame your thoughts and anxiety about the gray area. Rather than focus on what YOU want, think about what the other person may want.

You may want to understand, but the other person doesn't want to do more than tell you their needs and move on. If a friend tells you, "I don't want you to message me so frequently," you need to accept it and abide by it. He doesn't owe you an explanation. If your boss isn't getting back to you as quickly as you'd like with a response to your vacation request, she may be very busy and not really thinking about it. Your vacation request is not the most important thing your boss deals with.

One thing with diagnoses on the autism scale is the difficulty to see things from the perspective of others. To empathize with the struggles of others. To take the feelings and desires of others into account. I'd say work on that, and the gray areas will resolve themselves.

Good luck, it's not easy.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:55 AM on July 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I think about this for a while, and then I get sad, because I really want to have friends of all sorts and not be plagued and made anxious by uncertainty and not knowing all the time, but I can never be normal. I'm not sure if this is something the community can answer, but I thought it wouldn't hurt. Help?

Part of what has helped me, with being able to let time pass while stuck in a grey area, is trying to assess if I've completed my responsibilities and what the other person's responsibilities are and what a "normal" response time might look like and how this might vary based on the person's relationship to me. I am an anxious person and being stuck in that not-knowing space makes me nuts especially if it's avoidable (like your vacation scenario). That said, the anxiety and the slightly off-center "This makes me CRAZY" is really my problem to manage and when I start dumping it in other people's laps, that can be perceived as unfriendly because I am making my problem (anxiety) turn into their problem (harassing them to get an answer). So, a few scenarios.

- When I hang out with my boyfriend, I don't like uncertainty in timing very much. He, in turn, doesn't like to have to arrive at some arbitrary time and get a bunch of agita from me if he's two minutes late (I am aware two minutes is basically not late by any normal definition, this is part of my process in telling myself this over and over "You may feel that he is late but he is not late") so we have a deal where he'll text me when he's leaving and I can do the math and figure out when he's going to arrive. He meets me partway, I get over some of my issues. This works because we are a team.
- I was inviting people over to my house this weekend and we had set a date a while ago and then I was following up with specifics on Tuesday. I sent a facebook message and then didn't hear from anyone for six hours which made me nervous that there was a problem or that they didn't get my message. Instead of emailing the list HEY DID YOU HEAR FROM ME I AM STRESSED HERE (making it into their problem). I emailed one friend and said "Hey hadn't heard back from anyone, could you just let me know if you got my message?" and she said yes and then I could just chill and wait to hear from people (which I did). I say chill but I did not chill but at least I didn't worry about it anymore.
- My mom is anxious and is not as good about the "Don't make it my problem" thing so when I'd visit her, if I left something there, she'd keep calling me until she got me "What do you want me to do with this power cord, I thought it might be important!!" even though I'd just gotten through with a long drive and I don't like the phone particularly. And from a "What is normal" perspective, there was nothing to be gained by calling a bunch of times since all she'd do is put the thing in the mail tomorrow. She modeled her own anxious brain on to mine and presumed "Jessamyn must be really nervous about this" but I wasn't.
- Work stuff - some people are just bad at replying to contacts or need to be contacted in a certain way. This sort of thing I learn by rote and the most difficult part is teasing out the difference between what people say "Oh email me and let me know and I'll get back to you" with what they may actually do "Oh, sorry I knew I'd see you at the end of the week so I figured I'd just tell you then"

I am actually friends with people from a wide range of backgrounds and sometimes I just ask myself "Hey what would X do?" to try to model better behavior about this stuff. I've also found that actively NOT thinking about a thing can help me distance myself from it and worry about something else. I've got a bit of an addictive personality and one of the tenets of Al-Anon that I bring to working with my anxiety is that you can't change other people (as much as you might want to) and so working on your own feelings is the best thing you can do. That said, I also know a LOT of people like me (MeFi is full of them) and it can be fun, when you find a good crowd, to get to hang out with people who can share a black and white view of things, if even for a short time. So it's useful to know how to interact with people who are more laid back about things, but it's worth knowing that there are people like you, so you don't just have to subsume your own personality to have friends. Lastly, if this is a pure anxiety thing above and beyond your Asperger's diagnosis, there are medicines that can help you from being so sticky on things (if not knowing about vacation dates is keeping you up at night, for example) and that or intense exercise or meditation can be helpful sometimes when just force of will won't do it.

Good luck.
posted by jessamyn at 6:09 AM on July 26, 2014 [13 favorites]

I'm sorry about what happened with your friend. That sounds really painful and hurtful. For friends in general, trying to make sure communication is reciprocal is usually a good default. If you send one message, the ball is then in his court and you should wait for his response before you send another message. If you confide in him, wait until he confides in you before confiding in him again. If you invite him out somewhere, wait for him to invite you out before inviting him again. Etc. Basically, take turns. That might help with the issue of overwhelming a new friend with overtures of friendship and pushing the pace of growing closer to fast.

If you need to dial back on a friendship, like you have to do now, that's much more painful and difficult, at least in my experience. One way to do it, though, is to let the ball be in the other person's court for a while and to let them take the lead for a while. You can actually be explicit about that, and say something like: I'm sorry for being too intense/overwhelming/whatever. I'm interested in being friendly and hanging out, but I'm not sure what you'd really be comfortable with, so I'm just let you take the lead for a while. Then, the trick is, to actually let the other person take the lead. That's probably going going to be uncomfortable because being so out of control of a situation is anxiety-inducing and difficult -- for many/most people, not just people with AS. Just let it be uncomfortable, though. Just because something is uncomfortable doesn't mean it's actually a problem per se. Discomfort can mean growth and other good things are happening, it's not (necessarily) an emergency.

With your boss, you have to be more deferential, because she's your boss. So once you make a request, you basically have to just let her take care of the request and not try and futz with it or push it to the top of her work queue -- at least until things actually become logistically (not emotionally) dire. In jobs I've had, that has meant that I will put in a request for time off about six weeks before I need it. I've usually gotten my schedule about a week and a half before the work dates, and if it turns out that I'm scheduled to work during the time I requested off, then I would go to my boss and get that fixed. If the boss doesn't want to give me the time, then I'll ask to try and problem-solve it on my own by getting someone else to take those shifts for me, though even that is kind of insubordinate and I wouldn't really recommend it.

Anyway, the larger point is, there are usually/always a set of steps that you have to take in order to complete a task in tandem with someone else (tasks such as: getting approved time off from work, building a friendship, etc), and you can't just skip through all those steps yourself. You can take *one* step on your own toward completing that task, but then you have to wait for the other person to complete at least that same step before going on to the next step -- because you're completing this task *together.* And optimally, you will wait for the other person to not only catch up to you to the step that you're on, but to then take the lead on going to the next step, so that you're also taking turns with them to take the lead in completing the task.

I don't actually think that these are grey areas that you're talking about? I mean, if you were sending a ton of messages to your new friend or skipping up the steps toward building a close friendship without waiting for him to catch up or take the lead, that's a pretty concrete thing. You can actually even map that out on a piece of paper if it helps. It's not that you didn't understand how to deal with ambiguity in that situation, I think, it's more that you were impatient and trying to rush the growth of the friendship. With your boss, too, it's not that you didn't know how to get the time off approved, you just wanted to do it all yourself and at once, instead of waiting for her. Again, that's pretty concrete and something that you can map out. If you complete step one to getting time off (eg, submitting the request/dates), and you're just waiting for her to complete step two (eg, approving the request), then trying to hustle her through step two isn't so much not understanding the ambiguity of the situation, I think (because it's not really that ambiguous of a situation?) it's more impatience and wanting to rush her through instead of letting her set her own pace.

In general, I think that you're maybe being too impatient about getting rid of discomfort and frantically trying to get rid of that discomfort -- by asking questions, trying to get reassurance, etc. It's natural and ordinary to be impatient to get things how you want them, and to want to feel in control of a situation, and I don't think you need to feel doomed or deficient or anything because you're having trouble with that. The truth is, being patient is difficult and uncomfortable a lot of the time, and so is letting go and not trying to take control of other people or the pace that something happens or of a situation, but those are learned skills, and you're capable of learning them (through practice, and there are also probably techniques your therapist can give you for both becoming more patient and becoming less "controlling" of others/your environment).

Essentially, I think that what you need to do in order to practice those things is to just acknowledge that you're uncomfortable/in pain/angry/sad/hurt/etc, and try sitting with that for a while. Try not doing anything about it, just accept that you're going to feel that way for a bit. Something to ask your therapist about might be how to self-soothe or calm yourself/be patient when you're uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable or even being hurt or afraid or sad or angry or any of those negative emotions isn't an emergency. Not being in control of what's happening every step of the way isn't an emergency. It can *feel* like an emergency (for everyone, though maybe AS makes that more difficult to deal with, I don't know), but that doesn't actually make it an emergency. When you start feeling like something has to happen NOW (has to change, has to be fixed, has to be done, etc, NOW), DON'T react to it right away. Catch your breath, think it through, and analyze whether it actually has to be dealt with immediately or whether you can just let things ride or whether this is actually your task/step/thing to deal with in the first place.

Also, I don't know how you having AS might or might not be affecting any of this. But you're not actually doomed or deficient in any case. If you want to change how you respond to things, then that's about changing your behavior, not about changing your feelings. You're going to feel how you're going to feel, and that's fine. But you don't have to act on those feelings, you can just let them exist. And you're perfectly capable of changing your behavior so that even if you *feel* impatient, you act patiently, and even if you *feel* anxious, you let things ride without trying to interfere with them and let others take the lead, and soothe yourself instead of asking others for validation. It's possible for you to feel any which way (and you will, nobody has total control over his/her own feelings) but to still act in the way you think you *should* act, rather than in the way that your feelings are tempting you to act.
posted by rue72 at 10:27 AM on July 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

It seems to me that the basic question in your scenarios (with friends and with the vacation dates) is: are things going to work out in a tolerable fashion or not?

The reason you can't stand the grey areas is because they indicate waiting to see if things are going to be "okay." You understand that things may or may not turn out to fall in the "Okay" zone, as defined by you (e.g. you might or might not get the vacation days), but if things don't turn out in the okay zone (in the vacation scenario, that you are denied the days you want) you want to know NOW because it's really the Not-Okay territory that you feel you need to know about as soon as possible so that you can do what you think may be necessary to deal with that -- that is, muster up all your resources, emotional and practical, so that you can try to Control that situation that's not turning out to be Okay.

So -- what you perhaps need to do is to understand that, in some larger sense than you are now seeing it, ALL of these outcomes are going to be "Okay" -- but you do have to expand your notion of what "Okay" is.

What that means is that e.g. in the vacation scenario -- you have to ask your boss for your preferred days with the emotional knowledge that whether he gives you your days OR NOT, you will be Okay. You will be so Okay, in fact, that you don't actually NEED to know all that quickly what the answer is going to be. Even with little notice you can deal with it. Yes, you may not get the flight you wanted. Other things may not happen in exactly the way you want them to happen. But -- that's life! You may have PREFERENCES, but that doesn't mean that other people and situations are going to conform to your preferences -- but that's okay -- because, whatever it is, you can deal with it! THAT is the grey area that you have to work on.

So -- is that clear? The reason that you can't stand the grey area of ambiguity is because one or another outcome feels as if it will be intolerable to you, so you feel that you have to know NOW what the story is, so that you can tense up your muscles and get to work correcting the situation in some way so that you don't have to feel so bad, and that Other People Are Controlling You --- But --

if you felt that, however that friend feels about you, it'll be okay, you can deal with it -- there are other possible friends, etc. ---

if you felt that, whatever vacation days you got, you can deal with it -- there are other possible vacation opportunities ---

if you felt that, basically, life works out, because whatever happens, you can handle it ---

then it would not seem so URGENT to you to have your answers immediately.

Once again -- if you felt that, regardless of what the World (meaning other people, those annoying, delaying, ambiguous, cryptic, unreliable, confounding beings) brings to you, you have the inner and outer resources to cope, you would be able to relax your brain and your muscles a little and CHILL out while other people made up their minds about things and got back to you about these issues with which you are concerned.

The real deal about life it --- it's ALL a big GREY are. The idea that you can control it, That is the illusion that you're trying to maintain -- and, of course, it's not working! 'because it's based upon a lie. The grey area is Reality --- which stubbornly insists upon rearing its ugly ambiguous head --- and you're forced to listen! but you don't have to cower in front of it with anxiety --- instead you could try to accept it ! and 'go with the flow' etc. just a little bit more --

(I am not your therapist)

posted by DMelanogaster at 6:19 PM on July 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

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