The Violent Perfectionism of Autism (+ Hiatus Explanation)

If you have been following my blog for some time, you may have noticed that 1) I have not posted any new articles since October 2021, and 2) I have completely disappeared from Facebook.

This hiatus and disappearance from social media can be chocked up to a simple explanation: lots of changes took place in my life that took priority over my writing. I pursued an externship in phlebotomy that turned out to be a near-total disaster, causing me to return to my old job at a UA lab and refocus my priorities on finding a career path that won’t make me unhealthy, miserable, and/or suicidal. Key lesson: don’t join a medical profession during a global pandemic unless you are superhumanly immune to stress.

In October, I entered a gorgeous, complex romantic relationship that has occupied much of my time and energy, and which thankfully endures in the form of a gorgeous, complex friendship. Two queer stars colliding in a universe is always something to celebrate through the trials and the tribulations (yes, I am getting sappy in my old age).

Finally, I gave up Facebook for good after years of allowing it to thwart my mental health progress and nearly destroy my faith in humanity. Learning how to promote my blog without using social media is…well, difficult, and my stubborn refusal to join Twitter and Instagram or return to Facebook may seem irrational at this stage of my writing journey. However, I have full faith I made the right decision for my sanity and soul, if not for my professional ambitions.

(By the way, if you still would like to see my posts, feel free to type in your email address at the “subscribe” box at the bottom of the page, then click to subscribe. You will receive an email whenever I post — no social media account required! If you feel compelled to do so, please feel free to share my articles in your own social media feeds as well, or reach out to me personally if my writing has touched your mind in some way. Knowing that my writing is appreciated by just one person means a great deal to me at this stage in my journey!)

Now that the life update is out of the way, it is time to move forward to a difficult, but dear-to-my-heart subject I have been meaning to write about for quite some time: the darker side of autism, minus the magic and whimsy.

It can be easy to boil down autism to surface-level observations of stimming or bizarre, fetishistic ponderances of “what goes on in that beatiful mind?” (Spoiler alert: what goes on includes the incessant repetition of commercial soundbites and masochistic reminders of every single social faux-pas we have committed since sixth grade).

The reality of autism, however, is much less magical or aesthetically-pleasing; this may seem obvious, but it can be difficult to explain to a public enticed by the whimsical idiosyncrasies of Sheldon Cooper and happy-flapping TikTok femmes (no ill-will intended towards either).

Take perfectionism, for example. Perfectionism may not be unique to ASD, but it is a common autistic trait well-documented by medical professionals and advocacy groups alike. It is also one of the more ruthlessly-debilitating aspects of my own autistic experience, leading to multiple acts of self-sabotage throughout most of my college years and negatively impacting my ability to be at ease in any job I’ve had. Perfectionism has brought out a bastard side of me in many of my relationships, as one of my exes was unprepared to respond to the sheer amount of violence I would inflict on my body and mind when making a mistake.

Perfectionism is ultimately an ongoing and lifelong struggle that I can manage, but never completely conquer.

My perfectionistic tendencies have been exacerbated by a naturally-conscientious and people-pleasing personality, plus a history of verbal and emotional abuse by a member of my family with her own mental health struggles. Unpacking the trauma of familial and self-inflicted abuse in therapy is one of the strides I am the proudest of making this year. However, perfectionism is ultimately an ongoing and lifelong struggle that I can manage, but never completely conquer, no matter what this ridiculous photo from the Las Vegas Review-Journal may claim I can do.

Oh yes, I made it into my high school’s paper and local news for “conquering” autism at age seventeen. Take that, genetics!

I use the term “abuse” in relation to my perfectionism because perfectionism is an inherently abusive way of living, addictive as it is to young people in the US and abroad. As mentioned above, familial abuse has also intensified a natural proclivity I have towards perfectionism, which is worth explaining in-depth as the relationship between the two is complex.

The family member who verbally and emotionally abused me throughout my teen years has never been inclined to perfectionism in herself. In fact, her counterculture philosophy is diametrically opposed to the cultural perfectionism rooted in a country founded by witch-burning religious fanatics. However, her own struggles with mental illness created a proclivity towards hypercriticalism towards me and a fierce, unrelenting temper that I was often on the receiving end of.

I was frequently lambasted for my anxiety problems and meltdowns over homework, and my intrusive, fearful obsession with rape (which turned out to be a symptom of undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive disorder) was met with the query, “Are you trying to flatter yourself?” Even though I excelled in academia, I struggled with feeling like I could do anything right around said family member. Being a child at the time, I trusted her assessments of my flaws with little skepticism, and inherited the twisted shame she often carried within herself.

The trauma of any type of abuse, while it can be forgiven, is remembered by the body and not easily carved away without years of intensive therapy and radical self-compassion.

During my college and post-college years, I finally began to unpack the extent and impact of the abuse I was subjected to, and harbored a fierce anger and resentment towards her. I am currently working on repairing my relationship with said family member, which has been greatly helped by a fantastic support system consisting of my father, brother, close friends, and therapist.

The trauma of any type of abuse, while it can be forgiven, is remembered by the body and not easily carved away without years of intensive therapy and radical self-compassion. The former can take years of trial-and-error, as it took me all of my college years to find a therapist who was a good match for me. The latter is nearly impossible if one continues to adhere to the idea that perfectionism is a worthwhile goal to pursue. There is something oddly AA-esque about admitting to the futility of perfectionism: you may spend the rest of your life fighting it, but admitting to its futility is a crucial first step.

It is important to emphasize that, no matter what professionals or autism warrior mums say, people on the spectrum can change, and, at least in my case, do change. For example, I used to be utterly revolted by the concept of sex due to my rigid autistic thinking associating sex with evil (thanks, evangelical Christianity), and now I am a proud (queer!) sex-haver who is continuously reconciling my spiritual identity with my sexuality.

Likewise, would it be all that impossible to move away from a philosophy rooted in hateful, violent perfectionism to one of self-compassion rooted in reasonable expectations and the reality that I am loved for the very act of existing? I think not.

Memento mori, friends.

Buy me a coffee: ko-fi.com/annajoytanksley

Questions, comments, and business inquiries: ajtanksley96@gmail.com

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