Shame Waves – an informal phrase that I only learned today.

Before I launch in, here is the description of a shame wave, from the perspective of a life coach, discussing shame associated with performance: click here.

As neurodivergent people’s daily lives tend to involve a lot of performing, shame waves are very relevant to us. We give our performance of a lifetime – at a social gathering that we’ve been dreading and rehearsing for months, say. We go along, it’s all going well and then somehow, at some point, we pick up on social clues that tell us that, whatever it was we just did or said, we’ve missed the social mark. Cringe! We may try and claw it back, we may go quiet, we may not even reflect on it until the mental torture begins when we’re back home, in bed, ready for sleep and… OKAY – it’s time to analyse! Oh fantastic, because I’m actually really exhausted and I just want sleep. Nope. We’re going to lie here and use our, often unhelpful, facility to replay this event over and over and over. There is often mental video footage, with audio of course. And round and round we go. We see the faces of others, we hear ourselves, we analyse the responses. And then, when we find no way of resolving it, we start all over again. And whilst all of that is happening, we’re berating ourselves for our performance. You might find it reassuring to read our community’s post on socialising at this point.

In truth, it’s extremely likely that no one else in the room has gone home and given the scene another thought. Oh, but WE do! We want so hard to just blend in. So when we feel that our mask has slipped, it tortures us. And we often blame and shame ourselves. Many neurodivergent people are also perfectionists – so we have the double whammy of – I’m clumsy with my words and I should have nailed this because I’ve been rehearsing it for months!

The link I added at the top suggests that we can turn something that we’ve done really well into a disaster. It suggests we’re misinterpreting the situation. I’m adding to that with the neurodivergent take: because we are different, because our social skills are different, is it possible simply that our expectations and hopes for an event are just different to the majority? We may well have just said or done something that is not well received by the neurotypical people around us but do we need to have shame over that? Or do we just shrug and say ‘bah! You just don’t get me and it’s not my place to educate you’.

Let me share a personal shame wave: It was my 50th birthday party. My only request for that particular milestone was to be given an environment that meant I could dance all day and all night, surrounded by the music I love and the people I love. That is my idea of a perfect experience – all of us united by the music, the energy, no talking required. Just feel it.

I arrived at the venue, all togged up (so, immediately uncomfortable), and there, under harsh lighting, was a sea of faces – SURPRISE! I froze. I went to pieces. Social anxiety extraordinaire! I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t look at anyone. In my head, I think I made a few yelping sounds and a smile that probably looked like a grimace. I hugged a few people and then I ran. I ran to the room where my empty disco was in full swing, and there I stayed. A few times, I emerged, did a quick circuit of the room (still dancing) trying to entice people in there with me. Apart from that, I largely ignored all of my guests, many of whom had travelled a long way to surprise me, and I just danced. My adult kids danced with me – they’re cut from the same cloth – but even they had more social graces than I did!

This, as an example, was how I coped with an unbearable level of social pressure. I was stressed beyond belief. I had nothing to offer these people. I did a tiny, inadequate speech (under duress), even though, in my working and academic life, I am a proficient public speaker – I actually love it! I then ran from the room and danced all afternoon and into the night. I had THE BEST time.

After the event, in the middle of the night, obviously, I played it back, and back, and back, and my incredible buzz, my joy, slowly turned to shame. I was so embarrassed at my performance. At how selfish I’d been. Yes, it was MY BIRTHDAY. But for goodness sake, I’m now remembering that our special occasions are not in the slightest bit about us – they are about duty – thanking everyone for their presents and their presence. The very last person who is expected to let it all go and do what gives them joy, is the person whose event it is. That applies to weddings, birthdays and, more darkly, family of the deceased. We have responsibilities. And if we don’t live up to them, we turn this in on ourselves and experience shame waves. That’s my take on it.

If I’m being honest, I was disappointed at the performance of my birthday guests. In my perfect scenario, they would have been with me on the dance floor. No need to talk, let’s just let our bodies go and feel the music. Pure joy. But their preference was to chat. To chat to complete strangers, for goodness sake! And this takes me to Damian Milton’s double empathy problem. They were not wrong, I was not wrong, we just needed different things from the same environment. Autism in a nutshell. But because us neurodivergent people are in a minority, we turn it in on ourselves and experience shame waves if we don’t stick to the socially acceptable scripts.

Maybe, just maybe, we can let go of a bit of that shame, that ‘misjudged underperformance’, and just accept that we are different. And that’s okay.