Can and Can’t

Since I’ve discovered that I’m autistic, I’ve been grappling with identifying and accepting my limits. One of the hardest things to figure out is if I really can or can’t do something. I have built up years of pushing myself to do things while ignoring the signs of detrimental effects. People had so many expectations of me, and I basically did everything I could to live up to them, while paying an extremely high price. There were so many things like this that I actually wasn’t even aware of the more subtle effects; I had never experienced them not being there. I felt, and was told, that the things I was struggling with were just normal life, and that there was something wrong with me for being unable to happily do them like everybody else. I’ve felt that way since I first went to school at age five and literally couldn’t cope.

I’ve had to deal with this sort of dilemma more than usual lately because of the holidays. There are always more expectations and invitations this time of year than I could deal with even if I wanted to. And I don’t. But that doesn’t prevent me from feeling like a disappointment every time I decline. Because of the years of conditioning, part of me always feels like I should say yes – especially to the things that “aren’t that bad”. It’s easy to say no to a party with 30 people; I’ll be a wreck for at least the next week afterwards. But what about the smaller things that cause some stress but are (in society’s/the other person’s eyes) not a big deal? Where do I draw the line between can and can’t?

Literal thinking can also make it harder to discern and communicate can and can’t. If I say I can’t do something, then it must mean that I cannot physically do the thing (like I can’t morph myself into a cat at will). So, I shouldn’t say I can’t do something if in reality I can make myself do it. This is what my brain tells me. I feel like if there’s any way I can possibly do the thing, then I shouldn’t say I can’t. And if I do, then I’m a bad, selfish, weak, overly self-indulgent person.

But of course, that sort of thinking just leads to more pushing and then more berating myself when the thing ends up being too much for me.

I’ve been finding that it’s helpful to look at it in terms of cost. If something costs more than is reasonable, then it’s okay to say I can’t do it – simple as that.

Let me give you a visual:

cost-of-doing-something

I’ll elaborate on using some examples from my own life. It is important to remember that the placement of things on the scale fluctuate due to other variables (like environment, stress levels, and mood).

  • Fun things like reading, gaming, and relaxing at home with my boyfriend have no cost at all and would be at 1. These are actually rejuvenating.
  • Chores around the house have some cost, usually ranging between 2 and 4 depending on other variables.
  • Grocery shopping can sometimes be as low as 3, while other times it can go up to a 7; it depends on how I’m doing that day.
  • Spontaneously changing plans can be quite costly, depending on the plans and other variables. Something small like deciding to go out on Sunday instead of Saturday because of rain is usually a 4 or 5. Sudden “let’s go out to dinner tonight!” invites are at least a 7. Unannounced visitors showing up is an instant 9 – if that happens, you are looking at a full-blown meltdown.
  • Family gatherings with a lot of people are always at least a 6 and can go all the way up to a 9. Said family is quite dysfunctional (which you’ll see in future posts), so a lot of the cost has to do with that.

I plan to use my scale the next time I wonder whether or not I can (healthily and reasonably) do something.


If it sounds like I’ve got all of this under control, well, I don’t. What I think and how I feel don’t yet align, and the tendency to just push myself to do something “because I should” is still very strong. And when I am able to honestly say that I can’t do something because the cost is too high, I still feel bad about it and wonder if I just made up the “can’t” in the first place in order to get my way. I’m writing this post partially to convince myself that I don’t just make things up, and that I really can’t do some things that others consider normal.

Still, intellectually I know that constant self-sacrifice is not healthy. I’ve done it, and the times in my life that I sacrificed the most correspond with the bleakest periods of depression. No one’s expectations or wishes should come at the expense of another’s mental health. Also, no individual should always be the one to bend in a relationship. A healthy relationship is one in which both people accommodate each other; otherwise, it’s abuse. I was raised to think that I was bad if I didn’t acquiesce to the other person’s requests. I was supposed to be compliant, agreeable, and selfless at all costs. And because of the guilt I was conditioned to have, it was almost impossible to say no. I was taken advantage of constantly, while still being told that I wasn’t doing enough. Even if I forced myself to go to all of the holiday events, I’d still be told “you didn’t talk much”, or “you should spend more time with so-and-so”, or “why can’t you be more cheerful?” My best wasn’t good enough. I could give everything I had and still be a disappointment. I’m slowly learning that that doesn’t mean I’m defective; it means the expectations were unreasonable.

No amount of lists or scales can possibly undo years of pushing myself and paying the price, but they do help.This post was hard for me to write; there’s obviously still a lot of complicated and tumultuous emotions tangled up in all of this. The words felt wrong. Every asserted truth was followed by guilt and contradictions. I’m tentatively grasping the right to take care of myself, but it’s tenuous. Thankfully, my boyfriend, with his clear and logical approach, is a constant source of validation and reassurance. I think I can do it.

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2 thoughts on “Can and Can’t

  1. I think some of the guilt is also tied up with priorities. We know we CAN do it if we push ourselves hard enough, but that party or that shopping expedition is not worth it to us, even though it might be a big priority for someone else. And we’re afraid of basically telling people “this is not a priority to me”. So we try and couch it in the most abject, self-preservationary terms, but no matter how hard we try, they still hear “this is not a priority, so I’m not important to you”.

    • I definitely agree that’s part of it. If I’m close to the person, I try to explain very explicitly why the thing is stressful and that it’s not because of them. My mom has been really understanding about this – she knows why certain things cost too much for me, and doesn’t push me to do them. With others, though, I haven’t been as fortunate…

      What has also happened (for me), is that pushing myself to do social things to pass has built up others’ expectations of me, which leads them to be disappointed now. I still regret saying yes to a lot of those things; while it helped me pass and avoid conflict in the moment, it wasn’t good for me or the other person. It’s hard to suddenly stand up for yourself in a relationship in which you’ve always been passive.

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