Letter to my sister about the ways that I harm her

Now that we are learning a way of relating to people that differs from our parents’, let me be honest with you and learn from the ways I instinctively relate to you.

A couple of days ago I caught myself before telling you “it’s not that bad” when you found something disgusting. Yesterday you accidentally bit into a hot pepper. My instinct was to not take your reaction seriously and make a joke out of it. In the evening you had a panic attack, and while I could tell you all the right things and give you all the tools I had to give, I couldn’t get down on your level and feel with you. I was too afraid of that vulnerability, so I kept myself at a numb distance. A distance that I maintained even when I dared to start talking about my own grief.

This morning you left some dishes and my response was that you were shying away from taking your part of the responsibility, rather than thinking that you simply have a different relationship to mess and time, and that your ability might be different from my own. I caught myself and decided to focus on my own limitations – saying that it is important that I don’t have to do all of the dishes, rather than assuming that I knew your thinking and blaming you for it.

Please know that when you feel like your reaction is belittled, that is real. When you feel like I am not able to feel with you, that is real. When you feel I blame you rather than focusing on my own limitations, that is real. The harmful ways that I have treated you are real.

Please also know that these behaviours are based on my own limitations at this moment, not based on who you are. And I am working on changing them. Because I know that your reactions are not overreactions, I know that you deserve to have your pain recognized, I know that you are not asking for too much simply because our limitations are clashing.

Our parents, as amazing as they were in many ways, could not meet us where we were. Could not validate us. Their inability to see and validate their own needs caused them to be unable to validate ours. And we grew up believing, on some level, that there was something wrong with us for having the needs we had.

In many ways, though I understood the nature of your pain better than they did, I carried forth the legacy of our parents in how I treated not just myself, but you as well. I am sorry.

We have a chance to do things differently now. Starting by recognizing the harmful attitudes that we adopted from childhood, so that we can see what we are lacking. Here are a few things I thought I knew, that I am now trying to learn:

The expression of my needs is not “too much”. It is teaching me and others something important about me. My needs have intrinsic worth, irrespective of how they impact on other people. The world does not have a limited amount of resources so that listening to one person’s needs takes away from another person. Other people can respect and care for my needs, and I for theirs. Properly listening to people’s needs does not take us further from the truth, it takes us closer.

I hope that we can build on lists like these and be open about our journeys so that we can move forward together.

I love you,

Your sister

Not believing people in a helpless position when they tell you about their needs is an abuse of power

TW: mention of abuse, rape, sexual abuse

For the longest time I’ve had a phobia of situations where others have power of me and might not listen to me, like being in a mental hospital or being raped.

At the same time I have a very shaky relationship with authority figures and I really dislike having power over others, especially being in any position where I might have to go against their will. This aversion is strong enough that I’ve avoided getting pets and felt unsure about wanting children because of the power dynamic I would have to be part of.

In short, I have difficulty trusting that people in power will listen to and care for the people they have power over.

I have often been surprised to realize that my problems mimic the problems of people who have experienced abuse by authority figures.

I have had loving parents so I believed it couldn’t be their fault. Instead, for a long time, I suspected that I had been sexually abused by some stranger and forgotten about it.

It wasn’t until I realized I was autistic that I started understanding that my parents abused their power in their treatment of me.

Autistic people have special needs. They experience the world differently. For instance, what is painful for an autistic person is not necessarily painful for the majority of people.

Now, a person who believes that the child’s needs are safe and worthy of being met will meet them, even though they are different. A person who sees needs as dangerous, on the other hand, will see special needs as particularly problematic and will try to “train them out of the child”.

Very indirectly, this is what my parents did.

Even after I realized that my parents neglected my needs in this way I couldn’t see how this related to my fear of people having power over me. It’s not like my parents beat me, controlled me or humiliated me. They were all about independence and autonomy.

Then I realized that for small children this kind of neglect is a form of abuse of power.

Telling a child that they ought to be more independent and their needs are not real or worthy of being met is an abuse of power.

Let me explain.

Small children are helpless. They depend entirely on their parents meeting their needs. This means that the parents have a responsibility to meet their needs. And refusing to do so is an abuse of power.

The situation is similar to one where a person in a nursing home asks for help to go to the toilet and the nursing staff refuses to help them. This is clearly neglect. And because of the power dynamics it is also an abuse of power.

Being unable to meet the needs of someone who is helpless is not always an abuse of power. So, what makes this kind of refusal abusive? The fact that the person in power is taking in what the helpless person is saying about their needs (regardless of whether they believe them), and Choosing not to act on it.

The message that the helpless person internalizes isn’t that the people in power are inadequate to help them, the message is that their own needs are not real or worthy.

How does this lead to a fear of people having power over you?

If you believe that people will not meet your needs, will not listen to you, will not believe you, then anyone having power to meet or not meet your needs is dangerous. And then depending on other people in any form becomes dangerous and power dynamics start to look inherently abusive.

So you make yourself independent. And you react negatively to others who show needs, because they remind you of your own vulnerability. And you try to help “train it out of them”.

And so the cycle continues.