Magic words that can free autistic folk from low self-esteem victimhood

essy knopf low self esteem
Reading time: 6 minutes

Disrespectful people, pushy people, abusive people—chances are all of us have at one point in our lives encountered such individuals.

Sometimes we skate by, unharmed. Other times, the encounter is unpleasant enough to leave us with a sour taste in our mouth, bruised feelings, and an acute sense of injustice.

Autistic individuals I believe are especially vulnerable when it comes to being bullied and manipulated.

It begins with the fact that many of us have low self-esteem, resulting from living in ableist societies in which neurodiverse folks are treated as inferior.

Autistics additionally have been found to have a more deliberative (and effortful) thinking style. This can impair our ability to rapidly and automatically intuit others’ intentions.1

Our willingness to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt—to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us—puts us at even further risk.

Turns out it’s no accident that toxic individuals are drawn to us like metal filings to a magnet. Rather, it’s the result of our fundamental struggles with knowing when and how to say “no”.

Low self-esteem: a recipe for exploitation

Low self-esteem can render many autistic individuals unwilling—or unable—to set boundaries and to push back when the situation calls for it.

This largely has to do with the kinds of negative reactions we might expect, reactions we have often endured due to our “weird” autistic traits and behaviors.

Others’ reactions in turn lead us to adopt negative narratives about our own supposed unworthiness and unloveable nature as autistics.

This erodes our self-confidence and undercuts our ability to be self-reliant, while also signaling our vulnerability to potential bullies and manipulators.

Another component of this is our tendency to second guess our own feelings and thoughts when confronted with difficult situations.

Many of us are often told that we’re in the wrong. We act with good intentions, only for neurotypicals to tell us that our intentions don’t matter.

All of us have at one point either been told we are too honest, too blunt, too insensitive, too difficult to follow, or too weird. It’s dismissals and criticisms like this that leave us prone to self-doubt.

Thus when challenged, many of us may spiral into helplessness and fail to stand up for ourselves.

Why confronting difficult and toxic people is so hard

It takes courage to speak our feelings of pain, helplessness, and anger. Having low self-esteem, therefore, means we are forced to fight battles on not just one but two fronts.

Firstly, we must validate our perceptions of a situation. This requires an acknowledgment of our worthiness, which can conjure guilt, shame, discomfort, and anxiety.

Secondly, we are standing up and demanding respect. There is always a fear that we might not be heard—a fear that is often borne out in day-to-day life as a marginalized minority—thus reinforcing our negative core belief of unworthiness.

Then there is the concern that the person we are confronting may retaliate—a concern, however wellfounded, that enables abusive people to remain in positions of power.

Low self-esteem can make us a target

When we speak out, the person aggressing may listen and adjust their behavior.

Those who harbor ill intentions alternatively may also decide that we aren’t worth the effort after all, and move on.

But should we fail to speak out—or if our “no” is not forceful enough to effect a change—toxic individuals can linger on.

If you’re dealing with someone with a taste for manipulation, they won’t surrender control so easily. 

There’s always the possibility they may redouble their efforts, draining your emotional well and tainting the waters with negativity.

The seven ‘buttons’ used by manipulators

So, why you? What is it about your person that clues these people into your weaknesses?

In Who’s Pulling Your Strings, Harriet B. Braiker describes seven behavioral “buttons” that manipulators routinely use to pressure and coerce their victims.

It is only by becoming aware of those buttons, Braiker argues, that we stand a chance of resisting manipulators’ control tactics.

1. The disease-to-please: People with this challenge have made their self-worth conditional upon their willingness to do what others want or expect of them. 

Resisting the disease-to-please is likely to trigger guilt, a fact manipulative folk use to their advantage.

2. Approval and acceptance addiction: Are you overly nice? Chances are your efforts are motivated by a fear of rejection and abandonment. 

Manipulators lever this fear, withdrawing approval and acceptance to force you into complying with their demands.

3. Fear of negative emotions: Anger and sadness are a fundamental part of the human condition. 

Trying to avoid negative emotions is next to impossible. Moreover, expressing them can be key to maintaining healthy boundaries. 

Those with this button try to bury and avoid negative emotions thus leaving them wide open to attack by manipulators.

4. Lack of assertiveness: People-pleasers struggle to say “no”. As such, they may struggle to stand up for themselves when the situation calls for it.

5. The vanishing self: Manipulators have no qualms about twisting those with an unclear sense of identity and core values into fulfilling their own needs and desires. 

6. Low self-reliance: Distrusting one’s perceptions drives us to seek the input and advice of others, leaving us vulnerable to external influence.

7. External locus of control: Those with an external locus of control believe that forces outside of themselves are ultimately responsible for shaping their lives.

This ultimately results in learned helplessness and an inability to assert one’s self in the face of manipulation.

Essy Knopf low self-esteem victimhood

From low self-esteem to high self-esteem

Manipulators as indicated capitalize on low self-esteem, which has the effect of only reinforcing their victims’ negative self-perceptions.

One could observe that the degree to which we can suffer low self-esteem is relational. Others can damage, but also repair it.

While a trusting, supportive relationship with a therapist or loved one is one way we can heal our sense of self-worth, the task of pushing back against manipulators ultimately falls to us.

Confrontation, however frightening, is sometimes necessary. This may be as simple as making explicit requests and seeking commitment. 

“I” statements are helpful here. For example, “I feel disrespected when you name-call. I’m asking that this behavior stop.”

Remember, you have a right to make reasonable requests and for them to be acknowledged. You are under no terms required to explain or defend yourself.

What you want in confronting a manipulator is some sort of change. That said, your demand needs to be framed as a win-win proposition. 

If, however, the other person won’t refuse to accept anything short of win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose, be prepared to pivot.

Try these magic phrases

Some aggressors respond to feeling threatened by double-downing or escalating. This may take the form of deflecting, projecting, shaming, verbal abuse, and overly dramatic reactions.

Know these individuals may try to confuse the issue, gaslight you by playing the victim, and/or evading any responsibility.

Many individuals feed off conflict, and anything you say or do that plays into this will count as a win in their books.

Be sure to name any attacks on your person the instant they happen. Send a clear message to the aggressor that you won’t stand for poor treatment. 

Hold fast to your conviction that no harm has been done by your speaking up. Your goal here is to protect yourself, not the manipulator’s feelings—which probably weren’t in jeopardy to begin with.

Do not be drawn into a point-for-point debate. Instead, assert yourself by saying: “That doesn’t work for me.” “That’s not fair.” 

Resist any attempts by the manipulator to wrangle for control by delaying your response: “I need to think about it.”

If they try to force an argument, disengage: “This conversation is not productive. I’m leaving now.” 

If you’re feeling thrown off balance by the manipulators’ tactics, it’s okay to break off the exchange by telling them: “Actually now is not a good time.” 

A straight “no” will even suffice, followed by your departure.

And it’s perfectly acceptable to shut down the lines of communication until the other person agrees to follow rules of common courtesy.

If you’d like to try out some of these lines but are worried you might fumble the delivery, practice them in advance until you feel 100% comfortable saying them on cue.

Reappraising low self-esteem

These kinds of situations and encounters can inflame existing feelings of low self-worth among autistic folk, especially when bullies respond with escalation and accusation. You can address this head-on by taking stock of your actions immediately afterward. 

Check in with yourself. How are you feeling about what just went down? 

Were you fair in your conduct? Did you really behave unjustly, as the manipulator would have you believe? 

Imagine for a moment it was your friend making the same request of you. Imagine they told you that your behavior had hurt them. 

Would you have listened to them? Would you have been open to change?

If your answer is “yes”, then it’s reasonable to assume that it was a fair request.

The bully may accuse you of being equally at fault, but what they probably are trying to do is avoid culpability by muddying the water. 

Refuse to take on any of their accusations and combat self-doubt. Conduct an inventory of your alleged character flaws and use humor to inflate them.

Have you, for example, failed to be perfect enough? Are you insufficiently conscientious? Are you an extremely poor people-pleaser? 

Now try to name some appropriate punishments for these crimes. If the ridiculousness of it all doesn’t stop you in your tracks, then take it as proof that it is you—above all—who deserves the break. 

If these encounters leave you feeling stressed, consider practicing some of these self-care techniques, specifically devised for autistic folks.

How magical thinking destroys gay men’s chances of living authentically

Essy Knopf magical thinking
Reading time: 6 minutes

Are you sitting down, dear reader? There’s something I need to tell you: almost everything we’ve been doing up to this point in the pursuit of happiness may very well have been undermining it.

Many aspects of the gay monoculture—the party lifestyle, substance abuse, hookups, out-of-control sexual habits, love addiction, our obsession with personal image, status, and achievement—are in some way tied up with magical thinking.

“If I get this, do this, be this, then I’ll be OK.” Wish-fulfillment keeps us walking the hedonic treadmill, riding an endless carousel of self-gratification.

Even supposing we achieve our goal, we may find the bar only continues to rise. So we clutch in vain for the brass ring of materialism, personal transformation, acceptance, recognition, and adoration.

Maybe all of this isn’t exactly news to you, and you have long since grown out of chasing elusive thrills. Or you may have simply upped the dosage and drowned out the hurt and disappointment.

The trauma of being gay

The first step on the way to surrendering the magical thinking that keeps us trapped in this cycle lies in identifying the causes.

As gay men, we can arrive at chronic suffering in a variety of ways. We may have also experienced misattunement with our caregivers, who may not have had the capacity to fully meet our emotional needs.

Or our caregivers may have invalidated us on the basis of our sexuality—an all-too-common experience for gay boys

We may have experienced some form of childhood adversity. Some of us are even survivors of trauma

Trauma includes abuse and neglect, but also any experience that places “an overwhelming demand placed upon the physiological human system”, to quote International Trauma Center President Dr. Robert D. Macy. 

You may for example have been traumatized by individual acts of homophobia, or from the minority stress that results from its many systemic manifestations. Rejection, exclusion, marginalization, or physical harm for many can take a great toll. 

If we are already lacking social support, such as the unconditional love and acceptance of family members or friends, the damage is only magnified.

For men, this is a fact of our existence. We are socialized from an early age to believe that in order to qualify for gender membership, we must strive for an impossible masculine ideal of self-reliance.  

We do this by cutting ourselves off from our emotions, from the support of our mothers, and from our communities, a tragic development outlined in Terrence Real’s I Don’t Want to Talk About It.

We suffer even further from the absence of father figures and a lack of parental involvement. According to the Pew Research Center, one-in-four US fathers live apart from their children

Twenty-nine percent of those same fathers see their children at least once a month, while 21% visit several times a year, and 27% don’t visit at all. 

And according to the National Fatherhood Initiative, this absence carries a very real impact on children’s wellbeing.

Healthy, mutual relationships with primary caregivers are how we learn how to form nurturing attachments with others, maintain personal boundaries, regulate our emotions, and soothe ourselves in times of distress. 

In this sense, our first relationships are the most defining, setting the stage for how we adapt—or maladapt—to our future circumstances.

When we are deprived of these crucial supports, we can develop an insecure attachment style, and struggle to develop the resilience so necessary to weathering life’s many storms. 

A final but crucial source of trauma emerges from the relationships we engage in as adults. For those of us with difficult histories, we may turn to our partners for comfort and healing, only to find ourselves re-enacting toxic attachment patterns.

We may even lash out, inflicting the abandonment, abuse, or betrayal we ourselves have suffered. This only serves to compound our existing pain, driving us with increasing desperation towards escape and reprieve.

magical thinking the thoughtful gay

Becoming ‘masters of survival’

When we feel threatened, the system charged with ensuring our survival—the autonomic nervous system (ANS)—kicks into gear.

This “personal surveillance system”, Polyvagal Theory practitioner Deb Dana moves us many times daily between states of social engagement and connection (safety) to mobilization (scared), and immobilization (shut down).

These state changes are adaptive survival responses, driven by special powers of danger perception Polyvagal Theory author Stephen Porges calls “neuroception”. 

Trauma survivors or those with insecure attachment styles may find their neuroception runs in overdrive, leaving them wary and hypervigilant. As a result, they may spend long periods stuck on the lower “scared” and “shut down” rungs of the “autonomic ladder”. 

Our autonomic responses eventually become patterned not around the need for connection, but self-protection

An out-of-whack autonomic response thus makes a state of safety next to impossible. With the ANS no longer able to adequately self-regulate, we suffer ongoing stress, physical illness, relationship strain, and changes in our mental functions.

While the ANS is activated, we are unable to socially engage, causing us to miss out in turn on the benefits of co-regulation—what Dana calls the “reciprocal regulation of our autonomic states”.

This co-regulation occurs when we connect and attune to others in healthy, mutual relationships. It is a key requisite to shifting from a state of danger, back into a state of safety.

“Supported by co-regulating relationships, we become resilient,” Dana writes. 

“In relationships awash in experiences of misattunement, we become masters of survival.”

Given the collective trauma within the gay community, however, finding such co-regulation within may prove difficult. 

In its absence, we will pursue less savory means of regulation such as objectification, exploitation, invalidation, and exclusion, which have reached new lows on gay dating services and hookup apps.

essy knopf authenticity

Deception, magical thinking, and self-medication

We survive through adaptation. When things go wrong early in life, however, we stand a great chance of maladapting instead.

Experiencing homophobia and resulting shame leads many of us into a life of emotional inauthenticity. Denied the ability to explore our own identities and to embark upon relationships during our formative years, we don a cloak of secrecy and self-deception as a matter of survival.

“Something about growing up gay forced us to learn how to hide ugly realities behind a finely crafted façade,” writes The Velvet Rage author Alan Downs.

Outwardly, we may proclaim self-acceptance. Inwardly, however, we are still carrying around unworthiness and internalized homophobia.

Its poisonous whisperings may lead us to reject other gay men arbitrarily, just as we ourselves were once rejected. Prejudices within the gay dating scene—be it racial, age or weight-based—are just a few expressions of this.

The deep, unexpressed pain we carry as trauma survivors, if left addressed, may eventually bubble back to the surface in the form of deep-seated anger.

That anger may be directed either at ourselves in the form of self-harming behaviors, or at the individuals or systems that we believe have failed, betrayed, and harmed us.

Without the knowledge or means to move forward, we ignore our wounds, numb the pain, and chase distraction.

We may find it in fantasies of personal transformation or romantic fulfillment. For those of us weaned on Disney—a company that built an empire on the power of dream—it’s all too easy to indulge in the idea of Cinderella-style transformations.

One day, we tell ourselves, we’ll shed our sooty smocks and don the glass slipper. Some dashing Prince Charming will appear and bestow upon us the fortunes of unconditional love and acceptance.

Our pursuit of such an embodiment of perfection of course is doomed from the outset. And yet we continue to plunge headlong into romantic liaison after liaison, without pausing to consider the whys and hows.

Denied co-regulation, we may also turn to self-medication in the form of process (behavioral) addictions, such as compulsively working out for hours on end so we can achieve some idealized physique.

Or it may take the form of substance addictions, which are present among gay men at significantly higher rates than the general population.

When we indulge in magical thinking, we try in vain to paper over the void at our core, believing that someway, somehow, our injuries will be healed and all wrongs righted.

But so long as we spend our energy cultivating distraction rather than introspection, our damage will go ignored and our very human need for healthy attachment and co-regulation unrecognized. 

essy knopf magical thinking co-regulation

Letting go of the false solutions of magical thinking

Each of us understands on some level that magical thinking is an act of deception. We recognize that the forms of satiety we seek run counter to self-care. 

And yet it is all too easy to get caught in the rut of trying to appease, ignore, or blunt our autonomic responses.

Try though we might to escape our dysregulation, all we are ultimately doing is deferring peace of mind.

Polyvagal Theory teaches us that in order to course-correct from scared and shutdown back to safety requires healthy relationships.

It is only through co-regulation that we can ever hope to loosen the hold misattunement and trauma have on our bodies, minds, and spirits. 

If your autonomic state makes finding co-regulations difficult, or if you’ve been burned by past interactions, a relationship with a mental health professional can prove an effective substitute

Through the support of a therapeutic alliance, open wounds both past and present may eventually start to close. Through a therapist’s supporting presence, autonomic regulation may suddenly become possible. 

In recognizing and addressing your autonomic needs, you are taking the first step towards a life of authenticity. To quote Brené Brown:

cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are. Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving—even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.

By choosing authenticity, we surrender the false solutions of magical thinking. By choosing authenticity, we give up temporary rewards and commit ourselves to some much-needed repair. 

How losing my faith helped me discover ‘betterhood’

Essy Knopf belief faith betterhood
Reading time: 5 minutes

During my first independent trip abroad at age 21, I agreed to my mother’s request to make a stopover in the Baháʼí holy land in Haifa, Israel. 

I began my pilgrimage at the Shrine of Baháʼu’lláh, on the outskirts of the Acre.

Emerging from a sherut—a minivan taxi—I was ushered along the pebbled path, past rows of cypresses, towards a stately mansion with an air of quiet repose.

The path ended at an elegantly carved oak door, a view I had glimpsed countless times in the front page of prayer books bearing the irreverent scrawls of my three-year-old self.

But once I was within the Shrine and kneeling on the carpeted floor, I found myself desperately trying to conjure a flame of faith.

Here I was, at the symbolic center of the Baháʼí Faith; the point of devotion towards which all Baháʼí’s turned during prayer. 

The Shrine was the final resting place of the prophet Baha’u’llah, who had been tortured, imprisoned, banished, and betrayed in the name of his Faith.

What right did I have then to feel as I did, like a gourd carved clean of its meat and left to fester in the sun?

Just who was I to squander this chance to connect with the Transcendent on His home turf?

Yet for all my knowledge of the spiritual ocean that surrounded me, for all its lapping at the walls of anger around my heart, I was not yet willing to surrender them. 

For I had built these defenses, brick by painful brick, against the cruel vagaries of life. They had served as sole protection against the frightening, unpredictable world beyond.

And yet they had also kept me in a kind of half-life, an open-eyed slumber from which I now struggled to wake.

Essy Knopf faith
The Shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel.

Losing my faith

From a young age, I was stricken by a profound sense of grief. It was as if both my parents, who were alive and well, had died.

Their assurances of love seemed only that—a kind of parental lip service I feared may not be true.

The closeness and understanding I craved I knew could never be possible. For a vast unnamable gulf stood between us, a gulf born of misattunement and intergenerational trauma.

The belief in my own inherent unlovability was the first of many unexplainable secrets I carried with me into my adulthood.

Then there was the fact that I forever felt like the odd one out. School classrooms were a sensory overload prison. A background hum of social anxiety pervaded each day.

My need to escape drove me away from people and into rumination. I took up residence inside inner worlds of data collection and categorization. 

Unsurprisingly, the resulting isolation made me easy pickings for the schoolyard birds of prey.

It would not be until after my 26th birthday that I’d receive an explanation, in the form of a diagnosis with Asperger syndrome. The upheaval this would bring, however, was still many years away.

The third secret involved a brother who in my teen years came to rule our home with his fists, baldfaced lies, and crocodile tears.

When my brother “disappeared” first my CD player, then my pet parrot, my parents did not so much as speak. For what could be said to appease this neverending rage that drove my sibling-turned-stranger to break windows and blacken eyes?

After too many years of handling a searing lump of coal with kid gloves, my parents bandaged their hands and retreated into silence.

My family, once as solid and seemingly invulnerable as an iceberg, ruptured, individual pieces carried slowly away by the currents of unresolved tensions.

We drifted, until at last, one final conflict forced us completely apart. At age 17, I came out as gay to my parents.

Mom and dad’s response was curiously devoid of emotions, but their fear and resulting anger were all too clear.

It was a burden I could not—would not carry. I packed my bags and left, fleeing into solitary adulthood, into the false comforts of workaholism.

For a decade, I made film after film and wrote novel after novel. I collected degrees, notching my belt until there were more holes than leather. 

I wandered through a kind of phantom existence, forever evading the seemingly unspeakable facets of my past, secretly resenting my Maker for His apparent role in predestination.

Soon, however, everything I had fought so hard to keep buried resurfaced. The three secrets I had been born in silence took physical shape as anxiety, depression, and a digestive ailment I would later discover was irritable bowel syndrome.

Essy Knopf faith
Carefully tended gardens on the slopes of Mount Carmel in Haifa.

A ‘world of illusion’

The Baháʼí writings tell us that we live in a “world of illusion”, a “mirage rising over the sands”.

Baháʼí leader ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advises us to abandon our attachment to this world, warning that “the repose it proffereth only weariness and sorrow”. 

The Baháʼí writings explain that calamities and afflictions—whether of our own creation or the will of the Almighty—are a crucible for spiritual refinement.

Our difficult experiences, we are counseled, only offer proof of the necessity of spurring the mortal world; remind us to focus our energies instead on service to humanity, and preparation for a spiritual afterlife.

But to the walking wounded, promises “of blissful joy, of heavenly delight”, of an exalted station in some “celestial Paradise” are only that: words.

Heaven emerges from the Baháʼí writings only as a half-sketched marvel in the far margins of human comprehension; insubstantial balm for very real pain. 

Any surprises then that my ego rebelled against the writings, rejecting the idea that I should find contentment in God’s apparent will; in treading the “path of resignation”.

And yet I what was my ego, except a result of the mortal condition—a condition without which my suffering as well simply would not exist.

The turning point

For a decade, I found myself theologically adrift, tethered to the Baháʼí Faith by the thinnest cord of belief, yet clinging to it all the same.

Then at age 30, the grief crescendoed and I found myself at a crossroads. I could remain where I was and be crushed by the tangled accrual of trauma, or I could begin cutting myself free.

I chose the latter, undertaking therapy, exploring books on spirituality and self-betterment, and committing to daily meditation.

Frozen emotions thawed. Long-suppressed grief flowed. And an informal truce was struck, the cold war between religious obligation and bitter experience drawing to a quiet close.

I found myself once more seeking solace in the Baháʼí writings, reciting prayers that were always met with silence. 

And yet…there was always a kind of answer to be found in the immediate calm that followed; in the finding of unexpected composure.

Essy Knopf faith
Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts in Haifa, Israel.

From faith to ‘betterhood’

My return to the arena of life was not as a man garbed in the armor of blind faith. 

For as a compassionate being, I could not help but continue to question the suffering that defines the human condition. 

Still, as one who has suffered and saw survived, I no longer saw the words of prophets and other luminaries as simply indifferent and tone-deaf. 

Rather, they carry a certain charge. They offer consolation. Like swatches of color in a monochrome world, they offer a vision of “betterhood”.

Betterhood inspires hope. It propels us towards a higher calling. Betterhood is what I credit for leading me to advocate for others, through documentary filmmaking and the social work profession.

Today, the million dissenting voices of doubt remain as present as ever. The dialogue between the instinct to resist and the desire to surrender to some higher power continues.

But it is a dialogue that needs not end. To question is fundamentally human. And it is the necessary preface to true belief.