I actually spent my whole life to date thinking I was especially skilled where executive tasks were concerned; had done whole careers built around the fact and am well known in my family to be an “organiser” of complicated scenarios, such as built from scratch travel plans or house refurbishment projects, etc. I mean I am still good at them in the sense of all my extreme thoroughness and getting the job done really, really minutely well but it takes all my effort and I go into everything in such detail (hence how thorough I am; renowned for not leaving a single detail unscrutinised); which, therefore, results in only one thing for me…burnout!
Let’s get something straight before we get too far into the topic; executive function (EF) has nothing to do with logic, though it sounds left hemispherical. I can “do” logic in spade-loads but this thing “executive function” is all about performing according to a learned paradigm, a world of transactional details, the complicit “execution” of a culturally chosen and largely shared version of reality or, you could say, a learned series of complicated steps in the dance of life to a collection of entirely man-made tunes. It involves working with memory; well, I can do memory, my problem being that I remember too much, in too many layers. It involves considering multiple scenarios all at once, which is my forte when every possibility means the consideration of unlimited potential (but, paradoxically, “anything could happen” usually means “panic” in real life). It involves having the flexibility to change from one task to the other; so, you should try having to alter your focus from the cosmic to the mundane in thirty split seconds, multiple times in the average day as is certainly my reality (and can mean other, simpler, requirements to “be flexible” trip me up). In the modern world, executive function is king; we have to have it to even count in the world, meaning we are expected to remember procedures, plan ahead, juggle multiple plans successfully, all at the time, breakfast, noon and night…execute execute execute. So if it’s a skill set that people “on the spectrum” are said to lack then, in a conventional sense, that may be so but that’s because we come at it from a completely different angle, I suspect.
So when I say I have realised I lack this skillset, it’s true, it’s not actually my natural skillset either or, rather, it is but in a more esoteric way. I love to go into “everything” in the whole universe, in that highly exploratory way I have of thinking into everything in creation, from every single angle I can get at it, but while that may seem like juggling an awful lot of information (and I do, all the time) the difference is, I don’t expect to control it all and I don’t presume to plan too many outcomes. And when it comes to material “things” and “logistics” and “decisions” with real “outcomes” that I might influence; the three-dimensional domain where, by my very nature, I also find myself compelled to go into every single crevice of every single possibility, every “what if?” and every likely or even unlikely outcome that I would then be forced to live with if I had “caused” it, is enough to make me unwell with such an overbearing sense of responsibility. I just don’t know how to do things by halves so these 3D executive areas are where I enjoy spending my time…at all; whilst, conversely, I am quite comfortable delving into a vast sea of much broader topics that would explode other people’s minds if they were made a compulsory part of the consideration agenda. For me, its the mundane that can blow my synapses and yet what choice do I have but to master this, in order to fit in as a cog in the ways of the world?
So I did, for the longest time; leading a life that I somehow set up for myself that involved having to perform multiple executive tasks every day until it became too much and I was forced to stop, since which even the most minor such tasks can feel too much or like an abhorrence in my world.
Like today, my fridge freezer broke down and was condemned by the engineer so I’m, regretfully, deep into searching for the right model with which to replace it; and in a hurry, given I have bulk food orders arriving over the next day or so. This, of course, is the domain of some of life’s most mundane “executive tasks”; researching, comparing, taking action, making decisions, planning ahead and, mundane though the consideration of which new appliance to buy sounds, its awash with unpleasantness for me. Its not just the price or the aesthetics that bother me (though they count), nor the need to research the reliability of the brand, all those reviews and Which? articles to compare, the internal capacity and layout to consider, plus the eco rating and energy consumption, or the number of decibels of sound it omits (I strongly dislike noticeable electrical noises in my house) and having to prioritise all those varying features appropriately but also the feel of the thing that matters to me. I have to sense it is the right one, just like I would assess a lodger moving into my house or the pattern of a wallpaper I had to live with in my decor.
If this sounds bonkers then I should point out that I actually get quite attached to my household appliances (and other inanimate objects), almost like they are part of the family…and before anyone condemns me too much for that, I read it is a common Asperger’s trait. Familiarity is important to me, especially in my home domain and, again, before you judge what seems childlike or small about this, my sense is that this is a compensation for wide-open thoughts and preoccupations that need to be anchored somehow. Its why I like routine and why the aesthetic of my home (or anywhere I stay) is so important to me. And I like the look and feel of my current fridge freezer (much more than the one I had before). I simply wasn’t ready for this change to occur just yet; this one was only 3 years old and I was expecting it to last for years so, suddenly, I’m being asked to cope with a whole new look to my kitchen and layout of my fridge, a different arrangement for how I store my food on certain shelves, a disruption in the feeling I currently get from the bright white LED lights of my current model which, if I’m not careful, could get replaced by a, potentially, less-so version with some other hue plus different plastic and metal shelves. Does this all sound a bit mad? Not in my world; such things can rock my emotional boat as I pull my celery out of its shelf to make my morning juice and I simply didn’t want to be doing this “far reaching decision making” thing today. Its not the right day for making long-term commitments and I just don’t have “that head” on right now.
No, today, I woke up feeling wired yet inspired …the sort of day when I could very well become a little OCD about whatever I apply myself to (waxing moons do that to me) so I was all set for gentle, creative, mindful pursuits as the counter balance. Now, instead, I had this executive task to perform, against the clock, on top of the weekly grocery shopping to do (another EF task I strongly dislike) making a one plus one scenario that few non-Aspie’s would understand in the sense that I mean it, I would guess, though I also suspect other Aspie’s would get my inference all too well. Because executive tasks mount up; they attract one another and they form mountains we find hard to get over. Its why years of performing jobs where I had to be a project manager (arranging corporate events, no less), making big decisions and sourcing obscure items, pulling results out of thin air and “things” all-together into the perfect scenario expected by corporates with big budgets to spend (that illusive “perfection” to be singled out from all the infinite alternate scenarios running through my highly-predictive and thus frequently overwrought head) made me start to crash and the jobs I did afterwards finished me off, each in their particular way.
“Work”, in general, was a long-running “executive functioning” nightmare for me; like a bad dream I could never seem to wake up from. While I was in it, I was never at liberty to choose whether I was in the right mood for piles of executive functioning tasks today; or, if I wasn’t in that “right” mood, to reach for ways to get out of it (except to use highly inadequate phrases such as “having the flu” or “time of the month”). These weren’t what was really happening, of course; I was really caught in a horror net of all the multiple possible scenarios that seemed to spiral out of my finger tips and over which I was meant to be the failsafe orchestrator and maker of decisions, the one who kept calm and sailed through choppy seas by “blagging” fake confidence if there were any glitches on the horizon (sorry, I never could fake things like that)…..but I simply couldn’t keep it up for more than a few years. In time, it consumed me and I might have lasted longer if I could have found some higher purpose in what I was doing but there was none to be had; only the petty and pointless aspirations of people to have more “things” and more “money” than each other (the same in all my careers). If things went wrong or became convoluted after some choice I had made, I would take it so personally and lie there quite devastated, held responsible (by myself) for being so inept at achieving the perfection (including perfect foresight…) that I always expected of myself. After fifteen years of this, right on the tail of all the extra pressure I put myself under during the school and higher academic years, extreme perfectionism became the slow but steady downfall of me…until I had simply had enough of it all, my circuits all blown out and me left gently rocking and sparking on the floor of my life.
So I realise I am not natural gifted at EF when it comes to the dimension we know as our day-to-day manifest world; rather, it’s an acquired skillset born out of the obsessive mind-ramblings of an Aspie who is compelled to think and feel into alternate scenarios way too much than is comfortable in 3D (which can pass as “thoroughness” and “natural ability”). Because I am someone who envisions wonderful things and the very worst kinds of scenario, in equal proportion and who senses her powers of creatorship all too potently, in a world where one wrong move could equal a whole other trajectory that may not have been the one anyone wanted to happen. My extreme fear of this unwanted outcome, plus my thoroughness, made me good at my jobs but burnt me out from the fact I was under several times more internal pressure than the next person doing my job; a detail that was, oddly enough, picked up by teachers who would ask my parents “why does she expect so much more of herself than everyone else?” and I guess it’s just the way I am made.
When you live with this constantly, because its built-in, it presents as a feeling of intense burden borne down on every minutest thing, of walking through the treacle of “too much information”, “too much responsibility”, of grim mortality made manifest as some sort of overly complicated computer game of life in which you have to make the right choice to go down the right corridor and through exactly the right door to get to the next level. Most people, I noticed (right from starting school, where it was painfully self-evident), simply don’t think anywhere near as much or as deeply as all that. It set me apart, right from day one; so I had no choice, really, but to acquire executive function and, whilst I was at it, become really good at it.
So, yes, I have perfected a sort of thoroughness that results in great things, a skillset much appreciated by previous employers and their clients, or by family and friends. Give me a holiday to plan and I am your woman. A fridge freezer to buy and, yes, you can be sure that (in the end) we will have the best looking, most energy efficient fridge freezer we can afford, fully installed by tomorrow, but at what cost to me (having spent hours pouring over minutiae that other people wouldn’t be bothered with because I overcompensate for what is, actually, my shortfall; an inability to summarise or “just wing” anything)? Because when you become so good, so uncannily thorough at these things, people only give you more such tasks to do. In my household, I can be relied upon by all (even long distance, grownup children) to problem solve and orchestrate their problematic lives beautifully yet its me that seems to take these problems almost more to heart than they do (to my detriment). In my project manager career, I became that lynch pin person, utterly indispensable and relied upon so utterly that, even on days of sickness or holiday, people would “need me desperately” which, I told myself, was because I was so gifted in this regard; but no, they were simply piggy-backing off my learned survival skill…a skill that has come at great personal cost to me in a life where I would much rather have had far less to worry about or be responsible for.
In hindsight, in the new light of Asperger’s, I see this was a world where I was being forced to place all my efforts into neurotypical tasks at the expense of time left over to be my beautifully neurodiverse self and the effect is of having had to divert my attention sideways all the time, until my health crash (oh irony) allowed me, at last, all the free time necessary to be me. That price-to-pay for all the diverted energy was my health breakdown where, for days on end, I would seem to be suspended in the kind of indecision that had me sitting there, on the edge of my bed, staring at my socks yet unable to decide which ones to put on…this is how crashed I was to start with. I was like a broken down automaton and had to start myself off again, from a different energy source….a more innate motivation factor….right at the heart of me that had nothing whatsoever to do with “executive function”.
Yet the fact I am so darned good at these tasks…so organised, so articulate, always on the ball…still confounds people into denial; there’s “nothing wrong” with you, they say (though, since I don’t believe being Asperger’s is a case of having anything wrong, I can at least agree with that). They still wonder, though I long-ago stopped, when I will be ready to go back into some sort of job where, they imagine, I would be more fulfilled than doing this oh-so abstract thing that I do with my time; how wrong could they be. What they don’t grasp is the degree to which I haven’t been able to be myself until right now. How this is the ARRIVAL stage of me, not the departure. Imagine, if you will, an entire life of being someone other than yourself, just to get by, and there you have the Asperger’s lot in life. Especially, it turns out, in the case of Aspie women who, so often, had no idea about Asperger’s for much of their lives and who have, by then, made entire careers out of being good at things that take their toll so much more than in the case of the average person.
You could think of it like this. Over the course of a life of forced executive priorities, I have become like a gymnast selected at birth to go through all the rigorous training to become “the best” at performing feats of unfeasible manoeuvre in the air and on a bar and so, after many years, that gymnast really knows no different to this life of performing feats and yet, take out all the years of 4am starts and no social life, no spontaneity or fun and what would they be left as; a “natural” gymnast, or a well-honed creature of necessity? I am no gymnast but I perform other minor miracles every day, given my own executive shortfalls; and though I “look like” I can do these things now with such great aplomb, there came a point when I realised there was no joy in it; it only interfered with my happier moments. I wanted, at least, to make these parts of my life the lesser parts, practical as we all need to be at certain times (like when your fridge freezer breaks down…) but not all the time or even every day. I just wanted it to stop, for someone else to take over, for different priorities to be able to assert, to be able to explore a softer version of myself that had always played second fiddle, and to be relied on less…and so I did that, even before naming Asperger’s.
Since that came up, I notice all the more how, what I have made look so darned easy for years, even to myself, often takes its toll on my energy and health, for days or even weeks; and so, in knowing this, I can be more conscious around how I space my executive activities, about what responsibilities I take on and how much importance I give to (what are really often) minor decisions, sharing them out more with other family members too, when I can. I’ve realised, just because “I can” doesn’t mean I “have to” and that’s been a big realisation.
Of course at times, executive tasks are too pressing to ignore; take today and the freezer I have now ordered (five hours later). It wasn’t the morning I wanted and has left me feeling irritable and out of my tree. When I deal with the kind of company “front people” I have to deal with when I am wearing my executive functioning hat, I should really have some sort of siren on the top of that hat…to warn people I’m coming their way, as such dealings only make me more belligerent over the years if foolishness happens to cross my path (though I am charm itself with reasonable people). I always seem to ask the sort of in-depth questions that utterly confound such people in customer service roles. Sometimes, I really don’t know if they laugh or weep after we have “spoken” (code for, I asked a lot of complicated questions and refused to go away without a sensible answer while they tried to stick to their pre-ordained script and the corporate rule on how long each customer service call should last). More often than not, I come away tearing my hair out with frustration at these agents’ lack of logic or flexibility to really think for themselves. Its like we are completely at odds, communicating down a bad line with too much crackle or interference to understand one other (though, nine time out of ten, I deal with such companies via “online chat”rather than phone these days….at least one modern innovation that works better with my skillset).
Like just now, telling the agent that their company offer to upgrade me to a 2-hour delivery window tomorrow, “worth £20”, in return for doing a telephone survey is meaningless unless they phone me right back to do that now (and then tell me that 2 hour slot) since I don’t want to be sat here, waiting by the phone, all day any more than I want to spend tomorrow waiting in for a delivery. I know…I can be overly blunt with the poor minions who work in these kinds of jobs, delivering scripts for meagre pay and I always realise I need to try harder to be patient with them; its not them who dream up the ridiculous incentives or who make the comparison of products just so unfathomably complicated. As for why there are just so many different models of, basically, the same white goods, all with subtly different reference numbers and marginally different features, yet all made by the very same company when, surely, one in each price range would suffice is a complete mystery to me. The world seems all set-up for people to fall head first into a mire of confusion, thus submission; generating a confounding amount of over-complication that leaves them feeling baffled and defeated in the face of situations they have little or no sway over. I can see how it becomes so much easier just to say “yes” or “whatever” but, I guess , I am always going to be that awkward person wired to come along and ask “…but why?”
I should be at least a little pleased at my accomplishment today; task done, order resumed yet, these days, I only feel depleted and cross by the end. Though I used to get off on all the adrenalin of problem solving and sense of achievement when I completed an EF task to my own exacting standards, I now find these kinds of projects and situations (as you can tell) quite painful to deal with and just so distracting from the tasks where my joy truly lies. A morning spent thus can seem to knock me off my creative perch for hours or days and I sometimes feel, quite literally, unwell, headachy and over-tired afterwards; especially if too many of them come along in quick succession. If they happen too late in the day, I go to bed feeling adrenalised and subtly “off” my frequency bandwidth; sometimes enough to continue the feeling of “wrong footedness” the next day, so I avoid such tasks beyond the morning hours (and still resent them bitterly when they happen then, being my favourite time to write). I find I have to shake off their energy, afterwards, by walking in nature or listing to music, moving my body and make all good effort to get back into my preferential place, sidestepping all the convoluted nonsense that EF tasks seem to embroil me in. Online shopping, bank accounts, problems and complaints, travel arrangements, comparisons, decisions, putting things together into laborious timetables…all these things are my non-happy place and I no longer pretend that they are my speciality (though they still, kind-of, are in the sense I can do them so well). Really, they are just this thing that I am well versed in and so, like any other thing to which I have ever applied myself, I have made myself a kind of expert at them; the geek who knows how to “executive function” the hell out of life. Thats not to say I choose to, anymore.
So, with my fridge freezer now ordered, delivery just confirmed and all lined up like neat duckies in a row, I’m going to do some stretches, pull on my boots and go out into the rainy, windy afternoon to blow away all the cobwebs of life. At least, I can see, this episode has presented a fresh opportunity to understand some aspect of the paradox about me and my executive function abilities; those things I am, both, good at and yet highly deficient in…get that…because, like so many Aspie’s (women especially) we make the specialism of the very thing we are weakest at, in order to plug that gap. How’s that for a brilliant disguising manoeuvre!
3 thoughts on “Executive burnout”
Oh, this was painful to read! I’ve been there too many times! I hope you had a great walk and best of luck with the delivery of you new household friend tomorrow!
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Oh dear, a sore point 😀 Not surprised to hear you identify. My new friend has settled in OK though I’m still a bit shy of his differences and trying not to imagine where my old one now is…