Unmasking My Office Part 3 – This Isn’t Selfishness

Blue solid foreground with text "Unmasking My Office Part 3 - This Isn't Selfishness".
Here's the third part of a story of what started as a small change led to a big Autistic unmasking journey around how I work and set up my office.
Unmasking My Office Part 3 - This Isn't Selfishness

My office room

In part one of this three part series, I started with buying an ergonomic mouse and trying to figure out how to use it with my laptop on a desk that’s the same size as my laptop, so there’s no room to put a mouse. The problem-solving chain of thought grew bigger and bigger until I briefly considered moving my office into a different room, repainting and re-flooring it, until I laughed at how far I had gotten, and scaled back to a mouse pad on my lap.

Well, it turned out that that idea wasn’t all that far off, after all. In part two I talked about how I got a stationary computer setup with an external monitor and keyboard that aren’t so portable and need an actual desk.

And then, one day, I was expressing some frustration to my mom about not really having any options for rearranging my tiny and narrow office to accommodate a separate desk, except by putting it in the closet, which I’m not actually opposed to, I like cozy little spaces, but the chair would prevent the door from opening all the way, and when sitting there, I would get hit by the door every time it opens, and the narrow room would feel even more cramped.

She pointed out that I’ve had a string of difficulties with that room ever since we moved in a year and a half ago, and asked me point-blank if I regretted choosing that room when we moved in. The truth was that yes, I did, but I had been preventing myself from acknowledging that for over a year. 

The truth was that yes, I did, but I had been preventing myself from acknowledging that for over a year.

The heat and AC don’t work in that room, so I’m constantly either freezing or melting, I’m using fans and space heaters to make up the difference, but they’re loud and I’m sensitive to the noise. And because of the window placement, there’s really only one place to put my coaching chair that gets decent, natural light, and that is inconvenient for everything else in the room, and any other possible arrangement of furniture.

But I haven’t let myself want anything different because the only other option is a room with hard floors and I vastly prefer carpet for the sound dampening and the cushion (I lay on the floor a lot), and it feels better on my feet.

When we moved in, I had a choice between these two rooms for my office, and I specifically chose this one because it is smaller and because the other one has access to a deck. Neither of us have ever lived anywhere with a deck before, and we had ideas of going outside to use it, and I didn’t want to hog the only access, but it turns out we’ve barely been out there.

I thought hard about what my mom was saying, and admitted that what really held me back, when we moved in, is that I felt like picking the larger room, that had access to the deck, was being selfish. Even though my mom was encouraging me to take that room. I told myself the story that she was only following her people pleasing script, of giving me whatever was better, no matter the cost of herself, and pretending to be happy with it, which, admittedly, she has been known to do, and that’s where I get it from. But that’s not always the case. She’s worked through a lot of that in the last few years and doesn’t do it nearly as much, but I was unable to accept that she was genuinely okay with that, and my own scripts of people pleasing, and putting others first, were running in full force at that moment.

And then I compounded the problem by making what I felt were irreversible decisions that bound me to the room I chose.

When we moved in, we knew the previous owners had dogs, and we’re both allergic, so we got the carpets cleaned before moving anything in. But once the the floors were wet, it reactivated the urine crystals in the floors, and we both had extreme allergic reactions to it. We could barely spend 20 minutes in the house while the carpets were still wet. Long story short, we ended up having to replace the flooring in most of the house. 

It turned out to be a blessing that we had the carpets cleaned right away because otherwise we probably would have still reacted, but would it would have been subtle and built up slowly over time, making us more and more sick, and we wouldn’t have known why. But because we had a strong, immediate reaction, we knew where it was coming from.

Anyway, we put hard flooring in two of the rooms but I wanted carpet in my office. So I had to make a decision about which room to claim. And I chose the small room with the HVAC problems that we didn’t know about yet.

We also decided to do fancy paint jobs in two of the rooms, we put blue stripes in my office, and we did a light green background with darker green trees in the other room.

Because the floors and the paint job are much more harder to alter once they’re done, I felt like I had made a permanent decision that I had to stick with. So even though I’ve occasionally regretted picking the smaller room for my office, I haven’t let myself express that regret or want to switch, because it would be much too expensive to switch the floors and the paint, and because I still felt like picking the larger room with the deck would be selfish.

So Mom and I talked about all of this, and I realized that she genuinely didn’t mind me taking the larger room. We’ve barely used the deck, and it wouldn’t be a problem at all to move the other room into the smaller space. Plus, she was in a mood to rearrange furniture, and started getting excited about switching the two rooms.

Changing stress

My Autistic need to process change over time was getting a little freaked out, and I was very tempted to say, let me think about it for a month and get back to you, but instead, I did exactly what I was talking about in the first video. I prototyped in my head, exactly what I thought was likely to happen, and I was pretty positive that at the end of a few weeks I would be on board with the change. 

I wasn’t loving the idea of the quick decision, and I hadn’t at all planned on moving to a new office, (the brief thought of that earlier, in relation to buying the mouse and other computer peripherals, may have planted the idea in my head, but it wasn’t consciously a genuine possibility). Plus, it’s completely out of the question for us to change the floors or the paint job at this point, and I was concerned about changing my background on all of you, and how I had, in my mind, at least, built up this branding around blue, and then it would all of a sudden be green, and would anyone recognize me, and would it be too big of a change, and all of that.

I did take a little time to use my anti-anxiety tools, to find the painful thoughts, question them, defuse them, and that helped a lot. The anxieties weren’t 100% gone, but the intensity was much lower and I could function with that.

When the actual moving started, my stress levels did rise a bit and I started stress stimming — flapping and jumping — and my mom shivvied me out and used her pent-up furniture moving energy to happily switch the rooms for me while I did a job for her instead. (We often trade jobs like that, and it works well for both of us.)

Feeling selfish

I’ll show you the new room in a moment, but I want to speak to this idea of feeling like I was being selfish. It’s very common as a response to having needs that are out of the normal range, among minority groups, as a trauma response, and since a lot of Autistics occupy at least one, if not more of those descriptions, it’s pretty common for adult Autistics to wonder, “am I being selfish in wanting this, doing this, unmasking, asking for things, setting boundaries, etc.?”

This isn’t an official definition, but I I want to offer my own definition of selfish, and then an idea for why things are often labeled as selfish when they aren’t.

I think that selfishness is when you’re hurting someone else in order to meet your own needs. I phrased that very carefully. I didn’t say, putting your needs first. I said hurting someone else to meet your needs.

I think that selfishness is when you’re hurting someone else in order to meet your own needs.

A parent can choose to do an activity that requires their kids to adapt to not having them available during that activity time, that’s putting your needs first, but if no one is being harmed by the experience, I don’t think it’s selfish. If you are never home, children get the message that they’re not important to you at all, and that does cause harm. But an occasional activity or evening out isn’t going to send a message that they aren’t important if you’re available for them in clear ways at other times. 

Setting a boundary requires other people to adapt, and they may not like that, but if it doesn’t harm them, I don’t think it’s selfish. I think that it’s healthy to speak up for what you need. It’s also healthy to respond to others when you set a boundary and they express that there are consequences to that that you hadn’t thought of and you two might negotiate so that you can both find ways to meet your needs. 

I think that behaviors are often labeled as selfish when they require other people to adapt, which does cause them to use energy and effort to do something a different way than they would have preferred. And it’s often easier to label someone else as being selfish than to put out the energy to adapt to accommodate them. Especially if someone is starting to stick up for themselves in ways that they haven’t before, and so the other person isn’t expecting it, and is thrown off by the change.

This kind of labeling is especially common when two people’s needs are in opposition to each other, or they are perceived as such. If you want this, but I want the opposite, I’m being selfish by not letting you have what you want.

Here’s an example of that playing out when I was thinking about getting a new keyboard. (See video part two if you’re not sure what I’m talking about.) 

When I was thinking about customizing my own keyboard, one of the thoughts holding me back was that that would be selfish, because it would make it more or less unusable to anyone else. 

And then I caught myself wondering, who else is using it? Literally no one else uses my computer. My friends and family members all have their own devices, it isn’t a shared computer. I’m not at school anymore and I’m not in the school computer lab being told off for changing a setting or two. I got to told off for that. Add at a couple of workplaces as well, even for computers that were checked out to me, because then the tech people wouldn’t theoretically be able to use it seamlessly for their needs. 

But I’m not in those situations anymore. And the fact that those thoughts came up so strongly, and were part of what prevented me for so many years from customizing my own computer, is a testament to how strong the impressions of certain incidents can be, and how long they can last.

What I learned from being told off a few times for trying to make my life better was that it wasn’t OK to meet my own needs when anyone else had a need. That may not have been directly what the people intended, most of them probably didn’t think that they were sending a strong message at all, but that’s the message that I absorbed. 

What I learned from being told off a few times for trying to make my life better was that it wasn’t OK to meet my own needs when anyone else had a need.

A few of them did very specifically and intentionally try to create a strong negative message because that’s how they learned in the past to meet their needs.

In questioning what was true then, and what is true now, and noticing the differences, I was able to notice that conditioning, and once I noticed it, it didn’t affect me as much.

I’m not being selfish for customizing my keyboard. A keyboard that no one else uses nowadays. I’m not being selfish for choosing the larger room just because it’s larger. And I’m not hogging access to a deck that we don’t actually use.

(Although, in the week or so since I’ve moved into that office, I have gone out there a few times for a few minutes each, and it’s been nice. It might get used a bit more this way.)

But no one is being hurt by my moving into that room. In fact, my plants are a lot happier in there because there’s bigger windows and they get a lot more sun. And my mom won’t have to listen to me complain about the temperature or the various other peculiarities of the blue room. And it’s so pretty.

By the way, since I was changing things, I also switched chairs because this blue one has been hurting my low back for months, and since I recently injured my hip, it’s become quite painful.

So, let me show you around.

I really like it in here. The blues in the other room were calming to me, but this soft green with the trees makes me happy. And my furniture looks so good with this paint job. I haven’t put my pictures up yet, and I’m also looking for a rug that I both like and can afford, to help with the sound dampening.

So soon you’ll see my videos and coaching with this background, and I’m choosing to trust that most people will be able to make the adjustment.

One of the many mental constructions that was holding me back from making the switch, was that I just recently made a video about how much I love blue, and my blue walls, and all of which is absolutely true. And I had this painful thought that I have to be consistent in all things. So once I started with blue, I would have to keep it. Forever. That’s been one of my personal, biggest hangups throughout my life, and I’ve been noticing and diffusing it over and over, in various circumstances and guises, for years.

But I’m trusting that there is more value to my work than being absolutely consistent with my video background. And if a few people can’t make the switch, that’s okay. They’re allowed to choose what they can live with. Some people might need that absolute consistency, and I get that.

And for those of you who are coming along with me, I do want to add the caveat that this is a work in progress. I’ll probably rearrange and tweak things now and then, so please bear with me. But overall, I expect this will be the general aesthetic of the space. I hope you like it.

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Heather Cook

Heather Cook

Hi, I’m Heather. I’m an Autistic writer, advocate, and life coach, and I'm building a life I love. I help other Autistics to build their own autism-positive life. I love reading, jigsaw puzzles, just about every -ology, and Star Trek!

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