Tag Archives: catastrophizing

Let Me Repeat Myself

In the comments on the Why Talking is Hard post, a few people mentioned that they have a tendency to repeat themselves when speaking and, oh boy, can I relate to that. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my tendency to say things over and over to someone, because it’s a rather embarrassing habit to have as an adult.

The underlying causes are probably a bit different for each of us, but I’ve come up with a few ideas about why autistic people are often prone to repetitive speech:

Poor inhibition

This feels like the most obvious culprit. Once we get started on a favorite subject, look out. We just can’t seem to stop, even when it’s obvious that the other person is getting bored or uncomfortable. Part of infodumping is often going over the same facts or stories repeatedly, as if we aren’t sure the other person is really grasping why this subject is so freakin’ awesome.

Poor inhibition is a component of impaired executive function–a plain old lack of ability to put the brakes on speech. Infodumping or monologuing about a special interest feels closely related to poor inhibition. Repeating the same information within an infodump is likely an extension of the phenomenon that leads to infodumping in the first place.

Basically it’s all one big case of “Help–I’m talking and I can’t stop!”


This is more of a “broken record” kind of repetition. It’s asking someone the same question or making the same statement over and over, even though the other person has already answered or acknowledged it.

I do this a lot to The Scientist, especially in relation to making plans.

“Let’s run tomorrow morning.”

Ten minutes later: “Tomorrow is a running day, right?”

A half hour later: “I want to run in the morning. Oh, wait, I said that already, didn’t I?”

Which doesn’t stop me from wanting to say it another ten times as the evening wears on. With practice I’m learning to silently think the question or statement and then remind myself that it’s already been answered. That works in a mostly-but-not-always kind of way.

This aspect of repetitive speech feels like lack of inhibition combined with compulsive thinking.


This is the one that eventually earns an exasperated “Would you just let it go already?!” response from whoever happens to be unlucky enough to be on the receiving end. It’s the kind of repetition that other people quickly tire of because it comes across as irrational and anxiety-laden. A worst-case scenario that just won’t die.

Catastrophizing = poor inhibition + perseveration + anxiety.

Normally, when I repeat myself in a perseverative way, the other person’s response temporarily quiets the need to do it again. But when I’m catastrophizing, the other person’s response is unfulfilling and I continue to say the same thing in different ways, trying to elicit a more reassuring response. Which is impossible, because no response other than “yes, that highly unlikely disaster is sure to happen” would be satisfying.

Short term memory deficit

This one occurred to me while watching the videos that I made for my attempt at video blogging. At times, I simply forget that I’ve already said something or made a point. I forget what I was talking about, have talked about or wanted to talk about and get stuck in a loop of similar thoughts that keep coming out in slightly different ways.

I also noticed that I echolalically repeat myself, reusing phrases or words within a conversation. It’s hard to say why–maybe as touchstones or because they’re caught in my conversation buffer. The funny thing is, it’s rarely the same words or phrases that get repeated from one conversation to the next.

Missing social cues

I think sometimes I repeat myself because I’m not getting the social communication cues to confirm that the other person has heard me. I need very obvious cues, like verbal affirmation. The cues that work for typical people–sustained eye contact, affirmative body language–are usually lost on me.

If I don’t get the expected verbal affirmation, I keep repeating what I said until I’m sure the other person is getting my point. Closely related to this is the difficulty I often have in actually making my point verbally. In way, my repetition is an attempt to edit my spoken words after the fact, which I don’t think is how talking is supposed to work.

Practically Perfect in Every Way


You’re such a perfectionist.

Are you cringing after reading that? I am.

Perfectionist is rarely used in a positive context. As a put down, it’s a polite stand-in for rigid, controlling, procrastinating, slow, nitpicky, paralyzed. Even when people try to use it in a positive context, it rarely casts a favorable light. “Your strengths? Well, you’re a perfectionist . . . that can be a good thing.”

The Roots of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is basically the flip side of catastrophizing, with a side of control freak. Let’s face it–not a positive character trait.

I say this as a lifelong and unreformed perfectionist.

And because I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember, I’ve given a lot of thought to the why’s and how’s of it. Perfectionism is believed to be rooted in childhood. We somehow get the idea in our heads that we’re valued for our achievements. As we grow older, we base our self-worth on the approval of others, convinced that if we can do things perfectly, we’ll be loved and accepted. If we fail, on the other hand, we must be worthless.

This is the classic explanation of perfectionism.

For me, the problem with this explanation is that I never quite felt like it fit. It’s in the right ballpark. I do seek approval from others, though just as often, I couldn’t care less. I put a big emphasis in my life on my accomplishments. Doing well is important to me and I often believe there is a standard of perfection that I should live up to, or at least aim for.

What I don’t see in myself is the worthlessness. I’m hard on myself when I fail, but I bounce back quickly. My fear of failure is low. I’m willing to put myself out there and see what happens, even when I know that the risk of failure is high. It’s rare that I feel worthless, even when I screw up in a big way.

Multidimensional Perfectionism

As I researched perfectionism, I came across more nuanced models. For example, some psychologists believe that there is adaptive perfectionism, which motivates us to strive for success without the negative impact on self-esteem that the classic maladaptive perfectionism carries.

Others classify multiple types of perfectionism based on the object of the perfectionist thinking:

  • self-oriented perfectionism: setting irrationally high standards for one’s own behavior, appearance, achievements, etc.

  • other-oriented perfectionism: setting irrationally high standards for others to conform to

  • socially prescribed perfectionism: believing that others (particularly significant others) have irrationally high standards for one’s self to conform to

When perfectionism is broken down this way, I see myself in all three categories. The Multidimensional Personality Scale (MPS) backs up my instincts. The average scores are 1s and 2s. My averages are 4s and 5s. In working through the questions on the MPS, I began to formulate a new theory about why so many autistic people are perfectionists.


The Link Between Autism and Perfectionism

I think autistic perfectionism has some additional dimensions to it, beyond the classic model of “if I’m perfect, people will love me.”

First, our tendency toward black and white thinking can create an appearance of perfectionism. If I sit down to write an essay for English class with the idea that I will either produce the perfect essay or I will produce garbage, that looks a lot like perfectionism. But what if I think about my essay that way because I’m not good at thinking in shades of gray? What if it doesn’t occur to me that between perfect and garbage, there exists pretty bad, below average, acceptable, pretty good, very good, excellent and nearly perfect?

It might seem like splitting hairs to differentiate between straight-up black and white thinking and perfectionism, but I think doing so can illuminate an important difference. If I’m trying to write the perfect essay because I truly think the only other option is a terrible essay, what I need to work on is remembering that there are other possibilities. If I’m trying to write the perfect essay because I think that doing anything less makes me a failure as a person, I need to work on my self-esteem.

Personally, I think my perfectionism a mix of the two, weighted more toward black and white thinking, which may be why I don’t have the feelings of worthlessness that commonly go along with perfectionism. If anything, I have the opposite problem. Often I’ll finish something and think it is perfect, until someone tells me otherwise. I’m so certain that I haven’t made a total disaster of it that the only other option is I’ve done a stunningly good job. Bizarrely, my perfectionism cuts both ways, again because I haven’t accounted for things like “really well done” or “good enough” or “close but not quite” in my potential outcomes.

The other factor that feeds perfectionism in autistic people, I think, is rooted in our childhood experiences with failure. As I read through the questions on the MPS, I realized that my strong agreement with statements like “I usually have doubts about the simple everyday things I do” and “People will probably think less of me if I make a mistake” is rooted in decades of living with undiagnosed ASD. Decades of knowing that something was off. Of feeling like I had to work a lot harder than other people to keep up a semblance of normalcy. Of trying to hide all the little ways in which I not only wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t even “normal.”

Passing, after all, is a kind of perfectionism in itself. It may even be possible to make an argument that our subconscious need for approval is an upshot of the pressure to pass that we feel from childhood.

Autistic perfectionism is like the deluxe bonus edition of perfectionism: subconscious need for approval plus black and white thinking plus social/internal pressure to pass. And like a lot of deluxe bonus editions, this one isn’t really worth paying extra for.

Catastrophizing Sucks

Catastrophizing is one of those autistic traits that when I first read about it, I thought, “Oh, I never do that.”

How wrong I was.

I catastrophize daily. It’s usually small stuff that blows over quickly–I’m not going to get to the post office before it closes which means I won’t get my important overnight package and I’ll have to go back tomorrow and everything will be delayed and I should have left home sooner and why did I take a right out of the parking garage instead of a left because taking a right always means waiting in more traffic even though it’s more direct well obviously it’s because I’m stupid and don’t think things through so it’s my fault if I get there too late but maybe I’ll be able to beg one of the workers who’s closing up to get my package because that worked once before and . . .

Next thing I know, I’m at the post office and it’s not closed. Crisis averted! Except this was a fake crisis, made up in my head because I was catastrophizing.

Snowballing a Crisis into a Catastrophe

I don’t mind minor catastrophizing. It’s annoying but not detrimental to my psyche like serious catastrophizing is. The serious type starts out small–like a case of poison ivy starts with just one little itchy bump–and gradually creeps up on me until I find myself taking a sledgehammer to my self-esteem.  Continue reading Catastrophizing Sucks