The Golden Rule vs. “Theory of Mind”

Stated in plain English, the Golden Rule says, Treat other people the way you want to be treated. The implication is that, since we all want to be treated the same way, each of us treating others the way we would want to be treated if we were in their shoes is a sure way to make sure we all get what we want.

I’m sure some of you reading this post can already see serious problems with that assumption…

Obviously, we don’t all want exactly the same kind of treatment. Extroverts want to be invited to all the big parties; introverts would rather you just called them on the phone (or better yet, texted or emailed) and arranged a time for the two of you to hang out together. Some of us want hugs to cheer us up when we’re unhappy, and some of us want even our closest friends to keep their hugs to themselves. Some of us are hurt by blunt honesty, and some of us consider it a sign of respect. We each have a preferred level of formality or informality, and we each have topics we’re not comfortable discussing… but those are not the same for every person.

Mind you, if we don’t have anything else to go by — not even a hint of what the other person actually wants — going by what we’d want if we were in their shoes is better than nothing. But we shouldn’t ever assume that how we want to be treated is how everyone wants to be treated.

And then there’s that “Theory of Mind” thing…

According to Teh Expertz (if you’re new here, you should be informed that I spell it that way as an indicator of great sarcasm — these people consider themselves experts, but they’re nothing of the kind), what every person on the autism spectrum lacks is the ability to comprehend that other people have their own thoughts and feelings, and that those thoughts and feelings may not be the same as the autistic person’s.

Here’s a clue, kids: not every allistic person wants the same things, either. (We already covered that a few paragraphs ago, right?)

And yet, there’s this Golden Rule telling all of us, autistic and allistic alike, that we should treat other people the way we want to be treated, because we all supposedly want the same things.

I think, though, that Teh Expertz are using our sincere attempts to follow the Golden Rule against us, as some sort of “proof” that we have no idea that other people aren’t us. Then if we don’t follow the Golden Rule because we actually are aware that some people — possibly most people — don’t want exactly the same treatment we want, we’re supposedly just being assholes or something: “Why are autistic people always so mean?”

And we’re supposed to just know how other people feel. Fun fact: Most allistics can’t pass that stupid test, either, the one with the photos of just eyes, where the person being tested is supposed to guess how the person in the photo is feeling. We (autistic people) are being held to a higher standard than they (allistics) are, and then Teh Expertz tell us we’re deficient, less human, if we don’t do better than they do.

I’ll tell you a small secret: Sometimes, I deliberately don’t allow myself to just know what someone else is feeling, because I don’t want to “make lasers” with their pain. (Making lasers is my metaphor to describe to my twin what it’s like for me when a feeling from one of us bounces back and forth, gaining intensity, until it becomes too much for one of us to handle. Like how coherent light is bounced between mirrors to make one kind of laser: eventually, it’s so powerful that it goes right through the less-strong mirror…) As my imaginary friend Stephan taught me when I was a teenager, avoiding eye contact really helps with that. If I can keep my cool, I can at least not make the problem worse, even if I can’t fix it. Sometimes, there’s nothing anyone can do to fix it. Sometimes, the person who’s hurting would really rather no one got up in their face while they’re trying to deal with the pain, either because they can handle it better if allowed to focus or because they feel guilty for being in pain (because some real asshole once taught them that pain is something to feel guilty for) and don’t want anyone drawing attention to it.

This entire blog post, by the way, came out of how I felt immediately after an incident the other day when I was unable to fix someone else’s problem, stop their pain (physical and emotional), just know how to make everything better (because there was no way to make everything better), and I felt guilty for not being able to do anything. I felt guilty because Teh Expertz say I’m a heartless, self-centered, and outright narcissistic person Because Autism, but I doubt any of them — or anyone at all — could have handled the situation better. And at this time of year (as of two days ago, exactly twenty-four years since I was kept awake most of a night by someone else’s anxiety attack), I am not sure I can handle the irony of strangers telling me I don’t know — can’t know — that other people have feelings.

And how I want to deal with that isn’t necessarily how you would deal with it if you were in my shoes, because we don’t all think and feel the same way.


About Thomas Weaver

For several years, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom (editor). I'm physically disabled, and I currently live with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have eight cats. I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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5 Responses to The Golden Rule vs. “Theory of Mind”

  1. Autistickish says:

    I love this post. Excellent! Interesting, well written, meaty, thought provoking. Very pleasing! 👏🏻👏🏻👏🏻👍🏻😊

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t have autism, but I struggle dealing with people’s emotional outbursts. I had an employee cry on me once during a bad review. I handed them a tissue, waited for it to pass, and never mentioned it again. Painful, just painful.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Reblogged this on Laina's Collection – sharing Aspergian/autistic writing and commented:
    What a fantastic post! Beautiful job diving into the various points here 👍🏼😊

    Liked by 1 person

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