I work a lot I’m told. I’ve often been accused of having a Martyr Complex and frankly I’m a bit over it. This is something that a lot of neurodivergent and autistic folks I’ve talked to have experienced as well and I think I understand the reasons.
Hyperfocus and special interests are things things that are very central to the way neurodivergent people experience the world. Being focused on a single topic for a long period of time is very common to me. Hyperfocus is a state of being where I can keep attending to a single thing for hours and/or days on end. In the work environment it can mean working on a single problem for a week until I finish it.
Breaking out of that is aggravating to the point of painful. Having that done for me by people banging my desk or waving in front of my face for attention, is frankly aggressive and violent. Saying that “but they were only trying to be friendly” is no more a reasonable statement than it was in the 80s when it was used by grabassing men. It needs to stop. Ashlea McKay has been incredibly eloquent in here covering of that here and here when she says “Good intentions do not negate not-so-good impacts. They didn’t mean any harm, but they caused harm and that harm has an impact.”
So let’s talk about the Martyr Complex.
- I know my limits. I know how much I can take and when to back off, and I build those into what I can take. Most ND adults are the same. We’re good. Believe us. It’s part of negotiating our spoons budget. Hyperfocusing a task for me is a low cost way of working. I can do a lot of focused work and spend less energy. Let’s say it’s like getting on the freeway – I can zoom away without having to stop and start. But everytime someone interrupts to save me from working to hard I have to get off the freeway and stop – and it costs me more energy. And starting again to get back on the freeway is intense. What it effectively does is blow out our energy budget and can lead to burnout, frustration and meltdowns. All because someone wanted to save me from overwork with their funny tiktok dance.
- I don’t work for the same reason as neurotypicals. I don’t do it to earn credit or as a badge of station (sorry Vu). I do it because it is a task that has to get done and it holds my interest. Of course I deserve acknowledgement and I deserve to be respected, but that has nothing to do with a Martyr Complex. Mainly because as an outsider to the social hierarchy there is nothing to gain there. The work gets done because the work needs to get done.
- Burnout looks like Martyrdom. So ND folk tend to work different hours to NTs. We work when the flow demands it but hyperfocus doesn’t discriminate. When you are on you are ON. We don’t get halfway through a task and go off to work with the team and pick it up later. HOWEVER we also feel an incredible pressure to conform to what the status quo demands. This is called masking, and many an autistic has written articles about the dangers of masking. So you’ll often find us showing up 9-5 (or in my case 7:30-6 to avoid the public transport peak hour sensory overload) and then also working till midnight while I hyperfocus on a task. In fact working outside of the hours of NTs in open office environments is less energy due to the interruptions and sensory overload being absent. All this masking and extended hours lead to burnout.
- Autistic superpowers. Ugh this is hard. The toxic positivity and the need for us to prove ourselves leads to overwork. There is a burden for us to appear infallible as a reaction to the tragedy narrative, and it’s a pressure that leads to overwork and burnout. Dr Nancy Doyle puts it better than I here.
- Our Spikey Skill Profiles. A friend reminded me that we get resentment often (and sometimes irrelevant praise) for being great at stuff. Riffing off Nancy Doyle again “Whilst everyone has strengths and difficulties, for neurodiverse people the difference between them is significant.” Of course that depends on what you attribute to the normal that you are different from, what does occur is that we can really shine at some things. This is the superpowers at work. In this case though they can create a friction with colleagues when this is looked at as competition. Us being good at something, and sacrificing ourselves to be good at it, can leave them feeling inadequate. They don’t understand we’re not competing with them, we’re competing with ourselves.
- Work social functions are a nightmare! I get panic attacks at staff BBQs and social functions. There are too many conversations to focus on, incredible amounts of sensory overload and social games that I’ll never be able to understand. The amount of focus that requires is incredible and I hate it. But not attending these functions can have serious implications on promotion and advancement, as has been documented by the feminist and BIPOC movements in detail. Also not attending tends to attract Martyr labels.
- Personal time. What I do with it is my business. What neurodivergent people do with their time is their own business. If I have a special interest in (for example) organising mental health forums for in arts and culture and that gives me energy and satisfaction then that is great. I’ve been told that I’m hopeless and that I can’t help myself [being a work addict] because I follow my special interests rather than “go out with friends”. This is just gaslighting. One might not understand a person’s interests but there is no need to minimise them because one doesn’t get it.
So can we agree not to do this? Using the Martyr slur against neurodivergent and autistic folk is gaslighting. No one is wanting you to feel bad. By and large that wouldn’t even occur to us. The more you can help us shake off masking and stop gaslighting the easier it’ll be for us all.
Special thanks to Carrie Beesley and Mel Granchi for their input