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Identity, Mental Health

What does it mean to be asocial?

Note: I’ve revised this post after rethinking the message sent by the original draft.

“You’re so antisocial!”

You get that a lot, right? Except you’re not really “anti-” people. You just like them better in smaller doses — not because you like them less but because socializing in itself is challenging enough.

Welcome to the asocial world, where we generally prefer to spend less time socializing than the average sociable person, even if we genuinely like the people we know and work with.

Whereas antisocial behavior is openly hostile or antagonistic toward others, asocial behavior typically isn’t.

That said, sometimes, those of us who are asocial by nature can act in ways others perceive as antisocial. Sometimes, we simply shut people out — not as an expression of antipathy but because we don’t see a benefit to maintaining whatever conversation we’re shutting down.

At its simplest, it’s a cost-benefit analysis. If no one benefits, and we see no point in keeping ourselves open to one angry salvo after another, we shut it down.

I’d like to think it were that simple. Truth be told, there’s a lot more emotion involved.

That emotion is often behind my own tendency to block people to shut down a painful conversation that is making it impossible for me to focus on the things I need to do.

For the moment, I’m essentially hitting the mute button — not to shut them out forever but to create a safe space for me to process the conversation and recover from the overwhelm.

It sounds simple and reasonable. More than that, though, it’s often the only way I know how to deal with a conversation that seems unlikely to benefit either one of us.

So, why do so many people think it’s “antisocial”?

After all, the aim of the asocial person isn’t to hurt anyone. But when someone is angry with us and seems intent on making us feel small, we put up walls to protect ourselves from what feels like an attack. It’s what we’ve learned to do. And it’s a hard habit to break.

It doesn’t mean we don’t still hope we can find a way to make things better.

“Why are you like this?”

Speaking for myself, I’m honestly not sure. It could be the autism.

Some asocial people (including me) are on the autism spectrum. And autistic brains work differently from neurotypical ones. Social situations present more challenges to us, because we have a harder time picking up on other people’s nonverbal cues.

Last December, near the end of 2020, my therapist, whom I’d been talking to for a few months, told me in her own words, based on her assessment and her experience with other autistic clients, “I would say you’re definitely autistic.”

She made it clear her words didn’t amount to an official diagnosis. But I needed to hear that.

While every authoritative online test I’d found (thanks to sites by other adults with autism) had said as much, I wanted to hear it from someone who’d assessed others on the spectrum.

Since insurance doesn’t typically cover autism screening for adults, there’s widespread acceptance of self-diagnosis — based on results from authoritative online tests and/or informal assessments from counselors/therapists — in the adult autism community.

So, how is that relevant to this post?

While I’d love to think my asocial tendencies are rooted in a calm, dispassionate approach to life and to other people — as if I’m “above it all” (Ha!) — it’s more likely tied to the way my autistic brain has learned to cope with the world and other people.

Much as I love texting and email as alternatives to talking on the phone, there are a lot of nonverbal cues that go with them. There are unspoken rules about social interaction that folks with autism aren’t as likely to pick up on just by being around people.

This explains so much. I won’t go into all that in this post.

Turns out, texting and email don’t protect us from those unspoken social rules. They might make it a tad easier (which I’ll take), but I still make mistakes in the way I communicate with people via text messages.

And when things go south, I’ve been too quick to shut things down and block people. Again, it’s not because I don’t want to have anything to do with them ever again. I just need time.

So, why don’t I just say that? “Hey, I need time to think about this before I give you an answer. Please know I’ll give it serious thought. You deserve that much,” etc.

At some point, in past conversations (some of them recent), I’ve convinced myself I was being unfairly picked apart or demonized by someone who had already decided to see the worst in me. And the only way I could put an end to that was to block them.

Even then, I hoped someday I would find a way to make things better, so we could get along well again (if we had before). And even then, I suspected the conflict was at least partly my fault, and that there was something I couldn’t see yet that I needed time to process.

I wish I didn’t need so much time to get there. You’d think after years of frustrating people (as my dad would say, “You just don’t think!”) I’d have learned how to do better by now.

But I am learning.

Popular Myths about What it Means to Be Asocial

It doesn’t take much internet research to find some popular myths about what it means to be an asocial person. Some myths are more insulting than others.

Here are five worth addressing in this post:

  • Myth: Asocial people lack confidence.
  • Truth: Asocial behavior doesn’t need to have anything to do with confidence; in many cases, it’s about social habits that stem from differences in brain function. That said, in my case, confidence is definitely an issue.
  • Myth: Asocial people lack social skills.
  • Truth: While social skills can be a challenge for some who exhibit asocial behavior, plenty of asocial people are as good at socializing as anyone else. They just choose to do less of it (often because it depletes their energy). Again, in my case…. well, you get it.
  • Myth: Asocial people don’t care about anyone but themselves.
  • Truth: Asocial people tend to be jealous of their headspace and energy. They don’t like to waste it on things that aren’t their business or that benefit no one. That doesn’t mean they don’t care about other people. Speaking for myself, the more I’ve learned to be grateful for other people and what they’ve brought to my life, the more it hurts when I alienate them.
  • Myth: Asocial people care more about ideas or tasks than about people.
  • Truth: Again, asocial people are as likely to genuinely care about people as more sociable people. Their concern may just be less obvious. It’s true many asocial people are task-oriented and idea-loving creatives. Often, they’ll work behind the scenes, putting those leanings to work, to better serve the people they care about. For me, it’s been a slow learning curve, because I do spend too much time in my own head.
  • Myth: Asocial people don’t have friends (or don’t want any).
  • Truth: This is more likely to be true of someone whose behavior is antisocial (thought they don’t always intend to keep people away; antisocial behavior is more complex than that). Asocial people often have real friends. Most of those who don’t still have a genuine desire for a real and lasting friendship. In my case, my only close friends are people in my family, though I’ve made friends outside of it. I’ll readily admit I’m not easy to be friends with.

While asocial people, in general, don’t have to change who they are to fit society’s expectations, they do have to be watchful to avoid the extremes of asocial behavior, which can isolate them even from their friends and family.

What Makes Some People More Likely to be Asocial?

Often enough, asocial behavior is related to an underlying difference in the way your brain works, whether it’s something you were born with, something you developed along the way, or something that happened to you. Any of the following factors can contribute to asocial behavior:

  • Autism / ASD / Asperger’s
  • Mood Disorders — like depression or social anxiety
  • Traumatic Brain Injury
  • Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD) or Schizotypal Personality Disorder
  • Agoraphobia (or other social phobias)
  • Grief / Mourning

Can asocial behavior be harmful?

It bears repeating: Asocial behavior isn’t anti-people. It’s just less sociable than what most people (with better social skills) expect.

Chances are, you’re not doing anything objectively harmful to someone else. But if your asocial behavior is consistently pushing people away or keeping them at arm’s length, you owe it to yourself to take a closer look at the reasons behind it.

Whether or not your being asocial is truly maladaptive depends on whether it holds you back from accomplishing your goals. Some of those goals will have to do with relationships. Because asocial people still have (and value) those.

People still matter to us, even when our behavior seems to say otherwise.

If your asocial tendencies are holding you back, then yes, they can be harmful — to you and to your relationships with others.

So, what can you do?

You can’t please everyone. And not everyone you manage to alienate will want to reconcile with you. But the following tips can make your social life a little easier:

  • Schedule necessary alone time every day. Everyone needs that (some more than others).
  • Prioritize social time with the people closest to you. Maybe schedule a weekly game night or at least one sit-down, sociable meal every week.
  • Make time for meaningful conversations with friends and family members.
  • Find happiness and success in pursuits that are meaningful to you, even if they mean little or nothing to others.
  • Learn social skills (online classes may be of great help with this).
  • Find a good therapist (honestly, everyone needs this, and insurance should cover weekly appointments).
  • Learn effective coping strategies and make them part of your day (meditation, yoga, daily walks, etc.)
  • Forgive your harshest critics (including yourself), and…
  • Remember that everyone (not just you) is struggling with something.
  • Build a new habit of making a list of at least ten things you’re grateful for about a person with whom you’re currently at odds (Doing this is what prompted me to revise this post.)
  • Find a friend who accepts and loves you just as you are.

It’s understandable if you think friends like that are impossible to find, especially when you’re not actively searching for one. It seems like wasted effort. It’s not.

You need someone in your life, outside your immediate family, who…

  • sees you and accepts you just as you are now,
  • doesn’t expect you to meet “normal” sociability standards, and
  • doesn’t let you get away with cloistering yourself 24/7/365.

Someone out there is looking for a friend like you. Even folks on the autism spectrum can get lonely and benefit from a real friend who appreciates your atypical brain — and not because they “have to learn to accept it.”

Keep looking. Keep risking criticism by discovering and being your authentic self. And keep stretching yourself to make the most of your gifts.

Everyone needs to step outside their comfort zone to live the life they want. And if life can be beautiful for everyone (and it can), why settle for less?