Theory of mind and PDA.

PDA people generally struggle with applying the same rules to themselves as they do to others. They insist everyone follow the rules completely and become overly anxious when people do not follow the rules to the letter. However they don’t apply those same rules to themselves, feeling like it’s okay for them to bend or break the rules.

One of the factors that creates this thinking is a need for control of others in order to reduce their own anxiety. If people follow the rules then the PDA person knows how they will act and they will feel less anxious wondering what might happen, because they are sure people will act in a certain way instead of unpredictably. Unfortunately people are unpredictable. Even when following the rules they can still act in ways which are unexpected and can cause anxiety in the PDA people closest to them. This can lead to some PDA people exerting control over their family/friends in order to lessen their own anxieties. This is not a healthy way of having relationships with people but it does reduce the PDA person’s anxiety that they might cope with other anxieties in their life.

The theory of mind is the ability to attribute mental states (beliefs/intent/desires/knowledge/etc) to ones self and others and to understand that others have mental states that are different from ones own. This is a difficult thing for most people to do, it’s even harder for people with differences such as PDA and Autism. The ability to understand how you think or why you do the things you do is something that doesn’t always come naturally and generally requires learning to do. PDA people struggle more with this as their brains are wired in such a way that makes it difficult for them to understand their own mental states, never mind that of other people’s.

I believe that a lack of theory of mind impacts upon the PDA person’s ability to see and understand why other people don’t always follow the rules. They genuinely believe that other people have no need to bend or break rules because they are unable to see the reason for the rule breaking. They can’t see how they appear to other people and they can’t imagine how the other person/people feel about the PDA person’s behaviour. This is also why reasoning may not always work with PDA people because unless they have experienced a similar situation then they will struggle to imagine how a situation may make them feel. That’s providing they even understand how situations make them feel in the first place.

It’s a bit like trying to understand how a person in another country feels right now without any knowledge of who the person is/their upbringing/their work, home, family life/even their gender, age, culture, etc.

Theory of mind is an important tool for empathy and sympathy. Without it a person cannot envision how the other person feels and cannot offer any sympathy/empathy of their own. They may even seem cold and rude to people because of a lack of understanding of another’s situation. It doesn’t mean they lack the capacity for empathy/sympathy, rather that at that moment in time they don’t realise there is anything to sympathise/empathise with. Luckily theory of mind is something that can be learnt. It requires a lot of theory of mind from the person teaching it though. In order to understand what needs to be taught, the teacher needs to understand  where the lack of theory of mind lies.

NB: Theory of mind may affect only a part of a PDA person. Every person is different so some may have a better theory of mind than others. Improving a person’s theory of mind may help the PDA person in certain areas but it in no way is a ‘cure’ and will in no way stop a person from having PDA. PDA affects many areas of a person’s life (though not all) and just like learning to read and write can improve a person’s life, so can learning theory of mind. This does of course depend on the person and how they use those skills.

For more information feel free to read the other blog posts that can be found under the heading: Pathological Demand Avoidance.

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