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Working Through Feelings of Shame in My Life With a Disability

It’s something that most people avoid talking about but everyone experiences. In fact, I think if you ask, everyone will have a different definition of it. I used to call this core feeling crushing anxiety. But after reading all of Brene Brown’s books, I have gained an understanding of this shame I feel. Dictionary.com describes shame as “The painful feeling from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., driven by oneself or another.” How do I describe shame? It’s the pit in my stomach keeping me up at night when I think of all of my embarrassing moments and things I cannot control.

I have been in therapy off and on for six years, and my last therapist helped me to realize that the root of most of my darkest emotional moments is actually shame as a direct result of my disability. The smaller moments of anxiety and depression can build up and I can spiral into a ditch filled with feelings of shame; not being enough, being weak or incapable. I can fall into the trap of “am I enough as myself, even if I cannot do x, y or z because of my vision loss?” Where did this belief that our worth lies in what we contribute to society come from?

There is a direct connection between shame and disability that is big enough to deserve its own topic. I have never met anyone with a disability that did not also have anxiety or depression that can turn into shame, but then again I do not have many other friends with disabilities.

To me, the world is built for the able-bodied, and (sometimes) accommodated for those with disabilities. Perhaps if we were not almost always a second thought, we would experience less anxiety,  depression, and shame — but here we are. The fact that society deems people with disabilities as different can also send a message that there is something wrong with us. This can lead to negative self-views and the belief that we not only need help to do certain things, but that we are helpless. This is simply not true, and something needs to change. So, where do we go from here?

I Google searched books on disability and shame. There were none.

How are we to succeed as a group of people, a culture, while pushing these feelings down? It must begin within each of us, and slowly. If we begin to connect to others with a mutual understanding maybe we can minimize the feelings of anxiety, depression and shame in our core.

We must realize that we are enough as ourselves. This one is hard for me, and as I sit here debating on sharing my most vulnerable thoughts, I know it is important to embrace talking about my own shame for growth. I believe I will always have anxiety, depression, and feel shame, but through therapy, I will learn how to notice these feelings and work through them to avoid a dangerous spiral.

One thing that holds me back from connecting with people is that since I am legally blind, I cannot drive. It seems silly, but with a society built around the car, asking for a ride feels like an inconvenience. Those who love me say they have no problem driving me somewhere, but I have also been in situations where I ask one person for a ride and they ask if the other person who will also be there can give me a ride instead. Both people now ask if the other can give me a ride, and I begin to feel that no one wants to do so.

I do not say this to make others feel like everyone has to say yes all the time, and because of this, sometimes I would rather stay home than be in a vulnerable place with others. I have bought a concert ticket and not gone at the last minute to avoid having to ask for a ride. I’m not afraid of someone saying no, I’m afraid of someone feeling like they have to and do not want to. I would rather people say no than always feeling they need to help me and one day resenting me. This is something I am working on.

I do not mind talking about my disability, but sometimes it is exhausting to have to explain in new situations. Since the world is built for able-bodied people, I have to be ready to be vulnerable at any given moment if I need help to read or do something. When I was in college, I had to fight to make connections with my peers because they saw me in a setting where I had to use all of my accommodations; therefore, they assumed I also needed help in social settings. But my educational accommodations are for my near-sightedness so I can read and see smaller details, not for things like seeing or interacting with people.

There were times my peers would ask people next to me what they did over the weekend at the bars in town, but ignore me. I assumed it was because they thought I did not go out. They only knew me as the girl who needed help in class, they did not know me socially, and I was too exhausted to try and make those connections. Someone in that same class asked one of my friends how she should talk to me since I cannot see, but did not ask me. Those situations can build up and contribute to feelings of anxiety and depression. I could have tried harder to show my peers who I am as a person, but I gave up and let myself hold it all in instead. Taking it a step further, this means that I also do not feel worthy enough to connect to. Why not?

I believe I am a good person. I care deeply for others, protect the vulnerable, and value connecting on a deeper level (I hate small talk). I love to laugh, learn about the psychology of crime and read about conspiracy theories. I love to write, see live music, spend time with animals, and play card games. I will do anything to make others smile. I love experimenting with new makeup looks and sign language — yes, even though I am visually impaired. Those who judge me based on what they see on the outside will not know the real me, and I need to be confident enough to also share myself with others, or it will be a lonely life. I believe God made me this way for a  reason, disability and all. I am deserving of love and human connection. We all are.

How do we make sure these positive thoughts outweigh the negative so we may make human connections and be happy? Consider what is holding you back from human connection. How do you see yourself? How do you think others see you? What can you do each day to work for that human connection?

I will continue to be in therapy every week to talk through the hard times and learn skills to work through them on my own. It has been life-changing and life-saving. I am also on anxiety medication. There was a time I said I would never be on medication, a time I tried it and gave up on it, but I have now been on it for six months and it has helped hold me together when I felt like I was falling apart. Medication may not be for everyone, but there is no reason to feel ashamed for trying it. We take medication for physical health problems, why not mental health? When I felt physical symptoms as a result of my anxiety, I knew it was time to do something. If you feel like medication may be for you, talk to your doctor.

We also have to learn how to battle the negative thoughts.  For some, that may mean literally looking in the mirror every morning and giving yourself positive affirmations like “I am enough,” “I care for others,” or “I can do this.” We may struggle with the “I can’t do this,” “I never do that,” or “it’s too hard,” and it will take work to teach ourselves positive self-talk, but we are worth it. You are worth it.

Think about your learning style. Do you love sticky notes, flashcards, writing or singing? Utilize your favorite to teach yourself positive self-talk. I love sticky notes. I have positive affirmations written on several sticky notes in various rooms in the house and I read them every day. A few of mine say “I can do this,” “I do not need to know everything,” and “I am a person worthy  of love and connection.”

Learning these skills does not mean we will never feel shame, depression, or anxiety ever again, but they can help. I struggle with intrusive thoughts, so I have learned to reach out to someone I trust when I begin to spiral into depression. I also hate talking about my emotions. Not everyone knows how to respond when I do share my feelings, and that is OK. I hate the question, “Why do you feel this way?” because sometimes there is not a reason, it just happens. I can wake up anxious or crying, not knowing why. We can have subconscious feelings that have been pushed down for so long, which is where therapy comes in to help examine the root of the issue.

Reaching out to someone does not mean I have to tell them why I am reaching out. We can just be sharing cat pictures or having a meme war. My husband does not talk about his emotions well, and he has taught me that it is OK to tell him when I am feeling sad but do not know why. I can go to him and tell him I need a hug for no reason, and he understands. Do whatever makes you feel comfortable, but do not be afraid to reach out to someone. Maybe this means you have an agreement with someone where you do not talk about your feelings, or you have a keyword that they know means you need a distraction or to get away for a little bit.

Everyone has their own life experiences, and I believe the core feeling of shame directly linked to having a disability is the same. I know if I were to reach out to someone who is also visually impaired, or Deaf, we have a mutual understanding of the anxiety, depression and shame. I have met two friends who are also visually impaired through social media, one through YouTube and one through Instagram using a hashtag many years ago. I know if I have a rough day and need someone to not only empathize, but understand exactly what I mean, I know I can reach out to them. They understand me. Being a part of a disability group or having friends with disabilities is important for me, and may be helpful for you to find, too.

With these positive self-talk practices,  therapy, medication, and connections, I  know that I can work through these feelings of shame, and I hope it can help others who also experience the same thing.

Remember, we are enough. We are worth human connection and love. We are more than our disabilities.

Getty image by Fizkes.

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