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Rebuilding Your Self-Esteem After An Acquired Physical Disability

Updated: Feb 8

Image/Tim Mossholder/Unsplash

***Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and does not provide medical, legal, or health advice and is not a substitute for mental health services

High self-esteem can be elusive for the general public, let alone a person with a new disability whose sense of self has been shaken. After an acquired physical disability, you might feel your body isn’t yours, doesn’t feel the same, or can’t do what it used to do — that can sometimes result in you questioning your value. Your self-worth may take a hard hit as you try to figure out this new way of living in the world.

When everything seems hard and beyond your control, you may begin to doubt your abilities and, ultimately, yourself. This can lead to hyper-focus on what you perceive as your weaknesses or flaws, the things you think you cannot do and the goals you believe you cannot achieve.

This cycle of self-criticism can lead to a behavior pattern of not taking action and staying stuck, which can further reinforce negative thoughts and feelings about yourself, resulting in your self-esteem hovering at an all-time low.

Breaking that cycle can help change how you think and feel about yourself. Try out one or more strategies below to start a new, healthier cycle. This could improve your self-esteem and encourage you to take reasonable risks to achieve your goals in life. This shift does not happen overnight and takes a lot of effort, energy, and desire for change. It is a work in progress every day. You are worthy of that.

Identify your self-critical thoughts and its connection to your feelings and behavior

Increasing our self-awareness is often the first step forward. It’s hard to know what changes you want to make in how you see yourself if you haven’t yet dug deep to discover the critical statements you say to yourself every day. Get quiet and turn your focus inward. What do you hear?

For example, if you aren’t happy with your appearance, maybe you say something like “ I hate my body” or “ I don’t like how I look” or “ I’m weak and useless”. If you aren’t confident in your ability to accomplish a task, perhaps you say to yourself “ I’ll never be able to do this” or “ I’m going to fail”. Or, if you blame yourself for what happened to you that led to your disability, you might say something along the lines of “ I can’t believe I did this to myself” or “ I was so stupid- one mistake and now I’m in this situation”.

You may also notice that these negative thoughts can lead to feelings of guilt, sadness, shame, anger, embarrassment, and other emotions. It can also result in a certain behavior, such as avoiding a challenging task, covering up and hiding parts of your body you are uncomfortable with or ashamed of, or other self-defeating behaviors such as isolating yourself from loved ones and withdrawing from social activities.

It’s this vigilance of our perceived weaknesses, mistakes, and inadequacies that tear us down and keep us down. It can be difficult to lift ourselves up and create a more balanced self-image if we only focus on the negative.

Explore your strengths, skills, positive qualities, and what you like most about yourself

It can be incredibly tough to maintain a sense of self and identity after a new disability when you are unclear if you will be able to manage the same job, responsibilities, activities, and roles that you used to. Remember: at the end of the day, no matter what, you are still you.

Find comfort in what makes you unique. Your laugh. Your sense of humor. Your creativity. Your big heart. Your nurturing and caring ways. Your specific skills in [insert idea here]. Your passions, hobbies, and interests. Your intelligence. Your kind nature. The list goes on.

Consider all the activities that drive, motivate, and rejuvenate you — even if you are finding new and different ways of doing them following a physical disability. You may also be realigning your current goals based on where you are at right now while you work towards a future you dream of. And that’s ok.

Make a note of all of these things in a place you can look back on as a good reminder when you are feeling low. Keep in mind that what makes you, you, is often what people love most about you.

Ask someone you trust what they think are your strengths and what they like most about you

In the beginning, it may be hard to think of the many things that are special about you because you might not see these qualities in yourself or you might discount or dismiss them.

Recruit help from a family member or friend who knows you well to see if they can help you explore a more balanced view of yourself. Ask them: What do they think you are good at? What do they like about you? What do they see in you that may be hard right now for you to see in yourself? Ask them to be open with you and, in turn, be open-minded yourself to all the wonderful things they have to say about you.

Add these points to your self-love list and watch it grow. You might see the beginnings of your more confident self starting to shine through.

What would you say to a friend or family member if they were having similar challenges?

Getting outside of our heads and thinking about what we would say to a family member or friend if they were in the same situation as us might allow us to reflect more clearly on a positive alternative view. Would we berate and criticize them? Or would we encourage and support them? More likely the latter.

Knowing that we would not treat someone else like how we treat ourselves can help us realize how demoralizing and defeating self-critical thoughts can be and allow us to begin challenging them.

Remind yourself of your past successes

Sometimes, thinking about ourselves can be very abstract and we can benefit from exploring ideas in a more concrete way, which allows our good points to feel more real to us.

It might help to recall the successes and accomplishments you have had in the past to give yourself a boost. Maybe you just achieved a new skill, made some progress with a task, or are about to try a new activity you haven’t yet attempted since you acquired your physical disability.

Use your recent success as a launching point for a new skill you are exploring as a way to encourage yourself. Reflect on how you have handled different challenging scenarios in the past and what mindset, behaviors, and strategies you drew on to tackle them well.

Give yourself a pep talk

A little pep talk can do a world of wonder for our belief in ourselves. It shows us that the little voice in our heads carries a lot of power and influence on our sense of self.

It is valuable to recognize that your disability is not a weakness or a flaw. Your disability does not make you inadequate, inferior, or less worthy than anyone else.

It is a major life change that you continue to deal with daily as you figure out how to move forward with your life. If you try to learn something new and are not able to do it the first time, it doesn’t mean you failed — it could mean you may need more practice. Or perhaps it may mean you need to change your approach or revisit if you need to work on a pre-skill before you can accomplish the skill you are after. Saying statements such as these to yourself may help shape your thought process in a more forgiving, positive light. It also helps you reframe the situation as an opportunity for further learning and growth in the future.

With support from your healthcare team and professionals you work with, you can continue working toward goals that are realistic for you at this point in your journey while you keep building up your self-esteem.

Try to stop yourself when you hear your mind going down a negative path

Have you ever heard of the strategy where someone puts on an elastic band and snaps it as a way to tell themselves to stop thinking of something? This is a similar idea. When you hear yourself starting a train of self-critical, self-blaming, and self-shaming thoughts, try to say “stop” in your mind and redirect those thoughts in a more positive direction.

It may help to replace these negative thoughts with positive thoughts such as “I am still learning and need to be patient with myself”, “Negative thoughts only keep me down and I am trying to find a way to lift myself up”, “I can choose a different way to think about myself that is more kind and supportive”, and so on. Think of examples of positive thoughts that are realistic to you and make sense to you. This will help you start to see yourself as “good enough” just the way you are.

Start small -- and get excited about every little win

You don’t have to reach your mission of a healthier self-image in one try. Know that every effort is moving you toward a happier and more peaceful you.

Catch yourself having a positive thought about yourself, experiencing a heart-warming moment, or doing a feel-good behavior. Noticing these mindful moments and focusing your attention there shows that you are getting closer and closer to having higher self-esteem.

The goal is progress -- not perfection

Holding ourselves to unattainable standards is not the goal. Being perfect is not the goal. We want to set ourselves up for success — not failure.

Managing your expectations of yourself is important. Being aware of your challenges and areas of your life where you would like to see further growth, while also keeping your strengths at the forefront of your mind, is key. The intent is to focus on slow and steady progress towards higher self-worth. This will naturally express itself in how you think and feel about yourself and in your actions.

Day by day, moment by moment, greater self-esteem can be rebuilt over time if you learn to open your eyes and begin to notice, appreciate, and accept yourself simply as you are.

Wishing you well on your mental health journey.

Davina Tiwari MSW, RSW, CSFT

Registered Social Worker and Certified Solution Focused Therapist

If you are an adult in Ontario or Alberta seeking online therapy and you would like to request a free 15 minute phone consultation with Meaningful Independence, please Book An Appointment or reach out directly under the Contact page.

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