Posts Tagged self-awareness

Hmm . . . That’s How I Look

I recently had the good fortune to go on a guided pheasant hunt with my dad, a life-long friend and a bunch of other really good guys. One of those guys documented the three-day trip with his camera. Everywhere we went, into the field and back in the lodge, he took candid shots. I noticed the camera pointed at me several times, and was anxious to see the results, until I did.

Self-perception is an odd thing, and it’s difficult to do correctly. Most of us are far too critical about how we appear. Others, like me, are somewhat delusional about how we appear. A rare few are actually accurate in their perception of how others see them.

Walking around with a severe limp and a droopy right eye for most of my life, I have learned not to worry about how others see me. Though I’m somewhat aware of them, I choose not to acknowledge negative perceptions. That’s relatively easy to do when you are away from the camera and surrounded by familiar people. Even the mirror, though it does not lie, can be fooled with a careful pose. The candid camera cannot.

So, there I was, crooked leg, bald head and droopy eye, with my dad helping me carry my plate from the buffet line. I remember the moment and the camera to my side. I wasn’t bothered by it then, but I was when I first saw the picture. The insecurities that I had carefully tucked out of sight escaped and bopped me in the back of the head.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

Insecurities haunt all of us, at least occasionally – even powerful and famous people. President Franklin Roosevelt consciously hid his disability from the American public throughout his twelve years as President of the United States. He wasn’t ashamed of his disability; he just didn’t want to be judged by it or to have critics see it as a weakness, so when cameras were present, he was careful to keep his wheelchair out of the photo.

It’s OK to minimize your vulnerabilities in order to craft the image you want to project. We should try to look and act our best. Like it or not, friends and strangers alike respond to our image. What’s not OK is to let the things you can’t control about your image bring you down, and that’s what I did.

I focused on my weaknesses while completely ignoring my strengths. I prioritized what I’d like to change over what I value. I held myself to an ideal that is beyond my reach. What’s more, I did all of this without any outside prompting. No one on the trip treated me any differently.

Who isn’t guilty of this, at least occasionally? Maybe it’s not our physical appearance, but a perceived shortcoming of intelligence or achievement that makes us feel inferior. Maybe we don’t invite friends to our homes, because we feel that our homes don’t compare to theirs.

None of that matters. What matters is how we see ourselves. My parents taught me that lesson in my pre-teen years, when it became obvious that my disability was going to affect my future. They encouraged me to value and capitalize on my blessings, and they wouldn’t let me feel sorry for myself. My friends, teachers and others around me reinforced that credo, which allowed me to create a cocoon around myself in my teenage years.

I’ve been able to move that cocoon with me through the different phases of my 48 years: college, young career, fatherhood and to where I am now. Very rarely does something penetrate the cocoon, but that picture did.

Fortunately, I was able to quickly recover by stepping back and taking a larger view – a view in which my gratitude squashed my insecurities. That was easy to do as I looked through the other pictures.

We had been blessed with great weather, which isn’t a given in late December in South Dakota. If the weather had been different, I likely wouldn’t have been able to participate in the hunt. Furthermore, our outfitter was extremely accommodating of my limited mobility, letting me use a UTV to get around. Last, but certainly not least, I was able to have a great time with a great group of new friends. It would have been really difficult to improve the experience.

It’s amazing how blinded we can become by our insecurities. Most of the time, when they obscure our  blessings, we need only take a short step to the side and look more closely. Those blessings are usually right there in front of us.

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Looking Down on a Wheelchair

She looked at my wife, then at me and then at the wall before saying, “I don’t envy you.” We were in an elevator at Bellagio in Las Vegas, headed back to our room after an afternoon spent exploring The Strip. I was in my wheelchair, and Lynda was behind me. It was evident that it was Lynda who she didn’t envy.

Lynda did leave the door open for that comment when she said something to the effect of, “That’s a workout!” in regard to pushing the wheelchair. Still, the stranger’s comment was stunning, so much so that neither of us could manage a response. To her credit, the stranger probably wasn’t trying to insult us – she just let a thought escape her lips.

No man wants to be the source of pity for his wife, but I could understand the reason behind the insensitive comment. Pushing a wheelchair is a lot of work, and I would have much rather been walking side-by-side with my wife, but that wasn’t an option. Ironically, the wheelchair was Lynda’s idea, and the genesis for that idea came in Las Vegas. On our first trip to Las Vegas and for most of the second, Lynda mostly explored the city on her own, as the walking that it required was just too much for my legs. It didn’t bother me all that much to wait in the room while Lynda was out. As my friends and family know, I never want to get in the way.

On that second trip to Las Vegas, Lynda checked with the hotel concierge and discovered that they had a wheelchair for people like me to use. Even when she brought the chair up to the room, I resisted. I had never been in a wheelchair in public, and wasn’t eager to start. My wife is persistent though, and I’m glad that she is. Using a wheelchair allowed me to see Las Vegas in ways that never would have been possible otherwise. We were returning from just such an adventure when we encountered the stranger on the elevator.

I’m not a stranger to pity, and it really doesn’t bother me that much, because I know that genuine pity comes out of concern. People don’t want to see me struggle, and they feel sorry for me that I have to struggle. Plus, they don’t want the struggle for themselves, and are secretly afraid that they couldn’t handle it. I’m certain that the stranger in the elevator felt that way for Lynda and probably for me too. She just said what a lot of other people were thinking.

She had no idea that Lynda insisted on buying me a wheelchair and using it even when I don’t want to. Several times on that trip, I told Lynda that she could leave me in the room, but she always refused. (It’s hard to be stubborn around my wife.) She makes sacrifices like that all of the time, and I appreciate her immensely for it.

The stranger also didn’t know that my hands were blistered and bleeding from propelling the chair myself. There is a reason that experienced wheelchair users wear gloves.

Most of all, the stranger didn’t realize that people with ample experience facing adversity don’t pity themselves and certainly don’t want pity from others. In fact, we’re often happier than people without adversity, because we appreciate small things that a lot of other people take for granted. Pity doesn’t usually cross our minds, unless someone else brings it up, like what happened on that elevator.

Coincidentally, I read the book Tough as They Come by Travis Mills during that trip. SSG Mills is a quadruple amputee due to injuries he suffered while defending our country in Afghanistan. Like me, he has an incredible wife who adapted to a marriage that requires more from her than lesser women could handle. Initially, when facing his new reality and its limitations, SSG Mills thought of his wife Kelsey and what his injuries would mean to her. I’m sure that the stranger on the elevator wouldn’t envy her either, because that was SSG Mills’ initial feeling too. However, once he crushed self-pity, he found a new purpose that he could share with his wife, the Travis Mills Foundation.

I write all of this not to make you feel guilty for pitying other people, but to ask you to use pity as a prompt for kindness. When you feel the very natural feeling of pity, say or do something nice. You might surprised by the beauty you find in adversity, just like we are.

Tough as They Come

Next Month: It’s not all bad! Far from it! Hear about the good things in people I get to see from my wheelchair.

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What Are You Really Saying?

For years, I’ve wondered why I’ve had such a difficult time meeting people in passing. It’s rare that I meet someone for the first time when I’m on my feet. Most of the time, even when I look at someone and smile, I don’t get more than a polite hello.

Until just recently, I theorized that my difficulty in getting a friendly response was due to the fact that the way I walked made people uncomfortable. For readers of this blog who haven’t seen me walk: picture Frankenstein with convulsions. My gait is the opposite of fluid; while some parts of my body go in the right direction, others are not on board. I generally get where I want to go, but the trip is typically a struggle, and I’m not comfortable or particularly happy on my feet, even if I force myself to smile.

That’s why I’m not a social magnet on my feet. It’s not that others have negative reactions to my gait; it’s that my body is telling them to back off. I might think that I want social interaction, but my body is over-ruling that thought and saying something entirely different.

I recently listened to a seminar by ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro. Navarro made a living by interpreting not only verbal communication, but non-verbal communication – what people say with their body, not their words – as well. His job was to get information from people who generally didn’t want to share that information, and in many cases, actively suppressed it. Helping him overcome those obstacles was a finely honed skillset that allow him to know what they didn’t. He knew that, no matter how good his subjects were at telling lies, their bodies couldn’t lie.

He watched to see which way subjects pointed their feet when they sat down, what they did with their legs and arms, and how they breathed. If they touched their nose or ears, or rubbed their elbows, he noticed. He observed their pacifying behaviors, like tapping their feet or fingers, or licking their lips. All of these unintentional movements helped him understand when a subject was under stress, and how much stress they felt. He used that knowledge to manipulate them into comfort, so they began to let down their guard and reveal more than they intended.

Of course, Navarro devoted considerable effort to develop these skills, and his conclusions were based on validated scientific data. Most people don’t study body language to this degree, but that doesn’t make them ignorant.

From the time we are infants, unable to communicate verbally, we learn to communicate with our bodies. Watch a skilled mother pick up an infant in distress. She immediately makes eye contact, widens her eyes, raises her eyebrows and smiles. The child recognizes comfort in these gestures, and will return the expressions in an attempt to bond.

This sort of communication is in effect between grown humans as well, but we usually talk right over it. When we approach our boss asking for a raise, we subconsciously read his body language, looking for cues to his mood. Typically, we don’t consciously interpret the body language of others – we react at a subconscious level.

That’s what’s happening when I walk through a crowded room of strangers. My thoughts are focused on my destination, rather than the opportunity to meet someone interesting, and I’m worried about obstacles, some of which are people. I might feign a smile, but my body language is giving up my true thoughts. Rather than saying, “this is a friendly guy who is open to conversation,” my body is saying, “he isn’t very comfortable and really doesn’t want to be bothered.”

I realize this now, and don’t even really try meeting people when I’m on my feet. At cocktail parties, I’ll find a bar stool or make myself as comfortable as possible by finding something secure to lean against. When I do this, I find that more people approach me, and I have better conversations.

What is your body saying about you? More importantly, are your thoughts consistent with your intentions? If they’re not, your body is giving you up.

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