As I see it, there are two types of people who are wheelchair-bound (assuming paralyzed). There are those, such as myself, who had pretty much an entire life prior, and those who had the majority or entirety of their adult/child development in a wheelchair.
Within these two high-level categories, there are sub-category variations.
- What physical functions exist – such as arm movement, abdominal control, etc.
- How it happened – mainly, by a personal decision or outside force + if it was particularly painful.
- What type of life you had prior (if there was a prior)
- The environment – literally the part of earth you live/grew up in
- The people around you, i.e. the support system
- The type of injury – complete or incomplete spinal cord injury (meaning severed spinal cord or not), or some other cause.
All of these variations make it difficult to give exact guidance for self-acceptance because every variation means a new path.
My goal here is to help you begin a path toward self-acceptance and to articulate clearly. I’ll try to make it as applicable to every variation I can think of.
To start, let’s clearly define what is meant by self-acceptance. Ok, let’s come back to defining “self,” and start with acceptance. In this context, I think we want acceptance to be permanent. Not fluid, not changing. It’s a belief – yes. So acceptance is a belief, it’s something we acknowledge in the best way. “I accept X” may not mean that I think it’s perfect, but I believe it to be what it is, I acknowledge it as it is, and so I accept it – to be true, or if it’s a gift, to allow it to become part of my life (a blanket or something).
Now when we say self, what is our “self”? It’s a few things. Let’s list some ways to think about it:
- The self is my identity – I am a person who… (does…, thinks…, says…, looks like…, perceives the world to be…, believes…, values…, etc.)
- The self is my consciousness – chop away everything except my brain, I am here in my mind experiencing what’s outside my mind.
- I am not what I think I am, and I am not what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am. – Charles Cooley
- Similar to the first bullet but the source of the identity comes from without, not within.
- The self is the conscious experience in the present moment only
That’s enough for now, you can choose one of these, or create your own version of what is self.
When we put it together, we get this: I acknowledge who I know myself to be at this moment.
Sadly, this is a lot more fluid than I would like, who we know ourselves to be can change quite a bit depending on what we’re thinking of. I may not know myself to be a writer (blogger if you will) until I’m consciously thinking about how I have a website and I write for it. Because of this, if we’re in a bad situation, we very well may not accept ourselves at that moment. Now I feel like we’re going backward. Perhaps not, accepting who we are in each moment should be different, and we shouldn’t always accept who we are all the time, otherwise, we wouldn’t have the desire to improve.
Alright, now we’ve got two categories of self-acceptance – the moments where we are content with who we are in that moment and the moments we are not. This is good, let’s work with this.
How about moment-acceptance? And by moment, let’s just say 1-5 seconds. Every moment we’re in, no matter what the state of our consciousness is, there is literally nothing else we can do other than accept it to be exactly what it is (to us). If you’re in a wheelchair and you fall over in the middle of a crowd and feel embarrassed. Damn, maybe you’re embarrassed, but that is the exact moment you’re in, and the next moment you may be getting up, and the next moment you go continue on. We can take a moment to think about what to do the next moment, and that’s a good thing to do, but while you’re doing that thing, you still must accept that moment of doing.
Alright, so we have moment-acceptance, and it’s fair to say that in every moment, we ARE the moment. That moment, as we perceive it, exists in our heads and always includes us. When we die, the world dies (as perceived by us). There isn’t a choice when it comes to accepting the moment for what it is, and since we are within that moment we must accept ourselves as we are. Quod erat demonstrandum. I make my point.
What about the moments that we don’t want to accept? This is the root of what we mean by self-acceptance. To minimize the moments where we are unhappy with ourselves or the situation we’re in. It’s easy to be self-acceptant when the situation is good, but it’s hard when the situation brings forth every possible issue that being in a wheelchair has to offer.
One of the best ways to do this is to find the cause of these moments and eradicate it. In our case, this would mean having a significant recovery from a spinal cord injury. If we found out this is possible, then self-acceptance for being in a wheelchair would be known to be temporary, and a lot easy to accept.
If you’re cold and turn on the heat, accepting the cold is easier because you know it’s ending. But what if the cold is indefinite? Get a big jacket.
What is this big jacket?
Well, this is where it gets very personal. Learning when we feel poorly and find it hard to have self-acceptance in a moment is the most important first step. When you are in these moments, this is when you say to yourself “I don’t accept myself as I am right now.” Perhaps this is the falling in a crowd situation. It’s fine to not accept yourself at that moment, but only if you’re going to do something about it. Wear a seatbelt for the wheelchair more often. Get fit/strong so you can have better balance or get back into the chair on your own.
If there were one thing more than anything else to help with self-acceptance, it’s being around others who accept you but also encourage you to improve. What they will show you is that they don’t even care about some of the things you’re self-conscious about, but at the same time, will encourage you to grow beyond it.
In conclusion, if you’re in a wheelchair and trying to find self-acceptance, this is what I’ve tried to teach you:
- Understand what is meant by self-acceptance. If it’s not clearly defined, you may never achieve it. If you still feel like something isn’t right, now you know that self-acceptance is not the place to continue looking.
- Know that you don’t always have to accept every moment BUT that is a sign to change something, not to complain and sulk without taking action to change.
- If you’re unable to accept something that also CAN NOT change, then you must change yourself to make it enjoyable, or accept it.
- Self-acceptance in a wheelchair is hard, if the injury is later in life, this will require an identity change on some level. However, there are many opportunities to continue, say basketball, after a spinal cord injury.
- Surround yourself with supportive friends and family who accept you on a level deeper than the physical. This will help you understand that your identity is MORE than being in a wheelchair. For example, the intellect does not care if you’re sitting or walking.
- The opposite of self-acceptance is self-consciousness i.e. what are you insecure about?
- If you struggle with self-acceptance and the root cause is insecurity, get very clear with yourself about where this is coming from. If you’re insecure about how you look, that is another way of saying you care about how you think people judge your appearance. This can be a drive for change, or an epiphany to stop caring what others think.
- An example here is being short and obese. You can’t get taller, but you can get fit.