Is there anyone among us (those who have experienced a brain injury) who is not sensitive to what other people say regarding our injury? It is a fact that we are possessive and emotionally connected to our brain injuries; and with good reason. We are understandably sensitive (some would say, hyper sensitive) when others make offhanded comments or broad statements that can cause us to feel defensive, not understood or trivialized.
Although the person making these comments may feel they are just innocent observations, we hear them as assaults on our integrity, our strength and our motivation.
So, how should we respond?
To simplify things, let’s say there are two ways we might respond. We could say nothing and stew inside, or we could attempt to explain ourselves by sputtering out some kind of emotional response; even as our face turns red and we feel like we’re about to burst a blood vessel.
If we take the “high” road and don’t respond, we’re usually left with a mind full of conflicted and angry thoughts. Then we beat ourselves up mercilessly for being this way and for not responding.
If we choose to respond directly to their words, and we try to explain oursaelves, we are choosing to engage in a battle we can’t win.
In order to respond properly, we need to be driven, not by the desire to correct them, or to prove ourselves, but by the need to claim our personal space and retain our dignity. We should not respond directly to what was said because then we are giving validity to their words and making them important. Instead, we should respond to what is behind the words, or what is driving them to say what they said, and that way we avoid having to explain ourselves. Attempting to explain puts us on the defensive, as though we have done something wrong.
We need to understand there is no way the enormity of the effects of a brain injury can be explained in a way that makes sense to anyone, and we are never going to make sense to anyone who is not inclined to take the time to actively listen. Plus, you don’t want to put yourself in the position of having to convince somebody, because right from the beginning you’re putting yourself in a position of weakness, and you risk coming across as a whiner and a person with problems.
I’ll give you an example of something that happened to me. About 10 years ago I was in a cigar bar, and started speaking with a middle-aged woman and her husband. She was asking me all kinds of questions, and somehow the conversation ended up on my brain injury, and the fact that I was on disability. She looked at me and with a smile said something like, “You did a good job.”
To me, she was inferring that I was really okay and had somehow wrangled my way onto disability. Not knowing what else to do, I stood up and left, feeling edgy and discombobulated. As I drove away, I began fuming over what she had said and how I had “let” her drive me away. I decided to go back.
She looked surprised when I opened the door and came in. I walked over to her and said, “That was a pretty stupid thing to say.”
I fully expected to get punched out by her husband, but he surprised me by extending his hand. I shook it and walked out. Although I didn’t directly respond to her statement, I responded to her. In my mind, the situation was resolved and I was at peace.
Let’s look at this from its beginning. I was not going to sit there and argue with her about why I was disabled. I don’t believe in having to justify myself to anyone. Having a brain injury is a truth that stands on its own, and having to prove to someone that I am disabled is beneath me; there is no strength or power in that. Besides, it really didn’t matter what she thought or why she thought it.
The way I responded to her showed how I need to treat myself. Making sure we are being taken care of as human beings starts with us, and self respect begins when we don’t engage in situations like this; even when our emotions are screaming to engage. We are the ones from which the dignity and strength needs to originate, and the ones who need to show we are worthy of respect by how we handle ourselves.
When all is said and done, our words cannot convince anybody of anything. How we act and what we stand for will do all the teaching and talking.
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