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Understanding and Coping with Stigma of Disabilities

So, How to Cope?

Most people make the mistake that the place to start is with society. “If society just accepted _______, my life would be alright.” That statement is very true, but is it realistic? If a person is already familiar with your condition and has social experience with others with the same condition, that person will likely be accepting and comfortable from the outset. However, the world is populated by hundreds of different physical and behavioral disorders - and each person with one is unique. The chances you will encounter only people experienced in your situation is remote unless you hide in your comfort zone. The burden will be on you to make others comfortable with your condition - or the burden will be on your family and friends if you cannot do it for yourself. The question is how do you - or they - get started?

Reality Check

Having a stigma can feel like an overwhelming experience. The stigma colors everything. It affects your social relationships, it affects your opportunities, it affects your identity, it affects your whole life. At least that is the way it feels - and we let it! Think about it. Is the stigma all you really are? Does stigma make you male or female? Does stigma make you a son or daughter? Does stigma make you 10 years old or 40 years old? Does stigma brush your teeth in the morning? Does stigma cause you to choose a bagel over toast in the morning? Does stigma cause you to watch that particular TV program? Did stigma choose your hairstyle? The fact is as a human being you are very much more than a stigma. You have a personality. You have likes and dislikes. You have dreams and fears. You love others and you are loved by others. All of those things make up who you are. And when you think carefully about it, the stigma is, at best, only a very small part of what makes you a unique and interesting person. So instead of presenting yourself in front of others as some particular stigma, present yourself as the complex person that you are. To do that you must do the most important thing - see yourself as a complex and interesting person whose total being is far more than some stigma.

The problem most people have is when they have a stigma, they begin seeing themselves as that stigma. They become obsessed by it. Their actions and their social contacts are all defined by the stigma. The stigma gets magnified in the person’s mind until that is the only part of one’s self that she sees. What about all of the other parts? There are a ton of them! Why doesn’t the person focus on being a good chess player, or a loving family member, or her attractive eyes? If you are going to fill your mind with an image of yourself, pick something positive! I can guarantee you there is a lot there to choose from. And I recommend that you make up your self-image from many things, and not just positive things. Not one of us is perfect on this earth. We all have our failings and sometimes our failings are the key to what endears us most to those around us. Probably everyone would find a perfect person a complete bore (and how would we go about socializing with the perfect person?). Sure, you have cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, or something; but such things just round you out as a unique person who has many other qualities. Accept that unique mixture that is you and immediately others will be more in a position to accept the whole you, too.

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