According to Leon F. Seltzer, a psychologist and author who has written extensively on self-acceptance, children accept themselves only to the degree they feel accepted by their parents.
Unfortunately, Seltzer says, children learn when their behaviors aren’t acceptable to their parents and then perceive themselves as inadequate.
Bill Newroe, who spent his career working with people with disabilities as an assistive technologist, experienced this firsthand in the 1950s, when there wasn’t wide awareness of disabilities.
“My parents really didn’t treat me any different from my brother at first,” he said.
“According to my mom, I’d crawl with my left hand in a fist and even got up and walked OK, so they didn’t really notice my disability,” he added.
Newroe had a stroke at birth, but it wasn’t until he was a toddler that his parents found out he had hemiplegia, — in his case, left-side paralysis — due to brain injury from the stroke.
“I was labeled with cerebral palsy,” he said.
Perinatal stroke is a common cause of hemiplegic cerebral palsy and, according to the National Institutes of Health, the rate is high, similar to the rates for stroke among the elderly.
Still, except for a slight limp with his left leg, Newroe said, his disability wasn’t very noticeable — he could use his right hand to do nearly everything.
“My father was a chaplain in the Air Force, and we moved a lot, and my parents were busy and didn’t pay much attention to us kids,” he said. “But when I started school, everything changed. I think my parents were embarrassed for me.”
Classmates would stare at Newroe or even giggle, he said. “I had a tendency to hold up my left hand in a fist while walking,” he said, “so my mom or dad would most always hold on to it, pulling it down, so no one would see.”
When kids laughed at him, he said, “I tried to laugh with them, and I would compensate by showing off my drawings and reading abilities or tell rhymes and jokes to fit in. I would hide my hand under the desk, but when I was on the playground I couldn’t hide it. “Often I was excluded from physical activities like dancing and sports,” Newroe added, “and because of my self-consciousness with my hand, even when I could participate, my parents made excuses for me. …
“My sense of self was pretty low and by junior high, my grades dropped off and my behavior became more outlandish,” Newroe said. “I was trying to distract from my disability and get acceptance from others. I think I was afraid of doing something wrong in school and I wanted to protect myself.”
But when he reached high school, he said, he realized he wasn’t the only student with a disability, “and some of the students had problems way beyond mine.”
He started hanging out with other students with disabilities because he could relate to them, he said. “That was when I started accepting myself.”
In college, he started writing, taking photographs and making films, which helped improve his self-confidence, Newroe said.
Dan McAdams, a Northwestern University psychology professor, explains that effect: “The stories we tell ourselves about our lives don’t just shape our personalities — they are our personalities,” he says.
In his book, The Art and Science of Personality Development, McAdams presents evidence on his theory of how people come to be who they are. Stories are how we make sense of ourselves, McAdams says.
Psychologist Jeffrey Guterman has a similar point of view. He writes in an online article for Psych Central, “Self-Acceptance is the Key to a Healthier Self-Image,” that a starting point for self-acceptance is recognizing we largely create our own feelings, good or bad.
The key to a healthy self-image is self-acceptance, not self-esteem, Guterman says, because we are all imperfect and therefore cannot always do well and win the approval of other people.
Andy Winnegar has spent his career in rehabilitation and is based in Santa Fe as a training associate for the Southwest ADA Center. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.