Confidence is important for emotional wellbeing, and it’s a very common challenge both in and outside of the disability community. However, people with disabilities may feel stuck in a cycle of zapped self-efficacy due to the experience of disability.
Disability has the potential to zap your confidence in more than one way. It may be tough to maintain confidence when, for example, you have a particularly rough day with your symptoms, experience invalidation from other people, or you are no longer able to complete tasks you used to due to new or progressive disability.
Confidence is an especially important tool for those with disabilities, because it bolsters resilience. However, disability, whether temporary or chronic, can zap the sense of agency necessary for confidence and resilience. This can lead to heightened perceptions of one’s own limitations, and a downward self-esteem spiral.
We need to break this cycle! Solidify your self esteem with the facts, strategies, perspective shifts, and re-frames below.
Why does confidence matter?
The concept of confidence can include a lack of shame, as well as your sense of agency or control over your life. Both of these parts of confidence impact our relationships and emotional wellbeing; and both can be impacted by disability.
Why does confidence matter as much as it does, especially if you have a disability? Confidence doesn’t just affect the way that you feel about yourself. It impacts how well you bounce back from stress, conflict, and traumatic experiences. Research also connects lack of confidence and low self-esteem to a higher risk of depression and anxiety symptoms, trouble sleeping, and a number of other potential consequences. Self esteem struggles can make it difficult to stand up or advocate for ourselves, invite positive social connections into our lives, spend time with other people, and so on.
So, use the discussion below to explore your experience with disability and confidence, plus find solutions to feel more empowered.
How does your disability make you feel limited or less confident?
Read the following list and see if you face one of these or something similar. Then, let’s talk about it.
- Emotion regulation
- Feeling broken
- Feeling undesirable
- Rejection sensitivity
- The burden of pain
- Struggle to care for self
- Motor skills
- Autonomic dysfunction
- Executive function
- Learning disability
- Verbal, visual, or auditory processing
- Fragmented thoughts and/or consciousness
Next, consider the extent to which this limitation causes you to judge yourself (or expect judgment). In reality, are these limitations inherently “bad”? Do they make you inherently less worthy as a person?
Probably not, even though it feels like you’d be seen that way sometimes. Rejection sensitivity is very real, as are difficulties with memory, speech struggles, or any other item on the list above. These all certainly impact your life. But the key is to challenge the idea that these traits reflect on your worth.
Disability itself is human. You are not bad for the situation you’re in, for experiencing physical pain that affects your emotional health, or for struggling with emotional disability. And none of the above determine your value as a person.
Then, when it comes to issues such as desirability, consider challenging how desirability functions in society, and whether you’re on board with that–regardless of your disability.
Even if you were undesirable, does it make sense how our society determines desirability? Do you truly want to be (or be with) someone who holds “basic” ideas about desirability? Or instead, might you want to be with someone who challenges the norm and forges their own ideas about what matters? Because those people exist–there are plenty of us!
Similarly, consider how your self-judgments would apply, by extension, to others with your same disability. Would you apply these self-judgments to others? No? When you project those unkind thoughts onto yourself, you also project them onto the people around you!
If you can see others with your disability in a positive light, then who’s to say that you shouldn’t also feel empowered, worthy, and confident even with what you’re going through?
Ways to maintain positive self regard and a sense of agency
Empowerment is the way to confidence despite disability. Some things, you can’t change, but you can always own them. Which, in turn, might stop them from owning you. Here are some tips to keep disability from zapping your confidence.
1. Make confidence unconditional
The rhetoric that disability is a “gift in disguise” can be frustrating at times. Particularly, in contexts where disability is used as inspiration for people who are able-bodied: “if they can do it, anyone can!” one might say, perhaps not realizing that this is not at all the case the vast majority of the time.
Disability–even if two people have the same disability–affects everyone differently. Also, your worth isn’t tied to what you can do.
One thing we know about disability is that anyone, anywhere can become disabled at any time. A lot of people without disabilities don’t want to admit this to themselves. Typically, this is rooted in ableism. With this fact in mind, one of the best ways to achieve greater confidence whether you do or don’t have a disability is to make it unconditional.
Try this emotional exercise:
Think of someone you love unconditionally; perhaps, a child or a friend. Alongside this unconditional love, you likely also feel that their worth is unconditional and that they deserve to feel good about themselves.
There are some things we can control, like being the kindest person you can be, but there are a lot of things we can’t. It’s an ongoing process to accept things outside of your control–but it’s necessary.
2. Cater confidence-building tactics to you
In many articles about confidence, you’ll find confidence-building activities like volunteer work, goal-setting, and physical activity. It’s true that these things can support confidence and emotional health at times, but what if you can’t do most, or all, of the things that someone suggests for confidence building?
Pick the ones that you can engage in. This could mean positive affirmations, positive social interaction, hobbies and activities that do meet your abilities, and so on. And perhaps more importantly, know that the things you can’t do aren’t the only options.
Here’s one exercise to try:
Take a moment to look at your positive traits. You can take note of them internally, or you can write them out. Even the knowledge you gain from disability, if applicable, is something that you can feel good about. You may have learned to be more empathetic or to refrain from judging other people. Those are deeply beautiful traits, and if you carry those qualities, it has likely positively affected the world around you more than you may know.
Positive affirmations, too (which you may be able to find inspiration for in disability quotes and from disability activists) are something you can use no matter where you’re at.
3. Challenge shame
Ask yourself why you don’t feel confident. Are there specific thoughts or themes that tend to come up when you feel this way? While it may seem counterintuitive, this introspection can help you get to where you want to be. Why? Because it identifies the root of the problem.
Sometimes, though not always, shame can play a role. Examples can include
- shame in how we look,
- shame in what we can or can’t do,
- shame that comes from comparison,
- shame around needing to ask for help with a task or in general,
- shame from a moment of high vulnerability or embarrassment,
- shame from feeling like a burden.
If any of these are true for you, disability or not, it can be important to challenge shame:
- “Would I want someone else in my shoes to feel shame?”
- “What influences my shame? Does that align with my beliefs?”
This process of challenging unhelpful or illogical thought processes forms the core of the cognitive reframing process.
Reframing your shame can heighten confidence long-term, as seen in studies on confidence and cognitive-behavioral therapy. It doesn’t mean you’ll be confident all of the time, of course–no one is. But, the power to modify thoughts and make them more adaptive–whatever that means to you–is a valuable practice.
4. Find people who get it
A little understanding can go a long way, but how do you find it? While it’s not an extensive list, here are some ideas:
- Follow disability activists online. This is an excellent way to find representation, which can be highly cathartic, even if the bond is a parasocial one.
- Join a support group, whether for your specific disability or a general disability support group.
- If applicable, look for accurate representation for your disability. Books, podcasts by people who live with the same disability, and so on, may be options.
- Use online forums. Again, these can be for general disability or a specific disability you have.
When you enter these spaces, you might even discover people who are on the same journey to build confidence. Seeing other people’s successes, which may look like confident use of a mobility aid, the confidence to stand up for oneself and their needs as they relate to disability, or the confidence to use self-compassion, may help you do those things yourself.
5. Talk about the hard times
No matter how solid your confidence is, it really is true that no one feels 100% confident all the time. Even if we don’t realize it in other people, low self-esteem and low confidence can be hidden.
It’s important to have a place where you can talk about the hard times, both related confidence and disability itself. This can look like a peer support network, like Supportiv, a friend, a support group, as mentioned above, or another space where you can talk about what’s on your mind.
Disability can teach us a lot, but the battles are very real, and they are there. You deserve emotional validation and the ability to release how you feel when things aren’t the best.
Life is too short to let not-so-steady confidence hold you back. When you build confidence and self-esteem, you may notice perks like an increase in happiness, self-assuredness, and stronger interpersonal bonds. Choose people who cheer you on, and don’t be afraid to reach out to one of our peer support volunteers if you need help.