Words Matter

picture of mural on wall with two hands pointing to words "The Best Gift is You!" in the lower foreground is a woman with a stroller walking by. Photo by Dakota Corbin on Unsplash

by Sharon Hughey

Editor’s note: May is Mental Health Awareness month as well as Older Americans Month. VisionAware created you a series of posts and a webinar videos, Coping with Your Feelings about Vision Loss, related to these topics.

As a child, I remember hearing the saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The meaning of that phrase was that words can never break me because they don’t cause physical pain, so I can choose not to let them bother me. But how many of us know that words do cause emotional pain, and influence our level of confidence and self-esteem, even when we try our best to ignore them? 

I remember sitting in a car probably about the time I was eight. My parents had gone into the store. Some kids came along, threw dog feces (poop) through the car window, and called me retarded. While I knew better, that stung. Years later, while attending a rehabilitation program for the blind, a rehabilitation counseling intern told me that I’d never make it in graduate school. Part of the energy that kept me going through my Ph.D. program came from my desire to prove her wrong! So, in this case, negative words were turned into a strong desire and motivation to succeed! 

The words said to us by others and the words we tell ourselves really do matter. We use words to form impressions and perceptions. For example, the words you read or heard about people who are blind or visually impaired may have shaped your expectations for what was possible when you began to lose your sight. You may have been influenced by assumptions you’ve made based upon your knowledge and experience, or lack thereof. 

Cognitive Behavior Therapy 

One premise in Cognitive Behavior Therapy is that people form beliefs about themselves, their world, and their future. Let’s look at how this premise might relate to losing your vision. 

Yourself:  If you believe negative ideas like you can’t learn new ways of doing things, or you aren’t very smart, or you lack courage or confidence, those beliefs will influence how you go about, or don’t go about, adjusting to your new normal. 

The World:  If you believe that there is no one who can help you, you probably won’t look for much help. If you are convinced that the world is a dangerous place, you won’t venture out of your environment, even if you have the right tools and training.  

Your Future: Finally, if you are convinced that the future will always be as frightening as the present, or that you will never adjust, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy for you. 

Cognitive Distortions 

In his books, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Book, and the Feeling Good Handbook, Dr. David Burns discusses cognitive distortions we all use that can mess up our thinking and result in less of an ability to adjust, cope, and solve problems. Here are some examples. 

Over-Generalization–making major interpretations based on one or a few events. I felt awkward using my cane walking down the hallway. Therefore, I’ll always feel awkward using a cane.

Catastrophizing – Focusing on the Worse Possible Outcome of a Situation: I’m sure I’d get hit by a car, or would fail the training, so there is no use even trying to get a guide dog

All-or-Nothing Thinking – Thinking in Absolutes: 

  • I’ll never learn to do this. 
  • I always make a mess of things. 
  • Things will never get any better. 

Choosing a Therapist

If you find yourself struggling with thoughts like these, perhaps seeing a cognitive behavior therapist might help. But regardless of the theoretical orientation of your therapist, it’s important to choose one with whom you are comfortable. In most cases, you will not be able to see a therapist who is visually impaired, or who has another disability. However, there are a number of pointers that can guide you toward a good match.  

  • Ask your therapist how much experience they have had working with people with disabilities.  
  • Find out how comfortable they feel about working with a person who is losing vision. If they don’t indicate that they have a fairly good comfort level, move on.  
  • You also want a therapist who is open to admitting they need to learn about vision loss and the adjustment process involved with losing vision.  A teachable therapist can get on board pretty quickly if they consult with someone who is comfortable working with people who are blind or visually impaired. Don’t feel like you need to be their teacher. While they want to know how you experience life, it can be exhausting to be the one who educates all the time. Therapy needs to be about you, not about them. However, if they express a genuine interest in your feelings, experiences, and how you see life, they may be a good match. 
  • When you talk with them, do you feel understood? Cared for? Do you sense warmth and empathy, rather than pity? 

Trust your gut. If you do not feel comfortable with them, particularly after a few sessions, it’s probably not the right fit for you.