A Few Words to Young Adults with Disabilities, and Without

No, you are not perfect and nor should you hope to be.

Posted Jun 16, 2017

  • It is not your job to be perfect. Are you hurting anyone? No? Then, as the Hippocratic Oath asserts, you are doing fine. Adulthood is messy — for everyone.
  • No one is judging your abilities and disabilities as harshly as you are. Developmental psychologists like to talk about David Elkind's concept of “imaginary audience,” the tendency of adolescents (and occasionally adults) to see themselves as objects of other people’s attention and evaluation, usually their peers’. However, most people are so wrapped up in their own thoughts and feelings that they’re barely paying attention to anyone besides themselves.                                                               
  • Stop comparing yourself to others. Your friends and siblings have different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes runners who are first out of the gate slow down or veer off course as they get ever closer to the finish line. As Dr. Karen Arnold has found, even high school valedictorians typically don’t remain at the head of the class.
  • Act confidently, even if you don’t feel that way. Smile, stand straight with shoulders back, and use theater skills for everyday performances. Where the body goes, the mind will often follow. In 1884, the psychologist and philosopher William James noted this often counterintuitive process. He believed that emotions arise out of the bodily actions we take in response to events in our daily lives. More recently, a research paper by Strack, Martin, and Stepper (1998), that is now considered classic, experimentally illustrated the facial feedback hypothesis, which states that facial expressions such as smiles can positively influence emotional experience.
  • Do not be embarrassed to ask questions, even of your college professors who probably aren't that scary and who don't want you to fail, and work supervisors whose job it usually is to help you perform your best, making their own lives easier. Asking follow-up questions if you are unsure shows that you care, that you want to learn, and that you really want to correctly understand the other person and his or her expectations. Ignorance is not bliss and is less often forgiven.  
  • When you start criticizing yourself or personalizing a bad situation, think:  Would you talk that way to your friends? Would you let them put themselves down as you do to yourself? I am certain that the answer is “no” and that you would likely try positive reframing with them. Reframing, sometimes called “cognitive restructuring," aims to replace negative appraisals of challenging situations with realistic but unthreatening thoughts. The concept was given this picturesque label because a poor frame can make any painting look bad while a beautiful frame can improve a mediocre picture.
  • Here is one example of positive reframing relevant to this vacation season:  Let’s say that when you travel, you forget to pack your medications. Your first thoughts may include, “This is a catastrophe” or “I am such a loser for forgetting!” Stop! These negative thoughts (aka "freaking out") will only exacerbate the situation. Instead, try positive reframing, such as: In the United States and Canada, chain pharmacies retain prescription records and usually can order at least a week’s worth of medications. If you traveled out of the country, there are usually local medical clinics with sympathetic personnel; how interesting it can be to experience another nation’s health system, whose medical clinic waiting rooms include a few tourists who made the exact same mistake (true story...).  
  • And lastly, don't forget to say "thank you" to anyone who gives you a hand-up, a compliment, or, obviously, a material gift. As my daughter as a 5-year-old trick-or-treater would say to her neighbors who just handed her candy, "Thank you and please come again!"


Arnold, K. D. (1995).  Lives of promise:  What becomes of high school valedictorians: A fourteen-year study of achievement and life choices.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.  

Elkind, D. (1967).  Egocentrism in adolescence. Child Development, 38(4), 1025–1034.

Strack, F., Martin, L., & Stepper, S.  (1988).  Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54, 768-777.