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What congenital visible differences can teach us about resilience

Feb 22, 2024

Visible differences can manifest from a whole range of issues such as birthmarks, hemangiomas, growths, scarring, hair loss, skin conditions, amputations, diseases, cleft lip, etc, and can be congenital i.e., present at or before birth, or happen later as a result of an accident, injury, deliberate harm, or surgery. 

Many of the differences, especially those we're presented with before birth i.e., congenitally, are not necessarily something we can typically change too easily even if we wanted to. Others due to accidents, deliberate harm, or having an illness, disease, or following surgery may be fixable to varying degrees of success with cosmetic or other forms of constructive surgery.

Being visibly different can be very tricky, to say the least, unless we can learn to develop the skills to navigate the social world armed with psychological protection and ammunition to not be offended and affected by the reactions and responses from others. 

If we lived in a social soup full of just non-humans i.e., other animals, things could be very different. People, however, have perceptions, judgments, opinions, beliefs, biases, cultural expectations & norms, etc, about how things should and ought to be. Furthermore, these can be based purely on nothing more than the way we look and can cause, deliberate or incidental harm and distress as a result!

What is well-noted in the literature is that those of us born with congenital visible differences are typically more equipped to deal with reactions; good, bad, or indifferent, from others, based on the way we look. Having a congenital visible difference means we are typically exposed to the social soup of all types of social responses long before we become aware of what they are or what to do with them, and before we start to internalize anything negatively connected with them.

For example, I was never aware of others looking at my right eye growing up, I wasn't even aware I couldn't use it due to permanent scarring until later. My other eye learned to quickly adapt and compensate so well that I never needed the right one. So I wasn't ever uncomfortable in public because of it. We also didn't have child-friendly mirrors in our house growing up, so I never got to see the differences between my eyes to become bothered about them.

Once, it seems, we become bothered by others' reactions, we mind-read others' thoughts and catastrophize what they might be thinking of us, and we start our journey into self-consciousness and introspection. This typically triggers a whole range of social-psychological phenomena that don't necessarily leave us feeling or thinking good about ourselves or the things that we do as a result of being that way.

For example, we may start to avoid people and places, become socially isolated, or cover up or camouflage who we are to avoid stares, glares, and anticipated awkward questions. This typically in turn makes us start to feel more fearful about going out and more avoidant, leaving us feeling low in confidence and self-esteem, depressed and anxious, and we may lose out on opportunities and social connections as a result of it. 

Whilst others' responses are not easily changeable, we can take a leaf out of the book of a congenitally visibly different child and live life through their lens. We can learn the pre-verbal skills and behaviours of not knowing, not predicting, not caring, not reacting, and not anticipating, and having the gift of the freshness of appreciation where we can expect nothing from others in either direction who choose to be looking our way. 


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