The saboteur may be you

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on January 24, 2017 # Quality of Life Grant Spotlight

If you are of the male persuasion, as I assume many of you are, you may have heard about but probably didn’t get around to reading a mega-bestseller of a few years ago called “Lean In,” by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, one of most powerful woman in American business, if not American life. The book grew out of a Ted Talk entitled “Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.”

I think I could make the same talk, hit upon many of the same points and call it, “Why We Have Too Few Disabled Leaders.”

Ms. Sandberg’s talk and book focus on one large subject: not women’s liberation, but women’s self-liberation, or more to the point, self-defeat – how women in the workplace unintentionally hold themselves back with ingrained attitudes and behaviors that sabotage their expectations. The book struck a nerve – it sold over a million copies and engendered websites and support groups, not to mention some nasty comments from hardcore feminists.

The opposite of lean in is to lean back, or remain removed with what is going on in front of you. Wait until you are spoken to. Thinking more about being liked or accepted or not offending than succeeding. Seeing yourself as an impostor, i.e., a person who doesn’t really know what they are doing and will soon be found out and diminished.

The main question Ms. Sandberg asks is: what would you do if you weren’t afraid? Some of us wheelchair users are borderline agoraphobics or at least dedicated recluses. Agoraphobia literally means, in Greek, fear of the marketplace. Speaking for myself, it is a constant urge to stay indoors. Hell, it’s a hassle to move around, people stare and ask stupid questions, patronize and feel pity, all of which throws you off your game. You spend more time dealing with others’ projection of you than just being yourself. It’s the equivalent of women walking into a room of mostly males and feeling like they are immediately being judged for their manner, their competency, and most of all, their looks. I’ve rolled into business meetings and felt exactly the same. The looks part is not my outfit or hairstyle, since, to begin with, I don’t have any hair. It’s whether I look strange, weak, emotionally untethered, or otherwise prima facie unacceptable.

So, what are you afraid of? Probably being rejected or looking foolish. Say, you feel completely competent and prepared entering any marketplace but still feel self-conscious and out of place. You walk out berating yourself: “Boy, that was a stupid thing to say!” Or, “I ran over that guy’s foot – awful!” It’s very easy, if you are disabled, to develop a complex about such social encounters and just stay home and write Facebook entries all day. And we all know that spending untold hours surfing Facebook, looking for something to giggle at, is the pathway to glory.

So, how to get past that? It’s a creative problem and demands a creative solution. Sheryl Sandberg would say to lean in, take risks, let your personality guide the way. The actor, Chill Mitchell (“NCIS: New Orleans”), a wheelchair user who is constantly employed, has his own strategy for entering an audition for a new role. He gives himself ten seconds to say something spontaneous and hopefully engaging that immediately distracts from the fact that he is both black and disabled. Once he’s made both himself and the other party comfortable, the rest is easy.

This is a much longer discussion, but the main point is pretty simple. Stop categorizing all the external obstacles, real and imagine, that you think hold you back. Focus on the saboteur inside your brain.

By the way, everyone feels like an impostor. Just strive to be the best impostor you can be.

© 2017 Allen Rucker

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The Best Seat in the House:
How I Woke Up One Tuesday and Was Paralyzed for Life

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.