Psychospiritual Aspects of Sense of Self in Women with Physical Disabilities
Nosek, Margaret A., Hughes, Rosemary B., The Journal of Rehabilitation
When asked for the main lesson learned from our first study of women with physical disabilities (Nosek et al., 1997), we came up with the following statement, "If you truly believe you are a woman of value, you gain tremendous strength to forge your way through the most stubborn of barriers." This theme was reconfirmed in subsequent qualitative studies conducted by the Center for Research on Women with Disabilities. In statistical analyses of survey data "sense of self" has also proven to be significant, even more than severity of disability, in predicting outcomes in women's lives. For example, whether the woman had slight difficulty in walking or used a power wheelchair with a ventilator, her concept of her value was much more important than the level of her disability in predicting satisfaction with relationships and her practice of healthy behaviors. In a philosophical framework, sense of self can be interpreted as a construct with strongly spiritual dimensions and the strength that comes from it can be interpreted as having divine origins. This paper reviews findings on self-esteem, self in connection to others, and self-efficacy among women with disabilities. Expressions of spirituality have emerged in several of the studies we have conducted, and this paper also explores spirituality as a dimension of sense of self for women with physical disabilities.
The concept of self is discussed extensively in the most ancient and essential philosophy of India, Vedanta. It holds that there is an unmanifest Universal force called Brahman. Catholics refer to this same force as the Holy Spirit; Quakers call it the Light. When this force becomes manifest in living beings, Vedantists call it the Atman, or Self. Once embodied, however, ego develops and awareness becomes entangled in the web of maya, the illusions of worldly existence, the play of forces on the conscious plane. At this stage it becomes the self with a small "s" and becomes unaware of the Light within. According to the Vedantic scriptures (the Vedas, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita) the goal of living is to become aware of the Self, the Light within, and become one with it.
Developing a sense of Self, therefore, can be seen as an essentially spiritual journey. The world's scriptures, prophets, spiritual traditions, and religious institutions offer many paths that can be followed by individuals who seek to make this journey. Developing a sense of self with a small "s", on the other hand, is a more worldly endeavor, involving sorting out the complex web of physical and psychological genetic predispositions, personality types, ego characteristics, personal histories, interpersonal relationships, and societal and cultural expectations. The intermixture of the two, understanding the self in the Self, is the underlying premise that will guide the interpretation of research findings presented later in this paper.
Sense of self in the psychology literature has been examined as a multifaceted construct, including three elements of particular interest in our studies--self-esteem, self in connection to others, and self-efficacy. Self-esteem is defined as personal self-regard (Bednar & Peterson, 1995), attitude toward one's self (Rosenberg, 1965), and the evaluation of one's self-concept as positive or negative, neutral, or ambiguous (Frey & Carlock, 1989). It is how we assess our worth and competence, in terms of how we think, feel, and act (Leary & Downs, 1995). For persons with disabilities, the discrimination and prejudice we experience conveys the message that we are devalued and unworthy, messages that may become internalized, becoming incorporated into our definitions and evaluations of ourselves (Coleman, 1986; Goffman, 1963; Jones et al., 1984). For women, who are socialized to award relationships a central role in their self-definition, this message of disrespect may be especially invalidating and damaging to their sense of self. …