Most of the time, as a cleft lip and palate patient, I was supported and surrounded by loving friends and family, but sometimes this just wasn’t enough. The internalisation of negative thoughts and false self-images meant I sometimes isolated myself from any positivity and (quite frankly) rational truth. As I grew up and learned more about myself and the way I handled living with a cleft, I learned that I could have rational and irrational thoughts regarding my differences. However, being able to distinguish these ideas didn’t necessarily mean I could stop irrational thoughts upsetting me, it just meant I could cope with them more easily, since I was able to see them as irrational rather than true.
Why are they looking at me?
One of my biggest irrational thoughts was the slight paranoia that every time someone took a double glance in my direction that it was because of my cleft. Now this was a constant problem that I learned to overcome through rationalising and accepting the other person’s behaviour. If I felt they were looking because of my cleft, I told myself not to be ashamed – that they were curious as to why I looked different and weren’t intentionally making me self-conscious. I might stare back at the person if at the time I had the confidence to do so, to make them aware that staring at someone isn’t the best way of dealing with difference.
However, these thoughts could become irrational when I applied them to every case of someone doing a double take – it is very unlikely that every stranger who would take a second glance had even noticed my cleft, although it was hard for me to see it that way. Therefore, as I started to realise the irrationality of this belief, I would correct the negative thoughts with positivity: that person liked my shoes/dress/hair, or wanted to see how many books I’d checked out of the library, what food I was holding – they were looking for reasons that had nothing to do with my appearance, which helped me turn my irrationally negative assumption into a positive unspoken compliment.
Year 10, an out of school dance, fit boys and a group of giggling friends. This should have been a thrilling and exciting night…and it was. What I wasn’t ready for was what happened the next day. I had left half an hour before my friends because my dad was picking me up. However, in that half an hour I wasn’t there, the rest of my friends were asked to dance by the group of boys that we’d been giggling about all night. Obviously I didn’t get a look in…because I wasn’t there. Yet the next day I got it into my head that if I had been there I wouldn’t have been asked to dance anyway because of my cleft. Of course this was a totally irrational thought to have, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t cry about it, to the extent that my teacher rang home because she was so worried about me. Sometimes it’s hard to see it’s not personal (or what we’re thinking has no foundations in reality), but that doesn’t mean something can’t hurt and that you don’t deserve support in realising sometimes things happen just because they do.
Why be my friend?
This is probably one of the worst psychological effects that I experienced as a cleft patient, and one that I have only recently been able to appreciate the full extent of. I can still remember that on my darker days, I thought new people wouldn’t want to talk to me because of the way I looked. I remember feeling so trapped and frustrated that I wanted people to see ‘me’ without my complicated exterior, and I was terrified my looks would hold me back. When someone did decide to get to know me, I somehow saw it as some sort of extra kindness. Now, looking back, I can see how ludicrous and irrational this was – as friends the way you look/medical difficulties shouldn’t be (and of course isn’t) what binds you together.
A question can just be a question
Being increasingly aware of irrational thoughts really helped as I got older and started new chapters in my life. I can remember being nine years old and being asked about my cleft in the middle of the playground. I had no idea what to say and worried everyone was suddenly staring at me, which made me feel incredibly self-conscious. However, by realising that this was a very irrational thought process to have after only being asked a question once and then internalising it to mean everyone was singling me out because of my difference really helped me when years later I was asked a similar question. This time, it was when I had just started university. I was at a party and a new friend of mine asked me why my nose looked different. At first I was a bit taken a back and I put up my guard slightly, since I’d barely thought about my cleft since starting uni. The girl who had asked had done so very politely and had made it clear that if I didn’t want to talk about it, there was no pressure to. On one hand I considered the idea that all of my new friends had noticed my difference and were probably wondering what was ‘wrong’ with me (a situation that could have become very isolating), but instead I could see that that would be irrational and that this girl was merely curious. We had already got to know each other a little and I knew (in my right mind) that she was just curious. I told her there and then about my cleft. She listened attentively and we soon moved on to bigger topics of conversation. Although she’d highlighted my difference, I could see it would be irrational to suddenly feel isolated in a new social occasion where I had already been accepted for myself and made lots of new friends.
Ultimately, learning when you might be vulnerable to having irrational thoughts is probably the most positive step you can take to overcoming them. In the moment, a belief is far easier to fight if you know it doesn’t make sense. Trying to keep a clear head can be tough, but learning to see things rationally can help to see the world for how it really is.