The Company We Keep

Posted: February 3, 2009 in Disability Deliberations

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By Mark E. Smith

I recently read that the average person’s income is within a 10% range of his or her 10 most direct peers – that is, if your closest 10 peers earn salaries of around $50,000 per year, for example, then that’s statistically what you’ll approximately earn, as well.

Peer influence is nothing new, and it’s certainly not rocket science – we’re simply affected by those around us. After all, think back to high school where the peer group that you hung out with likely had a large influence, not only on what you did then, but also likely on the direction of where your life headed in the long run.

In our adult lives, peer influence has a similar role as when we were teens, where the company that we keep dictates much of how we live today – keeping up with the Joneses, is a well-known expression that illustrates a form of peer influence among adults. We’re social creatures, wanting to fit in and follow the pack, for better and for worse, even as seemingly secure, autonomous grownups.

Yet, we each ultimately have a choice toward selecting our peers – and their influences on us – choosing positive ones instead of negative ones when making lifestyle decisions. And, again, it isn’t rocket science. All it takes is awareness and a simple question: Who do I want to be, and can my peer group help get me there?

A poignant example from my own life is that I grew up around adults who, for the most part, were broke, uneducated, and addicted to substances – and some of my teenage peers were following that same course. Yet, as a teenager, it occurred to me that there was another way to live – that is, responsibly and successfully. But, it took me a few years to figure out exactly how to do it, not having many direct, positive peer examples. After a lot of searching, I eventually figured out that simply identifying successful people, studying their productive ways of life, and then emulating them, was a fairly straight-forward approach that I could take. That is, I identified an “ideal” peer group for myself – from those who I casually encountered in the community, to those who I read about or saw on television – and began modeling their positive behaviors.

At a turning point, a very successful businessman entered my life in my very early twenties. He introduced me to his circle of friends – those who had master’s degrees, and some who were millionaires – and they immediately impressed upon me that the fundamentals of higher education, hard work, financial responsibility, and giving to others were the keys to successful living. Hearing of their expectations toward success raised my own expectations – focusing me on college and larger life goals – and it taught me that, in many ways, we’re only as good as the people with whom we surround ourselves. As the years have past, I’ve seen the lesson proved time after time, that if we want to succeed, surrounding ourselves with positive, successful people, who bring out our best, gives us a strategic advantage in life.

Living with disability is no different than any other way of life when it comes to the power of peer influence. The fact is, although disability can intrinsically frustrate us – as with undeniable physical difficulties and health conditions – many of our emotions surrounding disability experiences directly reflect the attitudes of the peers around us. For example, if your family and friends treat you like you’re helpless and incapable of living independently due to your disability, you’ll likely feel helpless and incapable to some extent. However, if your family and friends emphasizes that you’re as capable as anyone to make your way in the world, you’ll likely feel empowered, equipped with a seek-and-conquer outlook. In this way, our families, as peer groups, can tremendously influence our disability experience, for better or for worse.

Similarly, your peers with disabilities can heavily influence how you view yourself as one with a disability. If those around you with disabilities chronically complain, using disability as a reason for all that’s wrong in life, surely your outlook toward your own disability will be bleaker. However, in contrast, if those around you with disabilities are go-getters, with positive attitudes, you’ll likely feel more empowered toward successfully living with your own disability. Our friends’ attitudes rub off on us, and those who are downers typically pull us down, while those who are positive unquestionably lift us up.

From this viewpoint, it’s clear, then, that those who view disability from healthy, positive vantages are better peers for us than those with negative outlooks. Therefore, you don’t need a Ph.D. in psychology to figure out that avoiding disability-negative people is a wise, healthy lifestyle choice.

Yet, identifying negative and positive peer influences toward disability isn’t always so clear-cut. In fact, deciphering negative peer influences from positive ones can seem counterintuitive and prove outright tricky toward disability experience.

In a cunning paradox, when it comes to disability and deciphering the nature of peer influences, those peers who feel the best to us can sometimes actually be the worst for us. For example, a doting family, who views one with a disability as dependent, often has only the best of intentions, wanting to care for their loved one – and that feels good to many with disabilities who are being so well cared for. Yet, if one’s not careful, such a doting family can dramatically diminish one’s autonomy and independence, where one with a disability then assumes the role of entirely dependent, losing motivation toward overall self-sufficiency. Loving parents are a blessing, but when you’re 40, and your parents handle every aspect of your life, from your attendant care to your finances, you lose your potential as an adult in the process – and that’s extremely unhealthy.

Likewise, friends with disabilities who are always complaining about disability experience can actually feel good to be around. After all, if you’re struggling with disability, few sentiments are more validating than listening to a peer go on and on about how universally bad it is to have a disability – as in, I feel your pain because disability is terrible for all of us. But, when all you hear are grim disability experiences from your peers, you are likely to feel even more grim about your own disability.

In these ways, the peers who seem to support us the most – an over-doting family and share-my-misery friends – can truly pull us down the most. And, it’s in understanding this reality that’s the key to reorganizing our peer groups so that we consciously weed-out the disability-negative peers around us, and bring in the positive ones, focusing our time and attention on those who simply bring out our best.

Now, I’m not suggesting divorcing overly-doting parents or dumping depressed friends. You, of course, should love and respect them as they are. Rather, what I’m suggesting is being cautious of the negative peers in your life, and heavily focusing your attention on positive peers, letting them bring out your best. If your parents are over-doting, reluctant to let you leave the house, but Cousin Frankie sees no reason why you shouldn’t be going to community college like him, then Frankie is the guy to cozy up to – he’ll help show you the way. If your one friend with a disability spends days hanging out at home, depressed, while your other friend with a disability is working at a great job, then make a point to spend time with your employed friend – you will learn and grow from his or her successes. And, rather than reading online message boards plagued with negativity about how the world is a terrible, discriminatory place for those with disabilities, focus on reading truly inspiring, motivating stories about those with disabilities who are leading successful lives, learning from their positive insights.

The fact is, there’s no shortage of positive peer influences – right down to those who you may not personally know, but can still admire from afar – so it’s most often just a matter of consciously aligning yourself with positive people, raising your own ethics, values, and outlooks to be in line with theirs in a noble attempt to be your best.

What’s amazing is how easy it is to practice positive peer influence toward living with disability: Simply choose your peers wisely by surrounding yourself with positive, successful people, and they will help improve your life. That is, hang out with those of emotional wealth – those with master’s degrees in personal success, and those who are millionaires in emotional health! – and your mental and emotional wealth will increase, as well, toward disability and all of life.

Comments
  1. MARIA DEWAN says:

    While everything Mark’s says in this article is absolutely true, there may be a flip side to his argument.

    Negative people with disabilities can help us realize what we DON’T want for ourselves and our lives. Giving us the motivation and incentive to be positive and lead productive, fulfilling lives.

  2. Brian Jones says:

    Mark, As usual, some wise words there brother!!

  3. Ronald Harless says:

    I’m so glad to find this blog. You have terrific insight into life as well as disability. I’m sending this article to all my children to which I may have done a disservice. We , as a family, are very successful. As a foster family for 20 years we gave much. Adopting 4 children, one blind and another with CP we are often praised by others. Actually we have very compassionate children that are treated rather normal. My concern is that I have not consentrated on giving them the skills and desire to overcome adversity. Even my grown, healthy sons are slacking in their carreers and drive for some measure of financial success. They should at least be motivated to self supporting levels, right. I an now working on a plan of action to further their education in this area. Thank you very much. You are an inspiration, not because of your disability, but for your attitude.

    • Acha says:

      I have decided to get the rest of my Bachelor’s dgeree from an online institution as in this day and age it really doesn’t matter how you get that dgeree unless it’s from Yale, Harvard, or one of the top 10 traditional schoos. I have considered University of Phoenix, but I heard their tuition goes up? I have also considered Kaplan and Jones university but can’t find enough feedback on them. AIU has been on probation for the last 2 years so they are not an option. Please help if you have any feedback regarding any online institution or suggestions for research.

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