On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we remember all the many ways that Dr. King helped raise people up who were experiencing difficulties and fought for everyone’s rights. Many people remember his famous “I Have A Dream” speech given at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August of 1963. However, Dr. King was a man of much wisdom, and we can grow today by also focusing on his words from his other speeches. 

Dr. King gave a sermon in 1957 at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church that speaks particularly to the experiences of individuals recovering from strokes, traumatic brain injuries and other forms of acquired brain injuries.  Titled “Overcoming an Inferiority Complex”, he discussed how many people suffer from feelings of inadequacy due to their various situations in life.  As he stated:

“Now throughout life we see these conditions quite similar to that of Zacchaeus. Many people express it in different forms, and this sense of inferiority is caused by many different things. Some people feel a sense of inferiority because they are physically handicapped. And some people feel a sense of inferiority because of ill health.

Other people feel a sense of inferiority because they lack social charm. Others feel a sense of inferiority because they are not attractive externally. And others feel a sense of inferiority because of love failures and because of moral failures. There are many things and manifold reasons why individuals fall down under the load of an inferiority complex. And one of the great challenges of life is to properly overcome a sense of inferiority.”

Many survivors of brain injury struggle with the changes due to their brain injury, leading to low mood and depression.  Some survivors even report that they avoid looking in the mirror because they cannot bear to see themselves in their changed state.  This “inferiority complex” can be one of the key areas that survivors need to work on to lead a healthier life post-injury. 

Dr. King goes on to discuss how this “inferiority complex” causes people to feel low and can lead to unhealthy behaviors such as drinking.  Despite the dangers that substance use can lead to post-injury, such as magnification of deficits and seizures, a significant number of survivors will mis-use substances post-injury.  This is especially true if they had a history of substance abuse prior to their injuries.

Dr. King identifies self-acceptance as one of the keys to overcoming the “inferiority complex”. As he stated:

“Now it seems to me that that is the first way to overcome an inferiority complex—the principle of self-acceptance. That’s a prayer that every individual should pray: “Lord, help me to accept myself.” Every man should somehow say, “I, John Doe, accept myself with all of my inherited abilities and handicaps. I accept those conditions within my environment which cannot be altered or which I cannot control. And after accepting these I go back to myself and see what I can do with myself.”

And this is a healthy attitude of life. So many people are busy trying to be somebody else, and that is what accounts for their frustration. There is within every man a bit of latent creativity seeking to break forth, and it is often blocked because we are busy trying to be somebody else. So this is the first way to overcome an inferiority complex: accept yourself. That means accept your looks.

It means accept your limitations in every area. It means what it says: “Accept your actual self.” And where the conflict really comes is that individuals find a sort of impassable gulf between their actual selves and their desired selves. And that is when an inferiority complex breaks out in morbid proportions—when individuals come to see that there is such a tremendous gap between their actual selves and their desired selves.

And the thing that every individual should pray to the Almighty God for is to give them that sense of acceptance of the actual self with all limitations and with all of the endowments that come as the results of our being born in this world.”

Dr. King was not expecting people to be successful at every skill possible or to be in full health at every moment, but that people should be able to acknowledge their real skills, issues and abilities and accept themselves as they are, at this moment.  That self-acceptance, leading to a love and appreciation of oneself today, is a key to healthy adjustment after a brain injury.  

Some may mistakenly think that self-acceptance is a way of giving up on recovery and rehabilitation.  This is a false notion.  Self-acceptance is about acknowledging the reality of today without negative judgement of oneself.  This is often known in the field of psychology as “radical self-acceptance”. 

This type of self-acceptance allows one to deal with the reality of the moment without becoming bogged down with negative emotions, which are often obstacles to recovery.  Further, it is important to recognize all the skills, abilities and benefits that survivors bring to the world in spite of their injuries.   True self-acceptance cannot be solely about accepting the negative but must also be about acknowledging and embracing the positive.  Dr. King thought very highly of embracing one’s positive skills and fostering dignity in one’s skills.  As he stated:

“All of the people of the world cannot do the so‐called big things. Some of us will have to be content to do the so-called little things, but we must do the little things in a big way. We must do ordinary things in an extraordinary manner. And we overcome our sense of inferiority by doing just this—by somehow accepting what we must do and doing that thing well. No matter how small you consider it, you can dignify anything.”

Learning from Dr. King, we can hopefully progress to healthier ways of approaching life following a brain injury. 

To read Dr. King’s sermon, click on the link below:

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/overcoming-inferiority-complex-sermon-delivered-dexter-avenue-baptist-church

Moody Neurorehabilitation Institute (Moody Neuro) provides personalized care to treat the unique challenges of brain injury with the singular purpose of achieving the best possible outcome for patients and their families.

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