Dyslexia counselling - addressing the emotional repercussions
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Pennie Aston - SPECIALIST DYSLEXIA COUNSELLOR - MSc NCS (Acc) MBACP (Registered)
31st July, 20140 Comments
The emotional side of coming to terms through the life course with all the elements of dyslexia is one of the most commonly missed areas. Teachers and parents are very good at noticing problems in their children with reading, writing, spelling and even maths. What they can miss is the growing element of lack of motivation, low self-esteem and upset which develops as the child goes through school and the pressures grow greater and greater. This has ongoing effects throughout the whole life course as you do not grow out of dyslexia - if you are dyslexic you will be so for life.
If nobody tells the person that there is a reason for their difficulties, there is a tendency to label themselves as dumb, thick and stupid. The difficulties can become harder to manage in secondary school and when children begin to fail they can become very vulnerable and on edge. These feelings can stay throughout life.
The frustration of prolonged failure on a range of curriculum subjects at school, resulting in feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence, can have profound effects upon social status, friendship patterns, and acceptance and adjustment in new settings. Aggressive and antisocial behaviour may result from these tensions. Stress and insecurity can lead to a prominence of information processing difficulties. When dealing with problems, the dyslexic may adopt strategies of avoidance and self blaming.
For an undiagnosed dyslexic person, as Sylvia Moody (2010) highlights, there is a commonly experienced sense of not really knowing who you are.
"There seems to be a puzzling muddle of strengths and weaknesses whereby at one moment the person feels themselves an intelligent person who can catch on quickly to another person's meaning, has an intellectual curiosity and a general desire to learn. In the next moment, perhaps when attempting higher-level study or taking on a challenging job or accepting promotion, they feel more like a fool whilst constantly making errors, forgetting things and failing to get properly organised."
To the person who experiences them, these emotions often feel bewildering and shaming. Inevitably the emotional consequences are lack of confidence, low self-esteem, frustration, even depression. What follows on from this is a sort of social nervousness, a reluctance to take part in conversations or discussions, perhaps a tendency to avoid other people - often with the result of being seen as a loner, an outsider, unfriendly or difficult.
Effect on others
The family members, managers and colleagues of an undiagnosed dyslexic are also presented with genuine difficulties. They may feel baffled and annoyed at the inefficiency of the person, resentful that they have to constantly recheck or redo work and find the person's social manner offensive with no obvious explanation. Somebody who is observably disabled, for example a blind person, is readily accepted as having genuine difficulties. A person with hidden difficulties, such as dyslexia, can be regarded as being, at best, difficult and workshy, and, at worst, a fraud (Sylvia Moody 2010).
To a dyslexia assessor, this collection of inefficiencies is immediately recognisable as a common syndrome of difficulties, all of which relate to each other in meaningful ways. Helpful strategies can be sourced and put in place - but the emotional and social consequences remain.
The common theme is that many problems arise out of a lack of understanding of dyslexia which can be in the dyslexic themselves as they too may not recognise their difficulties as dyslexic. Even if they understand the nature of their difficulties, they may not know how to present these in a way that allows other people to help them. An understanding of the difficulties, by and large, brings a sense of relief, as all the bewildering inefficiencies can be brought into a consistent picture and this helps to explain problems in a clear and confident way.
It is hard for a person to continue feeling positive about themselves when they are constantly feeling tripped up, frustrated and shamed by perplexing inefficiencies.
Confidence therefore, does not come overnight and for many, who have been keeping their dyslexia secret for many years, it can take time to come to terms with the fact that they have been confused about themselves from many years; that they may well have been let down by other people who should have recognised the difficulties or be more sympathetic to them; that they have consequently lost opportunities for study or work and that personal and professional relationships have been affected.
In the opinion of several leading dyslexia experts, it can be helpful to complement skills training with a counselling intervention to help build confidence and self-esteem and provide ways of dealing with difficult emotions. In order to be able to provide such support , counsellors equally need a thorough understanding of the emotional and social difficulties caused by dyslexia, as does the client.
There are several specific emotions and difficulties commonly reported by dyslexics, especially in cases where the difficulties have gone unrecognised for a long time.
Anxiety is the most frequent emotional symptom reported by dyslexic adults. Dyslexics become fearful because of their constant frustration and confusion. These feelings are exacerbated by the inconsistencies of dyslexia. Because they may anticipate failure, entering new situations can become extremely anxiety provoking. It is natural for human beings to avoid whatever frightens them and the dyslexic is no exception. Adult dyslexics have often spent many years worrying about their inability to perform certain tasks and often feel an acute anxiety about being found out, exposed and humiliated. In the end, the anxiety about the difficulties is as much the problem as the actual difficulties themselves and a vicious circle of anxiety and inefficiencies evolves from which there seems no escape.
Anxiety and stress can also be the cause of physical symptoms such as nausea, migraine, and increased susceptibility to viral infections and to more serious illness. Being physically below par naturally reduces inefficiency further and so the downward spiral continues. Sometimes anxiety escalates into fear and then panic attacks. Anxiety often becomes a nagging feeling that has become a way of life that has to be borne and will continue indefinitely and unremittingly.
Many of the emotional problems caused by dyslexia occur out of frustration in social situations. Social scientists have observed that frustration produces anger and this can be clearly seen in many a dyslexic's behaviour. The obvious target of the dyslexic's anger would be schools and teachers. However, it is also common for the dyslexic to vent anger on parents with mothers being particularly likely to feel the dyslexic's wrath. As youngsters reach adolescence, society expects them to become independent. Great internal conflicts are caused by the tension between the anticipation of independence and the child's learned dependence and helplessness. Anger is used to break away from the people on whom they feel so dependent.
For adult dyslexics, a sense of being imprisoned, trapped and impotent is often reported and this frustration soon turns to anger. For a child, frustration is a very common experience and often has a specific target such as a parent, teacher, particular adult or sibling, who is perceived as thwarting the child's needs. For an adult however, the situation may be more complex. In the case of the dyslexic adult, they may well feel immense frustration at their inability to progress as they feel they should in their work and studies. In this context all too often the adult dyslexic ends up being angry with themselves or feeling an impotent anger against the impenetrable fate which, unfathomably, has blighted their life.
Change - difficulty adjusting
Change can be challenging for everyone, but for someone with dyslexia, change may be particularly difficult. Children may have a hard time moving from one activity to another and would prefer structures to stay the same if at all possible. Usually this issue becomes less as a child matures. However, adults may still experience difficulty adjusting to change in more subtle ways. For example, some will have trouble moving from one work task to another without completely finishing the first task and can be frequently described as inflexible when it comes to considering other people's point of view or different way of doing something.
Change brings the unexpected, which is difficult to adjust to and generally people with dyslexia are less prepared for the unexpected. It may bring new learning hurdles, job demands or social challenges all of which can be affected by dyslexia. To avoid the tendency to blame the person for their lack of flexibility, it's important to understand the neurological basis for this difficulty with adjusting to change.
Confusion and bewilderment
Dyslexic difficulties are, today, more likely to be recognised while a child is still at school. If this is the case, whether or not help is available, the difficulties are at least acknowledged and information about them can be sought from appropriate organisations. This, however, was not always the case, and all those children who left school with unrecognised dyslexic difficulties, are now adults attempting to fit into a non-dyslexic world. Their difficulties will not have gone away and unfortunately it is the case that a large number of these dyslexic adults are still unaware that they have a recognisable pattern of difficulties that can be significantly eased through the learning of appropriate skills and strategies. Often, therefore, dyslexic adults feel thoroughly confused about themselves and feel bright and quick witted in some ways and then apparently slow and inefficient in others.
Depression and despondency
Depression is also a frequent complication in dyslexia. Although most dyslexics are not depressed, they are at a higher risk of intense feelings of sorrow and pain. Combined with a lack of self-esteem, dyslexics are often afraid to turn their anger outwards towards their environment and instead turn it inwards, toward themselves.
Depressed children and adolescents often have very different symptoms than depressed adults. The depressed child is unlikely to be lethargic or to talk about feeling sad. Instead he or she may be more active or even misbehave to cover up painful feelings. In some cases the child may not seem obviously unhappy. However, both children and adults who are depressed tend to have three similar characteristics: First they tend to have negative thoughts about themselves i.e. a negative self-image. Secondly, they tend to view the world negatively. They are less likely to enjoy the positive experiences in life. This makes it difficult for them to have fun. Finally, most depressed youngsters have great trouble imagining anything positive about the future. The depressed dyslexic not only experiences great pain in their present experiences, but also foresees a life of continuing failure.
In its most extreme form, individuals may easily shift from one emotion to the next. Others may experience difficulty regulating impulsive thoughts or actions. Fortunately, most adults have learned to handle their emotional sensitivity to avoid becoming overwhelmed or engaging in negative social interactions. Nevertheless, some adults may be so deeply affected that they become depressed or suffer from anxiety.
A lack of school, job or social success is likely to add to this emotional burden. Those who have been humiliated and shamed by family members, teachers and peers, may be more inclined to take criticism to heart because of their experiences combined with their ultrasensitive natures. Emotional wounds from childhood and adolescence may cause heightened emotional responses to rejection. In turn, social anxiety and social phobia may result.
Environmental and emotional sensitivity
Adults are often overwhelmed by too much environmental stimuli (e.g. background noise, more than one person talking at a time, side conversations, reading and listening at the same time). Many people also have specific sensitivities to their environment such as certain fabrics they cannot wear, and food they cannot tolerate, etc.
Many adults with dyslexia see themselves as more emotionally sensitive than other people. In its most extreme form, high levels of emotional sensitivity are both a blessing and a weakness. The positive features of this trait helps adults build meaningful relationships with others. They are often very intuitive and in tune with both their own and other people's emotions. However, this strength also serves as weakness due to its propensity to overwhelm the individual.
Emotional difficulties occur when they are unable to cope with the onslaught of emotions they are feeling. Many adults also possess a strong sense of justice which often serves as a double edged sword. On the one hand, it is refreshing to behold the passion of many of these individuals in their fight to overcome injustice. While on the other hand, this very passion, when it crosses the line into aggression, can cause social rejection and or emotional overload. Often the individual may be unaware that their behaviour has turned aggressive as they only wish to make their point of view known and have others understand it. This type of overreaction is not a purposeful attempt to hurt anybody. It is more likely to be caused by difficulty with monitoring emotions and consequent behaviour.
Dyslexia has a tremendous impact on the family in a variety of ways and one of the most obvious is sibling rivalry. Non-dyslexic children often feel jealous of the dyslexic child, who gets the majority of the parents attention, time and money. Ironically, the dyslexic child does not want this attention and thus increases the chances that he or she will act negatively against the achieving children in the family.
In addition, specific developmental dyslexia runs in families. This means that one or both of the child's parents may have had similar school problems. When faced with a child who is having school problems dyslexic parents may react in one of two ways. They may deny the existence of dyslexia and consider that if the child would just work harder, they would succeed. Alternatively, the parents may relive their failures and frustrations through their child's school experience which brings back powerful and terrifying emotions which impedes their parenting skills.
Another emotional difficulty is fear. This emotion is often masked by anger or anxiety. Tapping into the fear behind the anger and/or the anxiety response is often the key to coping with the emotional fallout of dyslexia. Feelings of fear may be related to one or more of the following issues:
- Fear of being found out. The fear of being found out is particularly troublesome for many older adults who have never been diagnosed or who received inappropriate support. They develop coping strategies to hide their disability. They may develop gregarious personalities or focus on other abilities that do not present learning barriers.
- Fear of failure. Many reason that, if they failed before, what's to stop them failing again and, if they do fail again, then this failure must mean they, themselves, are failures. The tendency for adults with dyslexia to personalise failure is perhaps the biggest cause of lack of self-esteem for adult learners.
- Fear of judgement or criticism. Adults with dyslexia frequently fear the ridicule of others. These fears often develop after the individual has been ridiculed by teachers, classmates or even family members. The most crushing of these criticisms usually relates to a perceived lack of intelligence or judgements about the person's degree of motivation and/or ability to succeed.
- Fear of rejection. Adults with dyslexia frequently fear rejection if they are not seen to be as capable as others. If they come from a family where academic achievement is a basic expectation for its members, fear of rejection may be a very real concern. They may also fear that their social skill deficits will preclude them from building meaningful relationships with others and may lead to social rejection.
Rosemary Scott (2004) considers that isolation is one of the worst effects of being dyslexic, and is the principal cause of both adaptive and maladaptive coping strategies. Those who escape isolation and who are well integrated socially have fewer problems but some dyslexics spend their entire lives isolated from others. Difficulty with reading is much less of a problem than being unable to form relationships. Difficulty with reading is just failure, and people learn how to cope with failure and may even benefit from it. Difficulty with relationships however, leads to loneliness. Dyslexics become isolated through a number of routes:
Output communication is faulty. Their own language processing difficulties cause speech to logjam inside them and their non-verbal behaviour, which is an important adjunct to speech, contains disturbing transmission errors. In the most severe cases of dyslexia, outward communication is almost nullified so that the dyslexic can present - totally wrongly - as completely unresponsive or even autistic. According to Scott, it is "as if all the colours and passions of a great and vivid painting are trapped behind a piece of plain, white card".
Inward communication is faulty. Dyslexics find hard to process incoming speech from other people. Information processing delays and cognitive problems in the dyslexic can mean it takes longer to receive and understand what others say. In addition, dyslexics find it hard to read non-verbal behaviour. They make the wrong interpretations of how other people behave and then, unfortunately, tend to act on it.
Problems in literacy mean that the dyslexic child is separated within the class or is withdrawn for remedial work, so they fail to integrate properly with their age group. This can make the dyslexic anxious and depressed - and depression, in itself, is a sufficient cause for rejection by others. Indeed, dyslexics often report feeling different from others at a very early age. As Scott states, "I would suggest that this sense of feeling different from everyone else, of being the eternal wallflower at the great human party, is the most common reason for the dyslexic client to seek counselling. It is certainly the one unifying source of pain."
There is clear evidence of anxiety disorders amongst those with learning disabilities and specifically dyslexics (Rosemary Scott 2004). Anxiety is not an innocuous disorder, and what is not often appreciated is that anxiety can occur in response to subliminal stresses. This may be why panic attacks can seem to arise for no obvious reason. In Scott's opinion, traumatised dyslexics have to "endure a malevolent form of free-floating anxiety that roars out of nowhere in any situation involving change or literacy which, in most of the modern world, is everywhere". It can present in a stunning variety of ways including irritability, restlessness, poor concentration, incoherence, even to the degree of being unable to say a word, fear of going mad or being rooted to the spot.
Physical symptoms include dizziness, tiredness, sweating, tremor, tension in the neck, chest or abdomen, nausea, shortness of breath, diarrhoea, increased urination, palpitations, hyperventilation. Scott has seen most of these symptoms in dyslexic clients at one time or another with panic attacks as the most dramatic, and fear of going mad the saddest. In her view, anxiety is also linked with alcoholism and over 60% of alcoholics, mainly men, start drinking because of anxiety symptoms. She estimates that as a group they are significantly more likely to use drink and drugs to cope with their anxiety than non-dyslexics are.
Most dyslexic children to not realise that they have a problem until some new and traumatic incident enters their lives. This can be the sudden exclusion from their peer group, the intense anger or frustration of a teacher or parent, or the physical shock of being bullied for some obscure reason. It can also be the sudden shock of realising something quite unidentifiable is terribly wrong. As example, these feelings are as devastating and comparable to the cold horror of receiving news of a loved one's death or the confirmation of a fatal illness. They are seared into the memory retaining their potency well into adult life unless addressed and resolved.
What is also frequently observed is how such felt reactions mark the difference between pre and post dyslexia diagnosis. This is an experience which can be compared, according to Scott, to that of abused children who often see the first abusive act as marking the final time in their life when they felt safe. In Scott's view, the explicit suddenness of these events means that, in one moment, the world is safe and predictable and, in the next, it is dangerous and random. In these instances, the dyslexic is traumatised as surely as if he/she were crushed in a car accident or hit by an unseen assailant. His life may then be marked by all the classic symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. In Scott's view dyslexics are especially vulnerable to PTSD.
The dyslexic self-image appears to be extremely vulnerable to frustration and anxiety. According to Eric Erickson during the first years of school, every child must resolve the conflicts between a positive self-image and feelings of inferiority. If children succeed in school, they will develop positive feelings about themselves and believe that they can succeed in life. However if children meet failure and frustration, they learn that they are inferior to others, and that their increased effort makes very little difference. Instead of feeling powerful and productive, they learn that their environment controls them and feel powerless and incompetent.
Lack of confidence manifests itself both in relation to performing specific workplace tasks and in a more general way. The dyslexic person, whether or not the difficulties have been acknowledged and given a label, knows very well that there is an inadequacy in a number of aspects of their work. They dread being assigned a task they know they won't be able to achieve. This is an experience a dyslexic person will have had from childhood. There is a slowness in developing skills and a felt sense of not performing very well. While other children progress almost carelessly through developmental stages such as walking, talking, tying shoelaces, telling the time, reading, writing, the dyslexic child finds each and all of these very difficult. Very early on a sense of inadequacy and even impotence sets in and does not go away.
Years later, in adult life, in everyday tasks at home, in the workplace and even in leisure situations, the question remains as to whether they can get it right? A simple task such as taking down a telephone number or writing a letter, resurrects a nagging feeling of insecurity and anxiety. The daily questioning of one's own constantly fluctuating abilities and capacities will slowly but surely erode self-esteem.
Among all these problems and difficulties, perceived inefficiencies and traumas, it is hard to hold on to a self perception of a person who is of worth. People tend to react in one of two ways by either becoming withdrawn and defensive, or becoming bad-tempered and aggressive. Both reactions are polarities of natural coping strategies. The person who tries to hide a lack of confidence behind an aggressive exterior becomes isolated and people feel apprehensive about approaching. When lack of confidence results in aggressive or defensive behaviour the dyslexic is trapped in a fluctuating pattern of attempting interaction, reaction, defence and aggression which creates a prison of isolation and distress.
Shame, embarrassment and guilt
To some, it's a great relief to receive a diagnosis whilst for others the label only serves to further stigmatise them. An accurate diagnosis of their difficulties was often unavailable for many adults and a felt sense of shame can remain from the years when they were frequently labelled and written off as being unable or unwilling to learn.
Feelings of embarrassment can deepen into shame, and, whereas embarrassment is often specific to a particular situation, shame seems to seep through the whole personality and to colour the whole of a person's life. These feelings often cause the individual to hide their difficulties. Rather than risk being labelled again as stupid or accused of being lazy, some deny their learning difficulties as a defence mechanism. Internalised negative labels of stupidity and incompetence usually result in a poor self-concept and lack of confidence. Some adults feel ashamed of the type of difficulties they are struggling to cope with such as basic literacy skills, slow processing, attention difficulties, chronic forgetfulness, organisational difficulties, social ineptness etc. The feeling of having a guilty secret is something that is very commonly reported by dyslexic adults.
All the emotions described above are, of course, felt in certain situations by all human beings, not just by dyslexic people. One of the challenges in counselling dyslexics, whether child, adolescent or adult, is knowing where to stop disentangling dyslexia related issues from more general anxieties. That takes skill, experience and understanding.
About the author
Pennie is a counsellor who specialises in the emotional repercussions of dyslexia. She is dyslexic herself and has raised a dyslexic family who are now in their twenties. Fully appreciating how dyslexia can impact on all areas of life, in 2007 she set up the charity GroOops to support those with an assessment of dyslexia.
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