Caroline Casey: What Defines A Person's Sense Of Self? Caroline Casey was 17 years old when she first learned she was visually impaired. Embracing her disability helped nourish her need for self-esteem.

What Defines A Person's Sense Of Self?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

On the show today, Maslow and his hierarchy of human needs. And according to that hierarchy, while a sense of love and belonging is important for humans to thrive, to get to the next step means looking inward.

CAROLINE CASEY: Because no matter how brilliant other people think you are or how many things that you might achieve, if you don't think you're valuable, if you don't like yourself, all of that is worthless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This is Caroline Casey, and her story really shows the full spectrum of esteem, which happens to be the fourth level and close to the top of the pyramid in Maslow's hierarchy.

CASEY: I had some serious confidence issues at certain times of my childhood. I was a bit awkward, I think, for a certain time (laughter) of my life. And I bumped into lots of things, and I was klutzy. And I wasn't very good at, like, hitting a hockey ball or a tennis ball or anything like that.

RAZ: All that's pretty normal for a kid, so Caroline's dad worked on helping her overcome those feelings.

CASEY: My dad had us going up and down mountains. And I learned how to sail. I loved cars. I was far more a tomboy than I was a girly girl.

RAZ: And by the time she was 17, she'd grown more confident. Right at the same time, she found out something about herself that changed the rest of her life. Here's Caroline on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CASEY: I wanted to race cars. And I wanted to be a cowgirl. And I wanted to be Mowgli from "The Jungle Book..."

(LAUGHTER)

CASEY: ...Because they were all about being free - the wind in your hair - just to be free. And on my 17 birthday, my parents, knowing how much I love speed, gave me one driving lesson. And on my 17 birthday, I accompanied my little sister in complete innocence, as I always had all my life - my visually impaired sister - to go to see an eye specialist because big sisters are always supposed to support their little sisters.

And my little sister wanted to be a pilot - God help her. So I used to get my eyes tested just for fun. And on my 17 birthday, after my fake eye exam, the eye specialist just noticed it happened to be my birthday, and he said, so what are you going to do to celebrate? And I took that driving lesson out. I said, I'm going to learn how to drive. And then there was a silence. One of those awful silences when you know something's wrong. And he turned to my mother, and he said, you haven't told her yet.

RAZ: What they didn't tell Caroline was that her vision was severely impaired and always had been what some doctors classify as legally blind. And Caroline never realized that the way she sees - basically everything beyond 2 feet is a blur - she never realized that that was abnormal.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CASEY: See this hand. Beyond this hand is a world of Vaseline. Every man in this room is George Clooney.

(LAUGHTER)

CASEY: And every woman, you are so beautiful. And when I want to look beautiful, I step 3 feet away from the mirror, and I don't have to see these lines etched in my face from all the squinting I've done all my life from all the dark lights.

RAZ: So the question is, how did Caroline not know her vision was that bad for so long? That's coming up in a moment. I'm Guy Raz, and on the show today, we're climbing up Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. Stay with us. You're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today we're exploring ideas about Maslow's hierarchy of human needs, the five levels of needs that allow us to feel fulfilled. On that list, number four - esteem. And before the break, we were hearing from Caroline Casey. Her entire self-image was shattered on her 17th birthday when she discovered something she didn't know - that from birth, she'd been legally blind.

CASEY: I had a pair of glasses, and loads of kids had glasses, so I kind of just thought anybody who wore glasses would have the same things as me. And I didn't think that I was different.

RAZ: How is it possible that you didn't know - that you didn't know that your vision was severely limited?

CASEY: Well, the reason very simply is that my parents made a very definitive decision that they didn't want me to have any less a chance in life than any other child and did not disclose to me that I had any problems with my vision. So when I found out, you know, at 17, it was really shocking, and I didn't really believe the doctor. So it was a combination of total denial and lack of acceptance and then the other part of me, which really believed, well, look, if I got this far then you might be wrong and I might be right, I can see and I will see.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CASEY: And with the same dogged determination that my father had bred into me since I was such a child, he taught me how to sail knowing I could never see where I was going. I could never see the shore and I couldn't see the sail and I couldn't see the destination. And for the next 11 years, I swore nobody would ever find out that I couldn't see because I didn't want to be a failure and I didn't want to be weak and I believed I could do it. So I rammed through life as only a Casey can do and I was an archaeologist and then I broke things. And then I managed a restaurant and then I slipped on things, and then I was a masseuse and then I was a landscape gardener. And then I went to business school and then I went and I got a global consulting job with Accenture and not - they didn't even know. And it's extraordinary what - how far belief can take you.

RAZ: I mean, it's at that time when you were, like, outwardly perceived as confident and outgoing. I mean, inwardly, were you feeling like you had high self-esteem?

CASEY: No, Guy, I didn't. I call it the duck. It's being a duck. And if you ever watch a duck on water, they look beautiful and calm on the outside. But you see their legs paddling madly underneath the surface just to keep afloat. In those years from 17 through to 28, though I appeared strong on the outside, the work and the effort to do that was exhausting. I wasn't as confident, and my esteem was not good at all.

RAZ: And the more she thought about her limits, the more it affected her self-esteem and the harder it got to hold onto it. And so by the time Caroline was 28, working as a consultant, she'd kind of reached a breaking point.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CASEY: In 1999, two-and-a-half years into that job, I found myself in front of an HR manager saying something I never imagined that I would say. I was 28 years old. I had built a persona all around what I could and couldn't do, and I simply said I'm sorry. I can't see and I need help. And so after admitting I couldn't see to HR, they sent me off to an eye specialist. And that eye specialist, he didn't bother testing my eyes. God, no. It was therapy. And he asked me several questions, of which many were why? Why are you fighting so hard not to be yourself?

And I left that doctor's office, and I was so angry. Like, you have no house - and how upset and how terrified because I knew the game was up. And I went home and I put my trainers on and I went for a run along a beach, which is not probably the most sensible thing that somebody who has bad vision and very upset should have done. And I thought what was I going to do? Like, who was I going to be? Was I going to have to leave my job? I was just really scared. And I kept replaying over the conversation that myself and the doctor had.

Was I happy? Was I the person I really wanted to be, and what had I wanted to be when I was little?

And yeah, OK, so I couldn't race cars and motorbikes, but (laughter), you know, there was one dream I could do. And I decided on that day I am going to go across India on an elephant and I am going to be Mowgli.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CASEY: And I had no idea how I was going to be an elephant handler - from global management consultant to elephant handler. I had no idea how. I had no idea how you hire an elephant, get an elephant. I didn't speak Hindi. I've never been to India - hadn't a clue. But I knew I would because when you make a decision at the right time and the right place, God, that universe makes it happen for you. Nine months later after that day, I had the only blind date in my life with a 7.5-foot elephant called Kanchi.

RAZ: Caroline and her elephant, Kanchi, would eventually go on a 620 mile trek across India. And after nearly a decade of feeling trapped by her physical limitations...

CASEY: I found out really who I was on that trip. I found out that being this crazy adventure girl, being this outlier, was a good thing. And I had a renewed sense of energy and self when I came off that elephant. And I knew my life would never be the same, and it never has been since.

RAZ: You know, we're talking about Maslow's hierarchy of human needs on the show today, and I think it's easy for us to think of them as immutable, right? You know, you hit physiological needs and then you go up the next rung to security and then you tick the next box, which is love and belonging. And the next one and the next one, but they're not fixed - like, right? Like, esteem comes and goes. Like, there's still times where you must feel incredible self-esteem and confidence and self-respect. And then there are moments where I think we all kind of - we lose it and then we regain it and we lose it. You know what I mean?

CASEY: No, I think that's so valid because I find with life that I sometimes go three steps up and 17 steps back (laughter). And I'm like, I can't believe I'm here again. I can't believe that I have screwed up and forgotten the lessons I learned. And I'm being so hard on myself and I thought there was a eureka. I thought this elephant trip would solve all my problems. I thought that if - after I did that, the journey to self was going to be a full stop. It's not. To have self-esteem, to be in a healthy relationship, to like yourself, it just takes work. And there is no moment or island where you will find pure bliss. You might find it for a moment, but unfortunately, the weather changes.

RAZ: Caroline Casey now runs a foundation she named after that elephant. It's called Kanchi, and it works to change mindsets around the issue of disability. You can see her entire talk at ted.npr.org.

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