Face Blind!

Chapter 13

Ways To Improve Our Lives


Time to Talk About Coping Skills!

Now that we've tried to understand face blindness, there is one more task at hand. That is to seek answers to the question, "What can be done to make our lives better?"

Each person will need to pick and choose strategies as well as decide when to use them. We all have different concerns and priorities, not only because we each have our own version of face blindness, but also because each of us is a unique individual.

These are some of the issues to consider:

Coming Out

Quite a few of us think it is important that people know we have face blindness. People very much expect to be recognized, and if you are face blind you will often not be doing that. Since "coming out" with my disability, I have heard more than once from friends that they had shunned me because they thought I was mad at them. The culprit was inevitably a chance meeting where I didn't recognize them.

Typically when you meet someone who knows you on the street, they will smile at you and look at you. The problem is, of course, that perfect strangers will do that too, to be polite. With a stranger you will let reciprocating the smile be the end of it, or you will say a pleasantry about something such as the weather. A friend will expect to be greeted by name or by a comment on something that shows you recognized him.

Chances are, though, you will not recognize him, and instead you will treat him as what he seems to you - a stranger. To people who do not know of your disability, this is not endearing.

These are the items to tell a friend when coming out, if you feel the item applies to the two of you:

It is not, of course, necessary to come out to every soul you meet. The McDonald's clerk where you stop while you are on your way to Disneyland simply doesn't need to know it. The point at which you want to come out is when your relationship with a person has progressed to the point that you think they would be offended if you didn't recognize them. That is the time.

In deciding on the time, be aware that people without face blindness remember people readily, and the point at which they would be offended might be much earlier in the relationship than you might think. I've found a good rule of thumb to be to tell them at the point you exchange names. If someone extends his hand and says, "By the way, my name is Joe," what he is really saying is, "Let's remember each other."

No matter how you feel about "coming out", it is very important to do so with medical professionals. They are attuned to noticing when anything is wrong, and they will suspect the worst when they do. "The worst" will usually be something far worse than face blindness. If you are hospitalized, a lot of people will see you, and you will have a lot of people to tell. When I was hospitalized, one doctor thought something had happened in the hospital to cause me to lose my mind, because I did not recognize him. Fortunately, I realized what had happened, I assured him I had been that way from birth, and we both relaxed. Had he embarked on a regimen of testing and treatment that was wholly unneeded, this could have been tragic.

Some hospitals have a white board by the bed of each patient for notes. You can write "This patient cannot recognize people by their faces" on it so your situation will be explained to all who come in.

Twenty-five Words or Less

You can't say all the above coming out stuff in the proverbial twenty-five words or less. In explaining a disability, that's about all you get, because people don't want to hear much. This means you may find it more effective to convey the above information in installments. With ongoing friendships you'll have many opportunities.

When you first meet someone, or have an unexpected encounter, you often have a need to say something. In these instances, you definitely face a word limit. You might get more than twenty-five words, but certainly no more than a hundred. People do not have the patience or interest to listen to descriptions of medical conditions that go on longer. So choose your words carefully. What I say to each person varies a little, of course, but here is the long version:

People are born with a special part of the brain that recognizes faces. I was born without it working, so it is possible that sometimes I may not recognize you. If that happens, don't think I'm slighting you, because what it really is, is just my face blindness. It's no different than color blindness, except that it is faces rather than colors, that I can't tell apart. If we meet, be as friendly as ever, and just tell me who you are, and I'll take it just fine from there.

Here is my medium-length version:

I have a vision problem that keeps me from recognizing people. I'm notorious for that. If you see me I may not recognize you so please say "Hi" and say who you are!

Maybe I'm still too verbose. Pertti, who told us how he recognizes people in an earlier chapter, offers a short explanation that even comes in at under twenty-five words:

I am lousy in remembering faces. That applies equally to all people.

If someone greets you by name on the street and they are rapidly going to pass you by, even twenty-five words to salvage the situation are a bit much. Say something like this:

I can't see who you are. Could you tell me?

Any of these explanations may then proceed to a question of why, and if so, then keep it to the one hundred word maximum.

With close friends, or with people who have an interest of their own in such topics, you will often be asked to expand on things beyond the hundred word explanation. This may come at a later time than when you first tell them about it.

If you know you will have no trouble recognizing someone, of course there is no need to tell them. I seldom feel a need, for example, to tell longhaired men, because I'm so much better at recognizing them. If you are a face blind person who sees emotions fine and just fails to recognize faces, then of course you can skip the part about not picking up emotions.

What to Ask of Friends

The above discussion centers on getting friends' understanding. There are also some things on a day to day basis that friends can actually do to help you. At an appropriate time, ask a friend to add these things to his repertoire with you:

Explaining Identity

Identity is best lightheartedly joked about, if the other party is willing and not negative or disrespectful. If you find yourself on a serious collision course, you may find you have to stand your ground. The infrequent times this occurs, it is most likely to concern actual or perceived "dress codes." For those of you with identity issues, you may occasionally be asked to explain yours.

The explanation of identity is long and involved. You can't do it in a hundred words. You need a lot more than that, and when the question is posed, it is never the right time to spend so much time. If feasible, I just say that it's related to my face blindness, and it has to do with the way I recognize people, including knowing myself, but that explaining it beyond that is long and involved. And I offer to completely explain it later "when they've got the time." Seldom then will someone want an on the spot explanation.

If an explanation has to be made, you can say you can't recognize faces, you tell everyone apart by their hair and clothes, and that it is common for people with your condition to maintain a consistent appearance. Remind them that they wouldn't want the face that greets them in the mirror each morning to be different.

In some situations, you may find it easiest to simply say your appearance is due to a medical disability, and indicate if necessary that the present setting is not an appropriate one to delve into such matters in detail. This is the "less than twenty-five words" approach. At a job interview, for example, one may suggest that there is not time to delve into medical matters unrelated to work performance at the interview and that you will be glad to provide in depth information to those interested, after you are hired.

It is not unusual for face blind women to feel strongly that they must not wear makeup, probably because their face is not a key trait for them and thus not something they've ever felt an interest in fussing about. If you are such a person and under pressure to wear makeup, it may help to explain your need is common among those with the disability you have.

Recognizing the Identities of Others

Identity issues such as visual appearance are readily apparent and with willing parties can be easily resolved. Be aware, though, that identity issues can run deeper than visual appearance, and that clashes can occur.

As with your visual appearance, as a face blind person your identity in other ways may be different, or more narrow, than that of most people, and this may make you unaware of things important in the identities of some of the other people around you. While you have a right to your identity, they also have a right to theirs. The thing to be prepared for is that with some people you will feel very much "on a different wavelength". Of course, identity is like politics or religion - there is no right answer and no one really ever "wins" such arguments. So it is futile to allow yourself to be drawn into them. Identity conflicts are thus best handled by:

If an argumentative person's reaction is then to complain that they are being "ignored", remind them that arguing about one's identity is inappropriate, and that ignoring them was thus your intent.

Reactions of Family Members

Parents take learning of any disability hard. Whether you got it by heredity or due to the environment, both were of their making. Be prepared for a parent to immediately enter a state of denial. They may come out of it in time, but some never do. Always be prepared to get any moral support you need elsewhere, in case your parents don't provide it.

Many parents have had nagging suspicions something was wrong for years, but since they didn't find it, they have seized upon their faintest hopes and spent years convincing themselves there was nothing wrong. This means, of course, that they have been in denial for many years, making the ending of it even more problematical.

Parents also fear "what everybody will think." In the circles they run with, it may mean a loss of esteem or status to have had a defective kid. They'll need time to deal with the coming out issues that you already have disposed of. Because the benefits of coming out accrue mainly to you and not to them, they may wish for their sake that you had "kept quiet about it." But you must live your life and do what is best for you.

Your parents may have fallen in love with an imaginary non-disabled child that they wished they had had, rather than you - the child that really exists. This can happen even if all they had were just suspicions something was amiss. If this is the case, they never fell in love with you. The minute you're out of their sight, they slip back into thinking of the imaginary kid. This means, of course, that each time they see you they have to deal with coming out over and over, without ever succeeding. Since this occurs every time you meet, visits with a parent with this problem will not be much fun. If you have a parent like this, in time you will probably realize their relationship (which is really with someone other than you) is pointless, in which case if you are mentally healthy you will want to distance yourself from that parent.

In all families there is a pecking order that has been established over the years. Oft times, the guy with the disability has been held at the bottom. Although the family members may not have known of the disability, over the years by trial and error if nothing else, they have learned how to use the guy's weaknesses caused by his disability to take advantage of him. Learning about your disability is not only empowering, but also knowledge of it makes inappropriate or ineffective some of the tactics the family had been using. Your new found empowerment threatens the established pecking order, and it may make family members, particularly those insecure themselves, a bit uncomfortable. They may, too, react with denial. Again, be prepared to get support elsewhere.

Some people are fortunate and get great support at home. Sadly, so many don't, that the paragraphs above needed to be said.

Getting Support

It is unlikely you will meet other face blind people in your community in substantial numbers. Even in a major metropolitan area, consider yourself lucky if you can meet a handful. If you want support "in the flesh," you can surely find some group upon whose shoulders you can cry. But if they don't have face blindness themselves, they won't understand what you are going through and won't be able to draw from a lifetime of experience to offer solutions.

The best place to get support from people who have the condition is on the Internet. You will probably want to learn about other neurological conditions as well as face blindness, though, because chances are good you will have other neurological things, too, and learning about them will speed your self-understanding. So groups that go beyond face blindness are also mentioned here. But every source you find described here is a good place to find face blind people:

I will re-emphasize, regarding the broader-interest groups: An added benefit of joining them is that neurological conditions often tend to run in groups. If a person has one condition, it is not unusual for him to discover that he has others. On these lists, people will be talking about all the common neurological conditions, and belonging may lead to your discovering all of your conditions a lot faster than you would have otherwise.


The biggest problem you'll find if you seek counseling for problems brought on by your face blindness is that few counselors know anything about face blindness. A good counselor may, despite that, be able to help you accept your face blindness and deal with the pain it has caused you throughout your life. He may also be listened to by family members or others while you, though saying the same things, are not. The potential problem is, of course, that such a person, with his enhanced credibility, can do substantial harm if he is uninformed and gives misinformation as a result.

Counseling is discussed further in Appendix B in conjunction with getting tested, and if you are considering counseling, you may wish to read what is said there.


Face blind people pretty much agree that no training regimen exists that can improve your ability to recognize faces or emotions to an appreciable degree.

Some researchers have found one can be trained to get better over time at similar tasks, and that has raised hopes, generally false ones, that such training can be carried over into use with faces. The pitfall in this logic is that the "similar" task is a new one for people, and the learning curve for it is steep - there's a lot to learn. A face blind person has been practicing on faces for decades, on the other hand, and will find the learning curve for all intents and purposes to be flat - there is little if anything left for him to learn using the facilities that he has. So one's test results might show improvement, but whether that translates into any real improvement out in real-world social settings where face recognition that counts occurs, is doubtful.

Thus you may not wish to devote considerable energy to efforts to "train yourself" to recognize faces. And you may wish to discourage others from urging you along this path.

If you recently became face blind, of course, these previous paragraphs may not entirely apply to you. You will be learning how to recognize people with circuits which have not been used for that task before, so you may see improvement at first.

Note (added in 2014): This article lays out the status of attempts at training as they exist in 2014. (In the article, "DP" refers to people who were born with face blindness, and "AP" refers to people who got it later.) In summary, work is being done in this area, and partial success has been had with some people. In those cases, the training regimens have been long, they have not always meant success outside the lab, and without continual training, the effects have often faded within a few months' time.

Trying Harder

Some face blind people find themselves in the company of people who are urging them "to try harder". Most face blind people agree that trying harder nets no improvement in one's ability with faces. Facial recognition skills are something one either has or one does not. Whatever you do have, you get without effort.

Thus you may not wish to devote considerable energy to efforts to "try harder" to recognize faces. And you may wish to discourage others from urging you along this path.


Quite a few face blind people have difficulty ending a social encounter. I have prepared a special page on that.


To our knowledge, there are no drugs which enhance face skills.

Note: (added in 2014): The article mentioned under "Training", above, says some testing has been done with the drug oxytocin, and that investigation of that is still underway.

Figuring Out How You Recognize People

Here is something that will definitely help you recognize people: Figure out how you recognize others! Believe it or not, many face blind people are not sure of this and may not know it at all. In some cases it takes a year or more of deep introspection to figure it out.

If it turns out you have a strong key trait system operating, you'll become far better at recognizing people when you know where to look. You will also then be able to select people to socialize with who are easy to evaluate. I went for many years not realizing how I recognized others simply because no one talks about it. Your making a similar journey may take you time.

Clues can be gotten from what attributes in people you find especially attractive, what attributes many of your friends have, and what attributes are common and evident on people engaged in your favorite activities. Scrutinize situations you picked (friends, spouse, social activities) over those you did not pick (co-workers, blood relatives).

Don't beat your brains out over the endeavor, however, because some face blind people have no real system of recognizing people at all. You do though at least owe it to yourself to take a serious look.

Selection of Friends

Like all people, as you go through life you will select friends who like to do the things you do, and who you are comfortable around. People are most comfortable around people who they identify with, and who they can communicate with. There are two parts to communication - knowing what was said and who said it - so this means you will consider it important to pick friends who you can recognize. Other than that, your selection of friends won't necessarily be any different than anybody else's.

Once in a while someone will be perplexed to learn that they were selected for a criteria item that was not one of theirs. One man told me he didn't think I liked him but, upon learning that most of my friends had beards, that he thought I only liked his beard. Of course that was ridiculous. For one thing, his beard was part of him anyway, but also, I liked many other things about him. But he was dwelling on the one criteria item that was on my list that wasn't on his. We like our friends for all the different things that are "them," whether it be their beard, their ability to use language, their ability to hike with us long distances, their caring for us, their wit, their interest in building the same things we like to build, or whatever. No two people have the same exact reasons for liking each other. It is unfortunate that sometimes we have to explain this. But be ready for it, because it can happen.

I think the best approach is probably to ask them to put themselves in your place. Ask them if they would enjoy a friend that they couldn't recognize, or - using a parallel example they may better understand - a friend who didn't speak their language. Just as they select friends from among those they can hear words from, you are simply selecting friends from among those people whom you can read emotions and identity from.

Losing Friends

You may lose a friend here and there because they have some prejudice against your face blindness. If this happens, remind yourself that they were in love not with you but with some imaginary person who does not exist and never has. And comfort yourself with thoughts that someone who truly does love you the way you are will come along to replace them.

This is an aspect of "coming out", no matter what it is you are coming out with. Part of the theory behind the desirability of "coming out" is that you are discarding people who didn't love you as the person you were unsuccessfully faking, for people who will love you for the genuine person that you are.

Suitable Social and Cultural Activities

Some activities aren't much fun for a face blind person. Going to a play or a movie won't be much fun if you sit through it never able to follow the plot because you mix all the people up. (Look at the ads in the newspaper and pick movies with diverse looking characters!) Manning an information booth for an organization won't be much fun if a big part of the activity is recognizing people and calling out to them. Group sports won't be enjoyed if you can't figure out who all the people are, fast enough.

There are many other activities though, such as most individual sports, that work out well. I've learned that to really have fun, I must choose activities that are one of those.

Staying Together with a Group

From time to time I will go somewhere with a group of people whom I can't recognize well. If in our travels we wander into a crowded place, I'll have a very real concern that if I were to take my eyes off of my group, I could never find them again. Needless to say, this causes anxiety and keeps me from enjoying the sights, since I must constantly be keeping my eyes on everyone in my group.

I've found the way to minimize this problem is to concentrate on one person only, and forget trying to watch all the others. Face blindness is very rare, and unless you latch onto another face blind person, you can count on him to keep the two of you with the rest of the people. It is a lot easier to never let one person out of your sight than it is to do that with several, so you can devote more of your energy to enjoying where you are.

Selection of a Career

Once you are aware of your face blindness, some careers should be obvious ones to avoid. Recognizing people is a major part of some jobs, such as policeman, salesman, and in some cases receptionist. If you have trouble with facial expressions (as many of us do), jobs that count on ascertaining subtle clues will not be for you. And if you have identity issues, jobs that require you to wear a uniform or certain other styles can also be a problem. (Identity will be dealt with separately in a section below.)

All work situations involve working with people, but where the skills you lack are not a major part of the work, it is reasonable to ask for an accommodation. All "an accommodation" is, really, is a small additional effort to be made by others to make the workplace accessible to you. In your case, all you need are some small behavior changes from coworkers. They are the same ones we've already talked about for friends.

If you are looking to select a career, be aware that counselors and the tools they use do not take your disability into account. You have to bring it up or it won't be considered. The tests only look at a few very basic skills plus where your interests lie. They do not test for disabilities. It is not outside the realm of possibility that a guy with a white cane could take one of those tests and be told he should be motorcycle cop. So whatever the tests say, add your own questions:

"Acceptance" versus "Tolerance"

Make yourself aware of the vast difference between being truly accepted rather than merely tolerated. People with poor face skills often do not read the subtle ways that others convey those differences, particularly when others convey messages of this sort by facial expressions, which is often the case. As a result of missing so many messages, a face blind person may not be aware they even exist, and he may merge all who don't send an emphatic "No!" into a common group perceived as accepting. This merging act will in time deprive you of realizing who your friends and enemies are, and this can interfere greatly with social and professional advancement.

"Actions speak louder than words" is the common controlling expression, but the actions you must depend upon are not facial expressions but rather other physical actions. If someone seeks to avoid you, or treats you differently from other people, take notice. If few or no people where you work will socialize with you or take their lunch with you, you are being merely tolerated there. If your boss does not afford you with all the benefits he bestows on others similarly situated to yourself, he is merely tolerating you. If you attend the functions of a social group for years but still have no friends there, again, take notice. And in all of these situations, get out!

We Need a "Volunteer"

At work, at school, or in a social setting, sometimes you will be asked to do something where there is an element of coercion involved. Even if at work you have taken a job that does not normally rely on face recognition skills, still occasionally you will be asked to do something that face blindness will present a problem doing. In these cases you really have these choices:

"Your way" of course means that you will be asking people their names. If you are to be greeting people and they don't want you asking people their names, they should ask someone else to do that task. If you are going to be passing out papers and the teacher does not want you to be calling out the other students' names because you can't recognize them, then she should ask someone else to do that task.

Security at the Front Door

Many workplaces have a front door, or other doors, that are locked. When two co-workers who are allowed access come up to the door at the same time, it is customary for whoever opens the door to let the other worker in. This can be a problem if you arrive first and you don't know the other person, and they can get downright angry if they have sat across the aisle from you for the last two months!

There is a simple solution for this problem. Tell everyone in the office if they run into you at the door to greet you by name. "Hi Bill," is all they need say. If this is not secure enough for management, then all employees should be instructed to use their keys if they see you at the door.

Some people will inevitably not do as told and will get aggressive at the door if you don't let them in, so you will. It is management's responsibility to correct their behavior, not yours. It is your responsibility only to report it. If you see no response against the transgressor due to your report, that means the unofficial policy is that what he did is okay. To avoid being seen as a troublemaker, you should just let strangers in thereafter.

Maintaining Your Identity

Not all face blind people are confronted with identity issues that clash with what society sometimes expects, but if you are one of us who finds himself in that situation, it is important to realize:

Thus, "stick to your guns" when it comes to your identity. The above benefits will most likely far outweigh any detriment from prejudice you might encounter.

If you have an identity issue, at work you may need to ask for an accommodation for your disability - a waiver of any "dress code" inconsistent with your identity. In obtaining this, it may help to point out there is a vast difference between something one merely wants to do, and a drive. Drives are so important to humans that society invariably accommodates them, at least in the fashion that most people have them. They pass laws, for example, mandating that meal breaks and toilet facilities be made available to workers. Someone who has his drives formulated in the most common fashion may have never experienced a situation where their own drives were challenged, and they may thus have no concept of the anguish this causes. Such a person has to be educated, and that can require time and effort.

In one job interview I led into this issue by pointing out that there are some people who feel much more strongly about their appearance than most people do. I pointed out that there are some guys in this town who feel so strongly about their appearance that they want to wear a dress, and though I am not one of those people, I do feel just as strongly about my hair, beard, and jeans. At that time, I did not know why, but I knew it was so, and I told them that. I got the job. Of course now I could go on, if requested, and explain why.

In reality everyone feels strongly about their appearance and will draw a line beyond which they will not cross. The difference between people is a matter of where they have drawn their line. That can come out in any detailed explanation, which may come later, or maybe never at all.

Living One's Own Perception

As a face blind person, you will in some ways see the world a bit differently than most people do. To some extent you can never see it as they do, and it's just not worth the energy to keep trying. This leaves you no choice but to do as everyone else does anyway, and just live your own perception. After all, it is the only one you have.

Understanding this situation may help you accept, and friends understand, why in some ways you are just different.

How Long "Learning to Cope" Takes

You won't read this chapter today and walk out onto the street tomorrow and find all you've learned to be second nature. This takes time. How long does it take for one to feel perfectly comfortable with his face blindness, and with any identity shifts brought on by his discovery of it? How long does it take to be perfectly relaxed when telling people about it? The time for individuals will vary, but in my case I can say - for all of this to occur it took five years.

Self Esteem

Having face blindness indeed causes you to be different in some ways, and adding up the differences, particularly if you think each of them is one more thing wrong, can leave you with the feeling that you are somehow "not normal." The most important thing you can do to dispel that notion is to learn all you can about face blindness. Read all you can about it, and meet other people who have it to compare notes, if you can.

I wish to conclude by sharing with you what I said to the Internet group of face blind people, which expresses the joy that learning about face blindness has brought to my life:

Over the past few months, in our group and in "Face Blind!", I have laid out all the ways I always thought I was very different from other folks; ways that I questioned at times as making me not "normal". Face blindness has explained them all, and thanks to our work here, I now can happily announce that I AM A PERFECTLY NORMAL FACE BLIND GUY!

It feels really good to realize, in retrospect, that I've been normal all my life! How could I know that, without meeting other face blind people to find out what is normal for us????

In Conclusion

I hope that these pages have helped you to understand face blindness, and that if you, or a friend, or a family member, have face blindness, that somehow I have helped your life, or that person's life, to be better. That has been my purpose in making this material available.

Before going, you may wish to check out the appendices, which include information on getting diagnosed for and researching face blindness. There you can also follow links to pages other face blind people have. And if you've found these pages of interest, well, I used to say here, "I would enjoy hearing from you." However, after a decade of my life taking an unexpected detour to explore what you've read here, I realized I had absorbed what I needed to know to pick up where I was before the exploration started, and that I needed to move forward with doing other things, to move forward with my life. I realized that is the goal we really should all strive for, so I will leave you now, and I wish you well on your journey!


"Face Blind!" - Table of Contents

Chapter 1Introduction
Chapter 2Discovering Face Blindness
Chapter 3Physical Causes of Face Blindness
Chapter 4The Importance of Recognizing Others
Chapter 5How Most People Recognize Others
Chapter 6Ways To Recognize Others Without Using the Face
Chapter 7How Non-Face Recognition Methods Work in Practice
Chapter 8A...Bill: How I Tell People Apart
Chapter 8B...Pertti: Recognition System - The Essence Model
Chapter 9Effect of Face Blindness on Emotions
Chapter 10Effect of Face Blindness on Sexuality
Chapter 11Effect of Face Blindness on Your Social Groups
Chapter 12Understanding Why People Choose To Look Alike - BACK
Chapter 13Ways To Improve Our Lives - YOU ARE HERE


Appendix AHow To Find Medical Articles on Face Blindness
Appendix BGetting Diagnosed (Tested) for Face Blindness
Appendix CLinks to Other Face Blind People
Appendix DAuthor's Information Page

This document is copyrighted. For information, or to contact the author, go to Appendix D, the Author's Information Page.

Text of this chapter last revised November 11, 2014.