Who Do You Think You Are? About Imposter Syndrome and The Fails

There are many things I quite love about the Millennials. I’m on the Boomer/GenX cusp myself: technically a Boomer, but I feel more early GenX. Of course, I’ve done my duty and complained about and cajoled the younger generation for this and that, but really, truly, the kids are all right. Among many other things, I’m grateful they have brought the term Imposter Syndrome into the larger national conversation about mental health and well-being.

According to this well-researched Wikipedia article, Imposter Syndrome, coined in 1978 after a study of high-achieving women,* is a “psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their skills, talents or accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’.”

According to many of us in the chronic illness and disability communities, a type of Imposter Syndrome affects us’ns* as well, in which we doubt our level of authority about our bodies. We may doubt and downplay our symptoms or even withhold relief, even as we outwardly strive for recognition, respect, equitable care, and basic accommodations. Especially vulnerable to this type of Imposter Syndrome are those of us with so-called invisible illnesses and disabilities who have been dismissed and whose presentations have been diminished by various persons over the years. Many have been treated as if they themselves are invisible.

Yes! I am not alone! I mean, I guess I should be upset that there are so many of us who have been mistreated and denied and now have to wrestle with doubts and fears about what we know to be true — and I am — yet it’s also such a relief to know I am not the only one. Not by a long shot.

Despite the visible changes to my body, various test results, a long list of diagnoses, and statements from friends attesting to the effects of my diseases they’ve witnessed, I still have times when I fear someone — myself included — will expose me as a lazy-ass faker. I never wanted lupus and yet I knew on some level that I had some type of the enigmatic disease long before diagnosis. Along the way, a few people said, “No way you have that!” What if they were right? What if I’m really manifesting and/or exaggerating symptoms? Or both? Which symptoms? How do I …

This sort of internal battle is not a good fight. For me it’s a product of societal pressures and notions about the worth of being healthy and productive; a combination of disparagement, mistreatment, gaslighting, and denial of illness and resulting disability in childhood; entrenched ableism in much of the alternative health and wellness community;* and the bad doctoring I endured the last several years. Not to mention all those people whose response to hearing I’m sick was, “But you look really good.” (Except I did just mention them now, didn’t I?)

I have been struggling mightily with this here blog.

What am I doing? No one needs another blog. I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m not sick enough to be interesting. I’m too sick to figure this out. There have to be other people doing this way better than I. I can’t do this. No one cares. No one will like it. Oh crap, what if people do like it? I can’t do this. I don’t know what this is. I haven’t carefully planned it out. Is this even the format I want? I should start over.

And the beat down goes on.

I had a major episode of The Fails the week before Christmas. According to Debapedia,* The Fails is a state of mind in which the afflicted is convinced they have failed everyone in their sphere of influence in ways that are utterly despicable, because … well, because they failed. Duh. It’s related to perfectionism, but it’s so much more than that. The feeling of worthlessness, of having let everyone down and having no way to rectify it feels bone-marrow-deep. Of course the kicker is that often there is no evidence to support this claim to failure and few if anyone else sees any failure at all — and certainly not irreparable fiasco.

Like Imposter Syndrome, The Fails only makes sense to the person feeling it at the time. Both mental phenomena are rooted in fear — that one doesn’t measure up, has less worth than others, doesn’t deserve praise or respect. And for me at least, shame plays a significant role as well. And then one ridiculous notion dovetails into the next. I’m a fraud — I’m not really that sick — so why can’t I get these things done? — because I’m worthless and I ruin everything, including my health.

The solution? To my knowledge, lasting change takes committed work with the usual suspects: psychotherapy and/or support group(s); a solid support network (including healthcare providers, ideally); journaling and/or artistic modalities that aid in addressing negative self-image and deprecating thoughts; meditation or another centering and affirming practice; adequate nutrition and sleep; whatever movement you can and do enjoy.

I also heartily recommend Sonya Renee Taylor’s course of radical self-love, as laid out in her book, The Body Is Not an Apology. I’ve been (re-)reading this wonderful, radical, next to impossible book for over a year now, loving and struggling with the seemingly simple exercises. Among other offerings, daily affirmations delivered free of charge are available on the TBINAA website.

In the short run, here are some things that have helped me: crying; laughing; breathing exercises; playing with the dogs; listing, saying aloud all supposed Fails and hearing how bizarre, even laughable they sound; listing or sometimes arranging evidence, documents supporting accomplishments and/or illness and disability and directly contradicting the concept of repeat failures. Music. Sketching. Gratitude.

One of my accomplishments during this year of Underlying Conditions Lady in pandemic lockdown is that I have read a great many books! Mostly ebooks and audiobooks borrowed from my local library. Hurray for public libraries! Recently, I checked out a book of essays by Audre Lorde and the following quotes stood out as a shield against feeling like a fraud or a failure. I leave you with Audre Loree’s wisdom.

“For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition. And while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the wait of that silence will choke us. For it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.”

Audre Lorde, “For there are no new ideas, there are only new ways of making them felt.”

Head of large rabbit with floppy ears lookung content at being held in by human. (Person largely unseen.)
Tig the Notorious of Bunnytown USA. He was the rare bunny in both looks and in liking being held and cuddled.

*The phenomenon is not exclusive to women, by the way. I just think it’s mighty interesting that it was first observed in high- achieving women. We see you Dr. Jill Biden!

*Pronounced just like it’s spelld.

*I will write more about all that stuff in the future, especially regarding the anti-disability prejudice of some “wellness” thought and practice. Keep your outrage on simmer until then.

*Debapedia is my mate’s favorite reference tool, far and above Siri and The Goog. Debapedia is affected by occasional dense fog, which obscures information access. Rest assured, if it’s in there, the Deb read it somewhere at some time. Or heard it and wrote it down. In a notebook. Or my journal. Maybe the back of an envelope. Or could be in the cloud … somewhere … over the rainbow?