The impostor experience

“Impostor Syndrome” was first described by Dr. Clance and Dr. Imes in 1978 in an article looking at the inability of high-achieving women to internalize academic success. In other words, these women were unable to take credit for their successes, often being afraid that they will be exposed for being a fraud and attributing their success to luck or chance. Later, Dr. Clance had stated, “if I could do it all over again, I would call it the impostor experience, because it’s not a syndrome or a complex or a mental illness, it’s something almost everyone experiences.”

The Impostor Experience is not a recognized mental illness in the DMS-V, however it is a topic of interest to psychologists, especially studying individuals working in academia. As a doctoral student studying in an all-female lab, I have found that every other grad student has described some form of impostor experience at one point in their academic careers. Although this syndrome is seen in both males and females, based on my experiences and conversations I have seen it more prevalently in females. A lot of this, I believe has to do with societal expectations of women.

Some common signs that someone may be feeling like an impostor include:

  • Perfectionism and subsequent inability to either begin or finish tasks
  • Extreme fear of failure (“I can’t fail”, “if I don’t do this, I’m a failure”)
  • Undermining one’s achievements or successes, attributing them to luck or chance (“I just got lucky”, “anyone else could have done this”)
  • Fear of being “exposed” as a fraud (“I feel like a fake”, “someday someone will see right through me”)
  • Rejecting/discounting praise

A lot of these signs act hand-in-hand with anxiety and depression, but the way women are conditioned to be growing up in Western society compounds these effects. Finally, personality plays a huge role in the development of the impostor experience.

In my experience, I have felt the need to turn down praise in order to not seem egotistical or overbearing. I have felt the need to downplay my achievements in fear of seeming like I am bragging. Growing up very shy, I have always shied away from too much attention or recognition. Unfortunately, instead of humbling myself, I ended up tearing down my self worth and often selling myself short. There is some sort of common belief that tells women we cannot be assertive, and by extension we may perceive that to mean that we cannot be successful or proud of our success.

Once you acknowledge you may have impostor syndrome or impostor experience, you can start tackling this problem by:

1) Taking note of your successes and achievements.

In my experience in DBT, this is a skill called “accumulative positives”. Since some of us so often focus so much on negatives and criticisms, it is good to periodically acknowledge the good. And not just mentally – it helps tremendously to physically write down your achievements. By doing this, it makes these successes seem more concrete and “real”.

2) Realizing you are not perfect, nor do you have to be.

Oftentimes we just need to take that leap when we are so afraid to start or finish a project. For writing, sometimes I get stuck in my head and delay blogging or writing for days. It’s when I realize that I don’t have to get it perfectly on the first try (or even by the last draft) that I put out some of my best work. Life is rarely an all-or-nothing event. Edits and changes can be made after the fact. It is okay to be less than perfect. It is okay to ask for advice. It is okay to start a project before you feel 100% “ready”.

3). Talk to others, and realize you are not alone.

Struggling with these feelings can be difficult, and there is no need to go through it alone. Often our thought processes are clouded by our own doubts and simply talking to another person can help clear the fog. If you are also a grad student, you will likely find talking to others (if you are comfortable doing so, of course) will reveal many other students feeling the same way. Looking at the girls I work with, I see them all as strong, independent, and admirable women. Knowing that they struggle with self doubt and feelings of inadequacy does not make me think less of them, just as it does not make them think less of me. If anything, the realization that you are struggling and continuing to push through makes you stronger and braver than you could imagine.

Music, to me

Music is extremely important to me, as it is to so many people. People love music for so many reasons, and here’s why I love it so much.

Music says the words I want to say, but in a much more beautifully elegant way. Just the fact that there is the instrumentals, harmonies, melodies, and all the little nuances there make it much more beautiful to me than if I were to say the words or write the words myself.

Not to mention, if you add in the fact that I’m an extremely sensitive soul and I can be moved to tears by a huge variety of music, music is a recipe for me becoming a puddle on the floor.

So when I make you a playlist, I am baring my soul. I know people are deterred if they don’t like a genre or an artist, but for me the music and lyrics speak beyond those small details.

I’ve always been very sensitive about my music taste. Well, I’m sensitive in general. Growing up playing music and letting it heal me has fostered a very deep connection for me. Singing songs that speak to my heart has fostered a deep connection with many songs.

I want to share my love, but I am so afraid because of how sensitive I am. Sometimes I think, how pathetic. How weak. But more often I’d rather think, how lucky. Extreme emotional sensitivity is a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it. How fortunate that I can be so moved by music in a way that some people simply cannot fathom. I am grateful.

I am a good person

I’ve always been empathetic, I’ve seen the good in everyone, and have always refrained from judging others.

I just fell into the hands of the wrong people. People who took my kindness and forgiveness for granted. People who could manipulate me and lie to me without having me question it. People who took my innocence and tried to break my spirit.

Others tell me I’m a good person. Many people have also said many wonderful things about me.

Despite all this, I still remain unconvinced.

If I’m such a good person, why do I have to experience so much pain.

I have no idea who I really am.

I am good and I am bad.

I am proud of myself yet deeply ashamed.

I am happy but so often I get so sad.

I’m a walking paradox

Mental illness is not an excuse

Reminder that mentally ill people can be abusive. Reminder that you do not have to excuse their abusive behaviour just because they’re in pain.

If you are hurting and you blame others for your pain, you are being manipulative.

If someone actually abuses you, you can state the fact that they abused you and you are now feeling pain.

If someone criticizes or critiques you, and it hurts you, these are your own insecurities. This does not make them abusive. This does not make them toxic.

If you tell someone it’s their fault you had a breakdown, or want to hurt yourself, or want to kill yourself, you ARE being manipulative and unfair. Even if they hurt you.

Fighting fire with fire doesn’t work.

Today is the (second… Or third… Or tenth) beginning of my recovery. After too long without consistent therapy I’ve finally found a DBT therapist I click with. My meds have been adjusted and I’m hoping with all my heart that the antipsychotics will work soon. Because this is hell.

I read through a lot of my blog posts and realized it really has been a tough year. I don’t think I’m good at many things but I can say I’m good at downplaying the status of my mental well-being.

The night I didn’t die

Trigger warning: May be upsetting to those who have previously attempted suicide or experienced an overdose.

The morning after, I felt groggy and unrested.

Walked downstairs to fill my water bottle. Holding it under the flow of water I noticed my hands shaking.

Stopped the flow of water. Tried to hold the bottle in front of my face, tried to be completely still. The bottle shook violently with my hands.

Walked quickly upstairs, with more urgency. Picked up a pen to write down what I remembered from the night before. Tried to write down my symptoms. My writing was unrecognizable.

Pulled clothes off the end of the bed. Struggled to dress. Struggled to pull my shirt over my head. Struggled to stop the shaking for long enough to put on pants. 15 minutes later.

Called my housemate who had a car to drive me to the hospital. No answer. Called the boyfriend.

“I’ll be right over. 30 minutes.”

Sat on couch, hands shaking. Pulled out phone and messaged other housemate.

“Can you please stay with me until my boyfriend comes to bring me to the hospital? I’m afraid I might have a seizure.”

My shaking hands and now blurring vision slowed me down so much, it felt like ages to type.

Realized I would need my health card and insurance. Walked up to my room, and my shaky hands pulled out a key. Fumbled to unlock the door, only to jump back, muffling a scream.

Spider. The size of my hand. Crawling up the door frame, twitching, ready to jump. Stood there in a panic for what felt like 10 minutes.

Finally opened the door and jumped back, anticipating the spider. Nothing. Looked closer and it was gone. Hallucinations.

Sat on the couch waiting for an eternity. Sporadic bolts of strong electricity would bind me to my seat. Completely paralyzed. Uncontrollable shaking. Electricity. Paralyzed. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Watching spiders rise up from the carpet and crawl towards me before melting away.

“I always thought you were a little too well adjusted,” jokes the housemate.

Nervous laughter in agreement. “Jokes on you,” I say.

Boyfriend arrives. I can’t move. Pulls me up and walks me to the car.

Arrive at hospital. At reception. Try to speak, but my throat is paralyzed. Boyfriend completes registration.

When I can speak, all I can say is, “my hands feel so heavy. They feel so heavy. I can’t hold them up, they’re rocks.” Boyfriend encouragingly picks up hand to show that they aren’t heavy each time.

Feel like melting into the floor. Eyes roll back in head. Vision readjusts. Electricity. Paralysis. Tears that I can’t wipe away. My hands – they’re too heavy.

Dissociation. Slips out of body. White light. Fear. I’m going to die here. I’m going to be buried here, thousands of kilometers away from my family. Will they ship my body back? Will they fly it back?

I slip in and out of my body again. I’m calm and at peace. Complete serenity. Electricity. Fear returns.

Try to speak to the nurse but I’ve lost all speech. I’ve lost all movement. My soul keeps slipping out, I can feel it.

Fear. What if they shame me like last time? I cry. “Please don’t get mad. Please believe me,” I think as loud as I can.

She speaks to me and I see her far away. Don’t close your eyes. I wasn’t even trying to die. I just wanted to stop the pain. Regret and fear.

Later. I’m back in my body. The psychiatric nurse sits with me, so gentle and kind. Relief.

She tells me I’m lucky. I well-exceeded what should have been a lethal dose.

I don’t know what to say so I just cry. I thank her. I leave.

Depersonalization

An invisible hand reached through my neck, cutting my breath short, pulling my consciousness away until it was completely detached from my body.

I could move, but only very slowly.

I could see, but everything was choppy, as if I was looking at a broken screen.

I could hear, but it was like I was underwater. Voices seemed far away and echoed even though they came from right in front of me.

I instructed myself to smile, to move my head every once in a while so no one would know anything was wrong. I robotically carried out these actions when I could.

I sat beside myself and saw the dead, faraway look in my eyes. The blank face. My body swayed unsteadily. I felt nauseas, as if my body was a rocking boat and I was dangling off the edge.

I somehow found my way home and fell into a long and uneasy sleep.

Numb

Disgust. Shame. Hatred. Anger. They pour into my skull with a violent, jarring crash. 

It’s like leaving a loud concert and suddenly realizing everything has gone quieter, more muffled. It’s your ears adjusting to the repeated assault of loud noise. 

I am suspended from my body, like the outline of my mind is a centimetre or two off from the outline of my figure. All perceptions are fuzzier. My vision blurs. I hear sounds as if they’re hundreds of miles away. I can’t feel my body.

I’m not sure whether I should throw up. Or scream. Or hurt myself. Maybe I’m better off like this. Maybe I should find better earmuffs.