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.

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.

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. 

Right now

I hate how you made me feel. I hate how you took my trust for granted and manipulated me, knowing I would always give you the benefit of the doubt. You lied and I would believe you because I thought that someone who said they loved me would never lie to me. I thought that someone who said they loved me wouldn’t push me past my comfort zone, or manipulate me, or violate me the way you did.

You know, for the longest time I blamed myself, as I believe many others in my situation do. I thought I should have put my foot down. I should have ended it right away. I should have said no louder, angrier, more forcefully. Those tears and that quiver in my voice shouldn’t have been there. I should have been stronger and then I wouldn’t be where I am today.

As I moved forward, away from you, I put my walls up and prepared for the worst. I was convinced that everyone I was with after you was just like you. I realize now that all these years and even today,  I somehow still blame myself. I told myself that I’m a bad person, and anyone I’m with will eventually see that. When that happens, I know that their eyes will wander and they will find someone better. I am but a stepping stone that is only there to be used.

I am starting to see now that the problem was you. You were so insecure and afraid that you put me down so I was on your level. You sought validation from other girls and used their attention to inflate your own sense of self worth. You were selfish and greedy, so you always took more and more from me even when I told you I had had enough.

Now I am far away from you and I see how love should be, but somehow I am still haunted by the past. I am told to be mindful and grateful for what I have, and I try my best, but I think before I can heal, I have to process what happened. It’s been 7 years. It’s about time.

Broken spirit

There is no longer passion or excitement in what I do. My spirit and my once inquisitive mind has been broken. Why am I here? Do I even want to do this anymore?

Has anyone else been working towards a goal that they believed in so much only to find that their work was obsolete? That the system they worked for was fundamentally corrupt?

I can’t study. I can’t work. It’s not even a matter of not wanting to work either. I just don’t want to do anything. I have a meeting in an hour and a half and to pass the time I feel like I should watch Netflix or play a game. But I can’t. I don’t want to do anything. All I feel like I can do is stare at the wall until I have to leave. Then go hope and sleep.

I can’t focus. I can’t concentrate on anything. I don’t care about anything. I feel like crying anytime I’m with too many people. The excitement is gone. I think it’s time to do something about this.

Self hatred and BPD

I read somewhere that most psychiatrists don’t like using the term “self hatred” and prefer to descrive a person as having low self esteem. I agree that I have low self esteem, but when things are particularly bad, self hatred is much harsher sounding, which I think fits. 

My self hatred chips away at different aspects of my life. Usually my relationship is first to get hit, since that is a weak point for me to begin with. I’m afraid I will be abandoned. If I hate myself so deeply, how can I ever expect anyone else to love me? And so, usually without me even realizing it, I push and push until they get frustrated with me. This is often achieved by angry outbursts, oversensitivity, accusations based on nothing but my irrational fears, and splitting. 

Right now the self hatred is so bad, I hate myself for even writing this. I’m stigmatizing my own situation, even though I would never think to do that to someone else. I can’t bear to write any more.

What I mean by “ugly”

You have to understand how I see people: outward appearance is insignificant in determining how beautiful I think someone is. When I say I’m ugly, sure sometimes I do dislike my outward appearance, everyone does once in a while. But I don’t inherently like myself. When I say I’m ugly, I mean I’m not a good person, I’m not a worthy person. I’m ugly.

I’ve met people who are outwardly considered good looking, but they’re awful people. I am not swayed by looks. If you’re manipulative, arrogant, or rude, I’m going to think you’re ugly. Ugly means “unpleasant or repulsive” and it does not always mean in appearance.

Sometimes I do think I’m pretty good looking, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think I’m ugly. And maybe when you say I’m beautiful you aren’t only talking about outward appearance, but that is how I interpret it. Maybe we need to clarify. So yes, I believe you when you say I’m beautiful in terms of a pretty face. Yes, I do believe you. So I will smile and nod when you say I’m beautiful. I will accept your kind words and I will believe you. I love hearing you say it, I really do. But I still think I’m ugly. And I think I’m the only one who can change my mind.