I have had Imposter Syndrome for really all my life. Along with 70% of the population, at some time or another. Imposter syndrome is that feeling that any successes you have had are due to luck or some external influences outside of yourself. And not your skills, talent or qualifications. The psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes named it in a paper in 1978.

Text: Imposter Syndrome and Chronic Illness
Image: Young woman facing  mirror

Typical Imposter Syndrome types:

  • Perfectionists- With excessively high standards and expectations of themselves that even if they achieved Most of them it is impossible to achieve All of them and therefore they feel like a failure. And any mistake is magnified.
  • Experts- Are hesitant to ask questions because they do not want to look stupid. They will not apply for a position with a company unless they fit every single criteria. They feel they need to know all the knowledge before starting any project and are constantly looking to improve knowledge and skills with advancement in training.
  • Natural genius- When they have any struggle or effort to achieve something they think they are not good enough. This is because they are so used to skills or knowledge coming easily and if it does not or some sort of effort is required that seems to be proof they are an imposter.
  • Soloists- They feel they must achieve everything themselves and if they need any help at all then clearly they are a failure and a fraud.
  • Superman/superwoman- Have to push themselves than anyone else around them to prove to themselves they are not imposters. And they feel a need to succeed in every aspect of their lives. They will feel a lot of stress if they are not accomplishing something.

I have a few of these but there are various ways Imposter Syndrome affects chronic illness or was made worse by the existence of chronic illness. And it started when I was really young. One I do not have that I think Particularly common with chronic illness is the Superman/Superwoman one- when we begin to feel like we must do it all to compete with others/our expected selves/what society expects from us. For me, though it definitely is the natural genius that started it simply by my nature, perfectionist that enhanced it when I became ill, and the soloist that kicked in with this concept that I was ‘weak’ if I asked for any help at all.

The doubt of being undiagnosed

As a child and teenager I went to the doctor frequently and numerous tests and so forth. But I didn’t get a diagnosis of anything for some time. It isn’t only that others doubt you, which they do, but you begin to doubt yourself as well. Like perhaps it is some sort of innate character flaw in you and you really are not that ill at all. But rather just weak of character or lazy. Just Flawed.

It is only natural to sort of develop perfectionism as a result. In that, you develop exceptionally high standards and expectations for yourself that even if you were perfectly healthy would be impossible to achieve. And the result is you always perceive yourself as a failure and less worthy. But this is validated by society in many ways that sort of also says in many ways that you are of less worth.

It literally didn’t matter what I achieved. Or the fact I achieved those things with pain, fatigue and sleep deprivation. I attributed anything to external factors and Not Good Enough.

Handling everything yourself

When I was in university I had a lot of stress. I really couldn’t keep up with my peers. The pain was getting to me. My insomnia was insane. Every symptom I had just got so much Worse. And it made me pretty depressed. A doctor treated me for depression but since I react extremely poorly to antidepressants, well, this did not work out well for me at all. It just made me not eat and not go to class and basically not do a thing at all really. Until I noticed how severely bad that was and weaned myself off of it.

But this whole idea that I had to handle everything myself or I was weak had invaded my sense of self by then. I took a year off to recover from the depression and then returned to school. I was then diagnosed with fibromyalgia and adjusted to that. I managed my studies and achieved honours. I worked during the summers and that was extremely painful for me but I just pushed through it each time. And learned that if I pushed through the pain- I could achieve goals.

By the time I went to the Master’s program I had unmanaged chronic migraine disease and untreated fibromyalgia. And I was still doing the push through the pain- and I can achieve my goals. Because to ask for help or accommodation or to admit anything at all was a weakness. I already saw myself as innately flawed. And that any time I wasn’t Perfection I was a Failure as a Person.

Work and society compounds Imposter Syndrome with disability

If you already have this concept that you must strive all the time and push all the time to be more so that people cannot tell you are in any way compromised by this inherent weakness/disability/flaw- then the workforce is just going to be one hell of a place. Because in all likelihood it will just reinforce all the horrible beliefs you already have. That you have less worth than everyone else. Because disability discrimination exists and stigma exists. When we are exposed to it for long durations we absorb it and then self-stigma becomes part of our self-belief system.

I truly did doubt my value and worth as a person. I truly did believe I was a failure as a person. And, yeah, depression is pretty inevitable at that point. And I just masked all that by pushing harder. But that made me crash harder. Which made me feel so much worse as a person, inevitably.

Invalidation by the medical community

I’m not saying that the workplace is entirely at fault for this. Because numerous doctors along the way invalidate a woman’s pain experience. Or the very existence of fibromyalgia altogether, actually. And, in fact, that wasn’t even treated for fibromyalgia for a decade or so.

And so many ways they Imply you have Just anxiety along the way. Or Just depression. Frankly, it is extremely insulting. And infuriating. That doesn’t change the fact that your brain hears those words and you do absorb their doubt and eventually, you reflect that doubt back on yourself.

The whole aspect of ‘If I just push through the pain- it will all be fine is because of the fact you think it must not actually be that bad. So you think if you just force yourself to endure it you can succeed. But by doing so you make it so much worse. I did this over and over again but I had been conditioned to do so over and over again by medical professionals.

What I know now

I am able to see things a little differently now. That my beliefs about myself, my illness and what others think have warped my capacity to function a great deal.

  • Asking for help and having a support system is definitely not a weakness. It is fundamental. A I think part of being a functional human being really. But certainly there are times when I need help when it comes to being disabled and that isn’t weakness.
  • Excessively high standards and expectations are harmful whether we are healthy or not. I definitely had to adjust to realistic goals, ambitions, desires, standards and expectations. And certainly the more disabled I became the more essential this became. I have to value what I am capable of when I am capable of it.
  • It is possible the Imposter Syndrome has pushed me to exceed beyond my limitations many times. In the pursuit of perfection I have excelled at many goals. However, I never felt like I succeeded. I have learned over time I appreciate everything I do now and value everything I am capable of. And see my own self-worth.
  • I can’t control the opinions of others. Not in the workplace or otherwise. But I can do my best not to be affected by those beliefs and opinions as I have in the past. Not that we are even consciously aware we absorb the stigma around us. However, when we become aware of it and start to discard those distorted beliefs it becomes a whole lot easier to recognize those abliest beliefs again and not let them affect our thinking.
  • I am, of course, aware my Imposter Syndrome would be there without chronic illness and disability. It is mostly a product of my personality type. It just became magnified by my chronic illness and how I reacted to and responded to my chronic illness early on and how people reacted and responded to my chronic illness.

Essentially, Imposter Syndrome and chronic illness is a massive problem because it sort of shoves you into a state of denial over and over again. You can’t deny your pain and illness when you crash and burn and have to go on leave from work.

But you sure can when you are at work. When you put on that facade of well-being and those around you can’t tell how much pain you are in and therefore doubt how much pain you are in. I would convince myself over and over again that I could attain all my goals and ambitions because it Must not be as bad as I thought… because doctors and insurance companies were always putting me back to work. Therefore, the flaw was in me. I was weak. I wasn’t that ill. I was flawed in some way other people were not. Therefore, if I just kept pushing through it- I would be fine. Up and until, I wasn’t fine. And repeat. And repeat. Pain just can’t be ignored like that. It compounds.

Eventually, one day, you just have to accept that it as it is. That you have to adjust your life, lifestyle, pace and not push against it like it is something that can simply be ignored. And that no one, not society, employers, doctors or even yourself can make you feel like a fraud, or weak or a failure anymore.

Chronic illness: 2 limiting beliefs

Our Chronic Pain Story: The Plot
Our Chronic Pain Story: The Theme
Our Chronic Pain Story: The Author

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