Have you ever felt like you’re just acting….
…and soon everyone will find out that you are fraud? Have you ever felt like your whole life is a “Fake it ’till you make it”? Do you know the fear that things will be taken away from you, because you haven’t earned having them in the first place? Have you ever heard of the impostor syndrome? The impostor syndrome is a psychological pattern that causes severe self-doubt and anxiety. Individuals feel like they have not earned their success, even though they have, up to a point where they believe that they just got really lucky or that other people for some inexplicable reason find them to be more intelligent than they actually are.
Men and Women are both equally sufferers from this phenomenon, although it is especially wide-spread in the academic field or within people, who work in higher ranks. It is estimated that 70% of people will experience impostor-syndrome at some point of their life, very often linked to beginning a new job or taking on a new role within their usual setting. It is also not uncommon that individuals who are part of a discriminated minority are more likely to suffer from the impostor syndrome.
But since not many people talk about it, we sat down and did exactly that…
Conversation #5 about the impostor syndrome
What would be the title of your autobiography?
It would be one word: Lucky.
When did you realize that you struggle with something not everyone struggles with?
When there was a time when leaving the house started becoming difficult. It started a couple of years ago. When I was already…you could say…a grown up. I thought that I had sorted out the important things: I had finished university and got a job. I thought: “I am safe now.” And then I started feeling anxious about various things…first bigger things, then little things… then even smaller things. Up until a moment where leaving the house to do certain things became a matter of being able to do it or not being able to do it. I was anxious about doing certain things before things even happened. But I started to think obsessively about where I was going, what I was doing and how that could feel and what could happen.
How does it affect your everyday life?
It does. Not as much as it used to, but it still does. Some days are better, some days are worse, some days are not so good. Those days are becoming rarer, but they are still there. It feels like I’m missing out on things. Because I started to think obsessively about what could go wrong. Then I get this unwell feeling before leaving the house and I would just not go somewhere. It’s just a feeling like an elephant is sitting on my chest. It just makes it difficult for me to be in that moment. So, I would just cancel plans and stay in my safe environment.
How did your family & friends react when you told them? What impact did it have on you?
I have tried to tell them. With my mother it was not as easy as I thought it would be. The reason why I thought it was going to be easy is because anxiety runs in my family. My mother had severe anxiety when she was young, like in her twenties. And I remember her suffering from anxiety when I was child, but I wouldn’t know what anxiety was. I just remember her saying: “I’m not feeling well, I cannot go somewhere with you.” It would be normal for kids and parents to go somewhere. And I couldn’t go anywhere with my mom. She would send me to pay the bills when I was twelve years old. She would ask me to do it because she couldn’t. I didn’t know what it was until later: It was anxiety. When I tried telling her about my issues, it was so hard. She was trying all my life to prevent it from happening to me. I felt like it was too much of a burden for her.
I have told my friends and they were totally fine with it. It was the most normal thing in the world for them to ask me if there is anything, they can support me with. I have also told my boss because there was one day where I could not go to work. I just wanted her to know the reason. She was very supportive and very understanding. She even called me in the evening to ask how I was and told me to take some time off if I needed to because anxiety is something that needs to be addressed in a proper way.
What was the most valuable advice anyone has given you?
It’s not a piece of advice per se but it’s a way someone described anxiety to me. Someone once told me: “These are just feelings and now you are ready to let them out and feel them.” And I thought “Well…then this is a good thing. I’m going to feel what I’m feeling. All the suppressed fear…I’m going to let it out…I am going to let it go. I will stay in the moment…let it pass through me and then it’s gone…bye bye.”
What did you discover to be a helpful coping strategy?
What helps me with anxiety or obsessive thinking, or imposture syndrome is to read about it. It helps me when I feel informed about something. First it shows me that this is a thing that people have, it’s normal. It’s an accumulation of circumstances that have come to interplay in a way that resulted in this. And this is just a healthy response to something that this is happening. So, once I’m informed, I feel like I’m in control and I don’t have to fear what is happening. Because fearing anxiety itself is another issue that just adds up. I start reading about things and buy books and then I feel empowered. “I know what you are.”: In a way anxiety becomes personified and I feel like I know what this is and that it’s not here to harm anyone. It’s just a normal response that many people have.
How did it feel to reach out for help? Did anything make it easier for you to do so?
I have not had therapy. I have tried a holistic approach to body and mind. Types of movement that help you access trauma that your body has stored and that help you free yourself from that trauma. I have also tried talking to people I know who have a professional background in psychotherapy, but they are my friends… so I didn’t go to therapy, but I used what I had in my personal environment.
What would make it easier for you to reach out?
There are reasons I don’t do that. Once it’s official and I go see a professional therapist: First, I won’t be in control anymore because I need to trust them and their treatment. Secondly, then it becomes official that I have a problem. Then I am a patient and I don’t want to be one. Maybe that’s because of my personal background. Originally my parents come from the Balkans. Mental health and mental health issues have been a taboo for a very long time in the Balkans. I remember mental health issues were a big problem because there was no such thing as a mental issue that’s not severe. If you had a mental health issue, it had to be something that would make you different, dangerous and not approachable.
Could you describe in one sentence what’s it like to live with anxiety and impostor syndrome?
It’s very limiting because it influences the way you see yourself as somebody who has so many faults. You are not what you should be, and something is wrong with you.
Is there anything that still bothers you about having to live with anxiety and impostor syndrome, but you made your peace with it?
I remember the times when anxiety wasn’t an issue and I remember how free I felt and how at peace with the world I was. The limitations that come with the feeling still bother me. Not in a way that I wish I didn’t have it, but I’d rather be done with it.
What’s something you want people to know about your condition?
I would like to see more education about this in places like schools. To educate people that it’s normal not to function like a machine and that it’s normal to have different coping mechanisms. As a person you are not supposed to be a certain way, but just by way of life you get to be a certain way and then you should feel free to take it from there.
What’s a positive thing about your condition? How did it have a positive impact on the person you are today?
It made me look into things that otherwise I would not be aware of right now. Taught me things about my own history, about my family’s history. It helped me perceive other people in a different way. It made me more observant and understanding and more accepting of limitations in general.
[interview has been edited for length and clarity]