We have a guest contributor this month! Bobbi is in the 2018-2019 Peer Voice Cohort. I think you’ll find her thoughts on Impostor Syndrome to be pretty relatable…I know I did. Thank you, Bobbi!
Not too long ago, I was asked to be a part of a panel on disability and sexuality, for a disability education conference. I had, at the time, already put months of work and research into a project specifically about disability and diversity, and my own identity as a queer disabled person gave me all the lived experience I needed to consider myself an authority on the topic. Despite this, I was confused by the invitation.
Why on earth would anyone want to listen to me when there are real experts? Almost immediately, I found myself questioning my work, fighting the pervasive fear that everyone was going to find out that I’m a fraud, only posing as a disability and diversity authority.
Except… I’m not.
This is impostor syndrome, a condition in which people believe that they could not possibly deserve the accolades or authority they have earned. It is the little voice that whispers you are totally pretending to know what you’re doing and they’re all going to find out eventually, and it’s terrifying. For some experts, it presents itself as part of something known as the dunning-kruger effect—the more you know, the more you don’t know, and thus underestimate your ability—but for those of us doing peer work, impostor syndrome is often born out of the same place that our expertise is: our lived experience.
As peers, many of us have experienced disenfranchisement at the hands of so-called experts. We have spent years being told that our doctors, clinicians, case workers, parents, teachers, clergy—everyone—knows better what we need than we know ourselves. We have been medicated and confined, treated into submission, and told repeatedly that if we just do as we’re told and practice compliance, things will be better.
It’s a kind of conditioning, really. We’ve been taught implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, that we don’t have the capacity to make our own decisions. And if we aren’t the experts in our own lives, how could we ever be trusted to be experts on anything else?
As we move forward with careers in peer support or recovery, many of us have reclaimed power for ourselves, and moved into a place of acceptance or even celebration of our lived experiences and the strengths we have built from them. Still, the messages we have been conditioned to believe persist, reinforced on many occasions by the clinicians we now call co-workers, who aren’t yet ready to see us as more than patients.
We fight for respect and recognition, we do the work to win trust and be seen as the experts we are, only to feel betrayed by our own minds and doubts. After so many years of being told we aren’t capable, a part of us may still believe it, even though we know it isn’t true.
I have years of experience, and yet I am still surprised when the voice of authority is my own. I find a real cognitive dissonance in people taking my direction, when obviously I am not qualified to be in charge of anything. A decade after I facilitated my first support group, I still have to fight back the urge to tell the people I serve to run and seek guidance from a real professional. Don’t listen to me, I have no idea what I’m doing
Impostor syndrome is a part of work no one warns you about—probably because we’re all so afraid of being discovered as frauds that we don’t dare mention we have secret doubts about our abilities. It is in this silence that fear and doubt thrives. The same voice that tells us we aren’t good enough tells us that if we talk about not feeling capable, it will be true—holdover feelings of trauma from times when speaking our truth was less safe than practicing the compliance we had been taught.
But much as the monsters can only live under the bed as long as we don’t pull up the bed skirt and look for them, the things we don’t say can’t haunt us with what-ifs if we actually say them out loud.
And as it turns out, the voice of impostor syndrome lies.
As peers, we are not only capable, we are powerfully able. We can fight the impostor syndrome with logic and indisputable fact: we have lived experience. We weren’t given a map of recovery, we had to draw one for ourselves. We’ve visited the mountains and climbed them, stumbled our way through the forests, found the treasure and put an X in the sand. So when we tell others that the rocks will be slippery and the journey will be hard, but we know they can make it, that isn’t guesswork—it’s real knowledge and understanding. We didn’t watch the documentary, we were there, and our footprints still linger in the mud we’ve trudged through to get to where we are. We are everything we claim to be and more.
And impostor syndrome? That’s just another bully. After everything we’ve lived through, it won’t be the thing to bring us down.