Imposter Syndrome in Trauma Survivors

Here’s a story.  I’m sharing it because it might elucidate something for you.  I’ll open with a question.

Have you ever felt something like a fear of discovery? Like if people found out who you really were, then they would abandon you because, deep down, you’re really just a fraud?  As if you are not legitimate in some way?  You might even be broken or incapable.  You don’t really have a right to be here.

It’s called Imposter Syndrome.  Here’s a quick and dirty definition: “a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a “fraud”.” (Wikipedia)

Does this ring true for you?

This internal experience used to rule my life.  I didn’t even know that it was a “thing”, but it is.  The American Psychological Association discusses it, and the New York Times published an article elaborating on it (Learning to Deal with Imposter Syndrome).  It’s a very real phenomenon.  For people with profound trauma in their backgrounds, it’s even more relevant.

Why?

Here is my experience…

A while ago, when my oldest daughter was quite wee, I was getting to know a woman with a son close in age to my daughter.  She was asking me the typical “Let’s Get to Know Each Other” questions.  I was young and naive, and I had no problem engaging in social niceties.  I did not realize that people rarely wanted truthful answers.  So, when she asked me about my familial background and I answered truthfully, I was unprepared for her response which went something like this:

“I do not want to hear terrible stories about your life.  I can’t tolerate things like that.  Please don’t share such things with me.”

I was gobsmacked.  I had only said that I had a difficult relationship with my mother.  She had a history of depression and multiple suicide attempts.  I didn’t describe in detail how she did it.  I wasn’t reliving trauma in front of her.  Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of such a reaction, but I felt a very particular sting.  I couldn’t name it, but I respected her boundaries all the same.  Whenever I saw her after that I simply smiled and said, “I’m fine.  How are you?”  That was what made her feel happy.  I felt like a phony, but I get it.  I grew up within the trappings of the nouveau riche country club crowd.  Authenticity isn’t exactly a welcome guest.

A few years later, I met and became friends with another woman who, as our friendship deepened, pressed me for more intimate details about my past and present life.  I was wary.  I had never quite felt like my past life circumstances were my fault before, and I was beginning to feel under the microscope–judged.  It wasn’t my fault that my mother was mentally ill.  It wasn’t my fault that my father was a sociopath.  Admittedly, I came from unusual circumstances, but I didn’t see myself as taking the blame for their bad behavior.  Their problems did not originate in me.  All the same, when I began to share some information, this woman responded in much the same way as the aforementioned woman.  Remarkably, she, too, could not bear to hear that children were abused and mothers attempted suicide.  She didn’t want to hear that fathers could be bad, and young women could be trafficked.

“I don’t like this story.  I don’t want to hear it.  It’s so negative.  Tell a different story.”

Well, shit, I don’t like it either, but she asked.  I was attempting to be authentic while, at the same time, not go “too deep” as it were.  How does one form meaningful relationships with people when the past is so full of terrible stories? And why was I starting to feel so, for lack of a better word, broken? So rejected? As if I were the one who had done something wrong? I started to feel like I had to redact my own history in order to be socially and interpersonally acceptable.  So, I did just that, and I was not quick to reveal myself to anyone.  I adopted a persona, and it worked because I was raised to “try harder” in order to earn acceptance anyway.  Not approval.  Approval was The Dream.  Acceptance, on the other hand, felt attainable.  If your efforts passed muster, then you were found to be acceptable.  Tolerable.  Adequate.  Lacking in interest, and that was a very good thing because if you weren’t of interest, then you weren’t open to criticism and a potential target for abuse or terroristic threats.  These new experiences with social rejection felt eerily similar.  Suddenly, approval was off the table as was a chance at intimacy and connection.  Social acceptance and invitation became the options.  Not inclusion.

I was learning quickly that many people were not interested in anything profound and meaningful particularly if it challenged their worldview, and suffering challenges paradigms.  This is why so many people grapple with theodicy.

Years later, in a small group, I revealed truth about my past.  Again.  With disastrous consequences.  My greatest fear at that time was that if I told the truth about past trauma I would be seen as inherently tainted–illegitimate–and, henceforth, at fault.  I feared social alienation and rejection.  That is essentially what happened.  It was a devastating betrayal, but it was the greatest catalyst to healing I’ve ever experienced. Good ultimately came from that circumstance.

Sometimes wisps of this dynamic appear even now in statements like this: “Tell me something about your childhood, but don’t tell me something about your father.  I don’t want to hear about how he killed an animal in front of you or something awful like that.”  Yes, this is a boundary.  I don’t want to violate anyone.  People do have a right to determine what they do and don’t want to hear.  For example, someone could say this: “Tell me a story about human connection that you’ve experienced, but don’t talk about sexual connection.  I don’t want to hear about past sexual encounters.”  That’s a boundary.

What is the difference between the two boundaries?

My sexual encounters were by choice but trauma is not.  Generally, unless there is a kink at play, people don’t require a witness to the sexual narrative in order to experience validation, acceptance, and approval in the context of relationships.  In the context of developing relationships, however, people do, at some point, need a witness during the process of narrative exposure in order to feel minimally acceptable, and optimally approved of, particularly if there is trauma within their narrative.  Being told that their narrative is not tolerable is, in part, stigmatizing because it casts a pall on the personal experiences of people causing them to experience less authenticity within their relationships and even within their self-perception.  Necessary deletions of one’s personal narrative made in order to survive socially in different contexts affects the healing process.  We cannot integrate properly after trauma if we can’t even talk about what happened to us because other people find our stories unpalatable.

Yes, the stories are bad.  That’s why trauma survivors suffer so terribly.  Part of being compassionate people is listening and acting as witnesses to those who are suffering in silence and solitude fearing that no one will ever hear their entire truth and still want and love them after disclosure.  This is one of the unbearable curses of living with trauma.

This is why the variation of Imposter Syndrome in survivors of trauma needs to be addressed.  The ontological loneliness is real.  The fear of being discovered is real, and it’s legitimate.  The way out is telling our stories.  All of them.  To very safe people who will sit with you while you lay them out.  They won’t judge you.  They won’t blame you.  They will act as witnesses to everything you have heard, seen, and experienced.

And, they will accept you as you are today.  They will approve of you no matter what you did in the past.  And, why would anyone do that, you ask?

Because your past self got you to where you are today, and that’s something to be very proud of.  Regardless of your past experiences, you’ve made it this far.  That’s a story worth telling.  Shamelessly.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Imposter Syndrome in Trauma Survivors

  1. You put into words my entire upbringing and childhood/current experience. Thank you for sharing such an eye-opening article and for allowing me to realize that I am not alone in this type of experience. I want you to know the same as well. Your article gave me so much peace in the way you were so able to eloquently piece together the issues of imposter syndrome and how it is so permeating in trauma victims.

    Thank you,
    Noorain

    • I am very touched by your honest response. Thank you for being so honest about your experience. I am very hopeful that other people read it and feel encouraged. It encouraged me, and I feel very grateful. Thank you again, MJ

  2. I read this and was astounded. Literally I have tried to explain why I am reticent to even give what I call the “glossy facts” of my life (not reliving the trauma at all) because have been told again and again that “that was so upsetting. I’m literally going to be upset for a week because you told me that” or “Hey, could you not talk about [trauma] anymore? I mean, we still want to hang out, but you’re bumming us out.” And then the people who accuse me of not being open with them are “horrified” and tell me “That’s an aberration. Regular people aren’t like that! I would never be like that!” I’ve also been assured “You just have weirdly awful luck in people. Seriously.” As if five or six times was this bizarre outlier in people’s reactions.

    I just think a lot of people don’t realize what their own reactions are going to be, whether out of ignorance or otherwise. And a lot of people can’t even begin to fathom even the emotions associated with longterm trauma and resulting conditions like c-ptsd. I’ve known about trauma, and I’ve known about Imposter Syndrome, but this is the first time I’ve seen them put together and it’s really amazing. I hope this can become more talked about so it can receive funding and medical study. I completely agree that this is a very important facet of Imposter Syndrome, and one that is literally my own deepest darkest fear: that everything good about me is an elaborate illusion constructed to fool the people around me and anything that confirms that (failure, rejection) just reiterates that I have to work twice as hard to keep the lie up just to gain minimal acceptance. That I should be three times as nice, three times as understanding, three times as willing to help because good god bare human decency is something I probably don’t even deserve. And I 100% recognize it for what it is. And I still feel that way. Thanks for your personal anecdotes and stories as well.

  3. I can’t express how thankful I am to you for writing this article and sharing your experience. I thought I was the only one. And how BRAVE you are to put this out there because there are so many who don’t understand. But I’m relieved and saddened at the same time that there are many who do. Thankful for those that commented also. I have always, always thought something was just inherently wrong with me. That may not go away anytime soon. But this article is a life saver. Thank you. Thank you.

    • Whenever anyone comments on this particular post, I tear up. I am very grateful that what I wrote encouraged you. Keep going…it gets better. Shalom to you, MJ

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