Stop! Impostor!! Impostor syndrome, confidence and intersectionality

I will preface this with saying that the introduction to this post is not intended to brag but to illustrate a problem I have – that of impostor syndrome.

I am the author of nine published books… An autobiography, a book on employment for autistic young people, one on mental health, two on resilience, one for autistic kids on self-empowerment, one is for autistic women on navigating life well, one is a book of my poems and one is for trans and gender divergent autistic adults. I have chapters or poems in a further ten publications and have two books in production and one under contract. These books are but one example of the impressive things I do but how do you imagine I view this? Basically I mostly dismiss and devalue every achievement I have and feel like I am a big fraud with nothing to offer the world. 

The interesting thing about this is that I am far from alone. Many people also experience impostor syndrome. And another interesting thing is that mostly – in my experience – the people experiencing impostor syndrome are people who belong to at least one intersectional group. I have a few ‘diversity’ boxes that I tick – I am autistic and ADHD, I have schizophrenia and am non-binary and asexual. I spent many years in my early adulthood in poverty and some years in prison. Even though my socio-economic status now is at the higher end of the scale, fifteen years of poverty have taken their toll on my feelings about myself and my place in the world. Likewise I have not been in trouble with the law since 1999 but that time in the criminal justice system took it’s toll on my confidence and sense of identity. 

When it comes to impostor syndrome, intersectionality is often – although not always – a big factor.  For me I experience impostor syndrome on a few fronts. It makes me question my worth and my contribution to the world. I worry that my books are meaningless and actually I have no expertise on anything I have written about and I am a complete fraud. I doubt my credentials and worry that I am just an opinionated person who has nothing useful to say about anything and people who buy my books are wasting their money. This is not just a fleeting thought or doubt, It is a deeply help belief. Even writing about it now adds fuel to the fire of impostor syndrome and I worry I am putting things into the world which are negative and unhelpful.

The other element of my own impostor syndrome is all about my identity, I worry that I am ‘not transgender enough’ or that people will question my autism, ADHD and schizophrenia diagnoses. Whenever someone misgenders me or makes a comment about my sense of style being feminine I get anxious and worry that I am a fraud as a non-binary ands transcoder person. When I first came out as non-binary this was a big problem and I worried about it all the time. Thankfully I came to the realisation that anyone who identifies as transgender is in fact transgender. It is an identity and you own it yourself. And looking at my past it is absolutely obvious that I am – and have always been – transgender and non-binary! Logic tells me that there is no doubt in that fact – although of course anxiety and logic don’t go hand in hand and impostor syndrome is related to anxiety.

Like other kinds of anxiety, impostor syndrome doesn’t listen to logic. I am one of the most accomplished people I know but that makes zero difference in how I view myself. Impostor syndrome can be fed by negative messaging and assumptions of incompetence from other people in relation to a person being Disabled. Disabled people are often treated like any minor thing we do is an ‘inspiration’ – something which feeds directly into impostor syndrome and a lack of confidence. We also often get messaging that we are incapable of doing anything very much – something which can result in a lack of confidence and in impostor syndrome.

I think that building self-confidence can be challenging but it is a good way of helping to address impostor syndrome. There is a thing which is like impostor syndrome but is sort of its opposite. That is where a person is wrongly overconfident. Similarly to impostor syndrome this thing relates to intersectionality but rather than resulting form someone feeling devalued as a member of intersectional groups, it tends to happen to people from positions of privilege. An example is a colleague I had many years ago. He was a white cis gender heterosexual middle class man. He applied for a promotion to two levels about his substantive work classification. I remember this because I applied for a promotion (for one level of advancement) at the same time and was convinced I wouldn’t get it. My level of confidence as an employee was quite low and I only applied for the promotion because my manager recommended it. This fellow applied for a position which was way beyond his capability because he genuinely believed he could do it. He ended up leaving the workplace about three months after he got the promotion because he was not capable of doing the role and kept making mistakes. 

Of course people from privileged groups can get impostor syndrome and it is more complex than ‘diversity good, privileged bad’ but I do think there is a strong connection between intersectionality, identity and confidence and impostor syndrome (and overconfidence too!). It would be nice if the people who lacked confidence could be encouraged to have a more realistic view of their capability – both for them but also so that they would be more likely to share their skills and talents and thoughts with the world.  

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