Woah, that title seems a little full of itself doesn’t it? A little too professional sounding, as if this piece is an academic study based on thorough research, involving many hours of focused reading and references to academic texts. But it isn’t. This is simply something I have thought about for a long time, and about which I have strong opinions, based only on my experiences of life after a traumatic event.
What is Imposter Syndrome? It’s most commonly associated with a feeling that any success in life is a fraud, and that you don’t belong in a certain (intellectual) community – that one day you will be ‘found out’, and revealed as someone who doesn’t deserve their position of status. However, if you ask the general layman what imposter syndrome is, you will find people express it as a way of explaining that they feel they do not belong in a particular community, and which has nothing to do success. Personally, I feel that people should be allowed to use the expression in whatever way they like, and if it is commonly used in the context of not fitting into an environment in some way, then that is a perfectly valid place for the term to be used. It is in this context that I will use the expression imposter syndrome.
Over the years since my traumatic birth experience, I have seen the phrase “I feel like I shouldn’t say I have suffered a trauma because it isn’t as bad as what other people have been through” so many times I have lost count. Even worse, on support groups I often see a post begin with “I’m not sure whether I belong here as my experience wasn’t as bad but….”. Indeed, following my own birth experience, in which I suffered very rare and extreme injuries leading to a permanent stoma, I was often approached by women who would apologise for mentioning their own birth trauma alongside mine, as theirs “wasn’t as bad”. It is as though they feel that unless you too, have suffered extremely rare injuries, and ended up with life-long physical and emotional difficulties, that your trauma doesn’t count. They feel that they do not belong, and they are an imposter in the community of trauma.
Let me tell you right now, that your trauma does count. Every single person in life is different, and all our experiences are felt uniquely by us an individual, each reaction we have is perfectly valid, and there is no hierarchy of experiences which define people as having suffered a trauma, or not. If you feel traumatised by something that has happened to you, you have suffered a trauma. End of story.
Shortly after I had my baby, and when I was struggling to come to terms with a new-born, a new stoma bag, constant UTIs, medico-legal appointments, intrusive tests, a septic fistula tract and numerous HR/occupational health appointments regarding my imminent medical retirement from the police, I would cry to my husband that I felt guilty for being so depressed. “But people suffer so much more than me! Look at these people who lose their baby’s during the birth. Or people who have stomas as a result of awful diseases like cancer, or Crohns. I am so useless for not coping.” His immediate, emphatic response was always “Bullshit. It can always be worse. That’s like saying to someone who has had one leg blown off that they should be grateful that they didn’t have both legs blown off like other people do. It doesn’t mean that having one leg blown off isn’t shit. What’s happened to you is shit and just because it could be worse, doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to be upset and depressed.” I clung to those words, which he would repeat time and again, as it took a long time for me to accept that it was ok to feel like my life was over, and that my world was crumbling around me.
I know that some people reading this will read the first line of the above paragraph again, and think to themselves “Wow, see, she went through so much and that is so much more than me. I’m not the same as her”. My point is though, that even though I HAD gone through so much I STILL didn’t think I had a right to complain. I remember feeling the same way when I went to the hospital for counselling, and to private practitioners for additional support, as I knew that they would be supporting people who were facing terminal cancer diagnoses, or dealing with the death of a child. What was my suffering compared to theirs? Were the counsellors sitting there and thinking to themselves “she is such a whinge bag, she has no idea how lucky she is”?
As time has gone on, many years after my own traumatic experience, and when I am in a good place emotionally and physically, I have discovered support groups for mothers who have experienced birth trauma. I joined them to try and show the women who are currently drowning in the aftermath of their birth that there is hope for happiness in the long run. I am careful what I read as otherwise I get dragged back to my own experience too much, but I always notice the ones which start with “I am not sure whether I belong here”. Think about this though. You have given birth and you have found the experience so distressing hat you have looked online to find some support. You have found a group specifically formed for birth trauma. You have clicked the button “Join” and entered the group in the hope of finding support and help. This means you have suffered birth trauma! You belong! This group is for you just as much as it is for the mums like me who suffered the extreme end of birth injuries. There is no metric to measuring trauma. There is no monopoly on the word trauma either – I don’t “own” it and I don’t “own” the right to say I, alone, have been traumatised. Your feelings are all valid, your experience is important and you do belong.
But you know, I have the “imposter” feeling in other areas of my life, too. I am often referred to as “inspirational”, and I get overwhelmed by this description a lot of the time. I read about some incredibly amazing people, who have overcome quite extraordinary trauma (living in refugee camps, experiencing sexual assault, losing family members in brutally violent ways), with people going on to create charities, adopt children and other such altruistic, selfless acts. I feel utterly ridiculous being described as inspirational in comparison. What I have experienced and overcome is so small in relation to that of other people. It doesn’t matter who you are, we all feel vulnerable, and small when comparing ourselves to others. And that comparison must stop. We must stop comparing our experiences and feelings to other people. If you feel that you have experienced a trauma, then you have. If you are told you have inspired someone, then take the praise and allow yourself to feel pride. It doesn’t make you a weak over sensitive ninny in the first example, or a big headed prat in the second. It just makes you human - a complicated, multifaceted, unique mixing bowl of emotions, experiences, thoughts and desires, all nestled under your skin and making you YOU. Life's bad enough at times without being unnecessarily hard on ourselves. Let's celebrate every part of each other, and realise that we all belong in whichever group we feel a need to be part of - if the need is there, then so is the belonging.
I'll let you know when I've cracked this by the way...I''m still working on imposter syndrome myself...