Saturday 23 February 2019

Impostor Syndrome, Self-Doubt, and Legitimacy in the Mental Health Arena

When did you start feeling like a fraud?

Fran asked me that question recently. It’s not exactly that I feel a fraud. I’ve never passed myself off as other than I am or claimed knowledge and experience I don’t have. But I have used that knowledge and experience to involve myself in groups and activities intended for people with lived experience of mental illness, which I do not have. Maybe it’s more a case of impostor syndrome than fraud.

According to Scientific American, “Impostor Syndrome is a pervasive feeling of self-doubt, insecurity, or fraudulence despite often overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It strikes smart, successful individuals. It often rears its head after an especially notable accomplishment, like admission to a prestigious university, public acclaim, winning an award, or earning a promotion.”

Putting smart and successful to one side, that description is a close fit for how I’ve been feeling, especially the university example. Last October I enrolled at ReCoCo, Newcastle’s Recovery College. I attended two excellent courses (a self-harm awareness session and a Wellness Recovery Action Plan workshop) and helped out at one of the college’s wellness events. As I wrote in a post which has been included in ReCoCo’s current prospectus, it seemed I’d found finally found somewhere I belonged.

I felt welcome and accepted, and my contributions and story [at the drop-in session] were considered as respectfully as anyone else’s. (As someone without direct lived experience of mental illness, crisis, or trauma, it is a big thing for me to feel I have something worth sharing that might be of interest and value to others.) It left a powerful impression.

Lately, though, I’m doubting the legitimacy of my enrollment. The Recovery College is explicitly organised by and for people with lived experience, and I no longer feel my interest in mental health, my desire to learn, and my role supporting Fran and other friends justify my being there. It’s not only ReCoCo. Quite rightly, the mental health community is focused on, and increasingly led by, people with lived experience of illness and services. I have been proud to volunteer with Time to Change over the past few years and have attended or been involved with various events, groups, and organisations including OPENM;NDED. Right now, I’m doubting my place in all of these.

Aimee Wilson, a mental health blogger who has worked with organisations across the north-east and beyond, told me “you have as much right as anyone to attend these events and personally, they wouldn’t be the same without you.” Aimee’s friendship and support is hugely appreciated, but I do need to work this through. Impostor syndrome undoubtedly plays a part, as does a need in me to feel I belong. A never-quite-satisfied desire for home.

Talking about this with Aimee and others, I’ve come to realise feelings of not-quite-belonging are not uncommon. Roiben has guested several times here at Gum on My Shoe. She describes how she finds herself falling between the gaps because she does not fully satisfy the criteria of different support communities:

It is difficult to feel one doesn’t fit. I get that a lot. I am often on the edge of what services and charities support. Not blind enough for RNIB, not deaf enough for some Deaf groups. I never claimed to be SI [Sight Impaired] or SSI [Severely Sight Impaired], nor did I claim to be Profoundly Deaf. Yet somehow the fact that I am not makes some people feel I am trying to take their place. I’m not. Just trying to connect, through areas I have some experience in. It’s frustrating.

One thing Roiben said resonated strongly for me:

I make a great advocate for disabilities, because I have experience of some and have friends in other areas. I have seen and experienced accessibility or lack of it in action. The fact I am not totally one or the other doesn’t diminish that in any way!

That’s very much how I feel about my mental health work. I don’t have lived experience of mental illness but I have support experience, knowledge, and some useful skills. I believe these have value. The question for me is how and where are they best exercised? Fran said to me the other day:

It’s about serving. You take what you have to offer and serve others with that. You are not an expert on lived mental illness. You are an expert on how to be friends with those that are.

Fran’s right. I am shy of being called an expert, but I can accept “expert by experience” based on my years supporting Fran and other friends who live with illness. That is my field of competence. It’s the basis of our book and what I do pretty much every day. I don’t doubt myself in that area. I’m just not sure where I fit, in the wider mental health community. It’s about serving — but where and how do I serve?



  1. You can start by reminding yourself that everyone has mental health - you included - so everyone has some experience of maintaining their mental health.

    Then you can remember that you have helped so many people both in the mental health problems community, and those trying to support us - our families and friends love us, but they don't always understand us, or know what to do. You're work on educating people is vital for that!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment, Cee. That means a lot to me, as does your reminder that my experience is relevant to many who want to help and support people living first hand with mental health problems. I am still not sure where that fits into the bigger picture, but comments such as yours and others I have received do reassure me I have something of value to offer. Thank you. ~Martin