Imposter Syndrome

I am an adult with ASD. When I was 13 I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome and Tourettes Plus, then hospitalised and faced with many different diagnoses, medications and also at once point forced into care when a doc decided I was just a bad child and everything was behaviour issues. That was pretty traumatic. In recent years I had a really bad nervous breakdown trying to live independently with no support, assuming that whatever diagnoses I had were all wrong, and that I was in fact fine. Going back to the psych was 'well of course, you have ASD. You need ASD support', which for me was a huge relief and took a lot of grief and guilt away from the traumas I had experienced as a child going through the system. I really agree with the diagnosis, it explains a lot about me and also about my childhood. I went through, and still occasionally experience a period of 'imposter syndrome' but I have since made a lot of progress and learned a lot more about my behaviours, my limits, things I struggle to understand and things I am sensitive to.

More recently I have had problems with my partner and with my family because of my meltdowns, anxiety, and problems understanding things. I decided it would be a good idea to see a specialist (there are no specialists in my local area that I can see for support, and no Autism-specific interventions/therapies I can access). At over £100 per session it is not cheap but I thought it would be good to have the advice of a specialist and maybe some recommendations on what therapies or interventions I should try to access in the future.   

We talked about how my meltdowns manifest, triggers, and the positive active and calming ways of dealing with things and redirecting focus. I was given some breathing, presence and calming exercises to practise when I recognise stress and tension building up.

When we were talking about those high stress, pre meltdown moments the doctor saying ‘whether you are autistic or not, these things happen, and the thing is with you you go into this deep internal monologue, and you have to stop that’ seemed to trigger a complete downward spiral.

It made me feel like all the times the doctors said it was just me and my bad behaviour and that if I just learned my way out of it I would be normal again. Those times where I felt like it's just that I wasn't working hard enough and I could just be normal and fine if I tried. It all kind of came rushing back to me. Like deep down maybe I am not Autistic, these are all just learned behaviours to keep me safe from having to come to terms with the fact that I am so bad and broken. That if I just work really hard and learn other mechanisms, I would be normal. Which means a lot more work than accepting I am just Autistic, but having to accept that I am inherently broken and starting from scratch once again to unlearn all the learned behaviours, and learn to be a normal functioning person. What if I am in denial that I am just really an inherently bad, broken person and it will be a long road to being really truthfully normal and functional. Maybe accepting I am Autistic is just the easy way out, and that is my problem, that I just always took the easy way out and never faced up to things, and everything would get better if I just faced up to the fact that I am really some screwed up psychopath that should probably be locked up away from everybody.

Can anybody offer any advice? Has anybody experienced similar doubts or thoughts?

  • The doctor may have just meant that everyone gets stressed at times, not that you have no worse problems than an average person. In any case, you said you were diagnosed at with ASD at 13, so why worry about what this doctor said?

  • I experienced similar types of thoughts (many years ago) prior to my ASD diagnosis, but since my diagnosis I think ASD explains things better than me being 'broken', 'inherently bad', or 'just not trying hard enough'. You say that you too feel that ASD explains things more fully for you so I wouldn't start second guessing it again now. Especially as, in agreement with lostmyway, I don't think that's what your Doctor meant to imply. 

    It does seem overly simplistic for him to say "you have to stop that" but if he's also offering coping strategies on how to recognise your destructive thoughts for what they are, then maybe he meant for you to try the strategies rather than believing these destructive thoughts about yourself?

    Maybe he meant that destructive thoughts happen "whether you are autistic or not" rather than expressing doubt about your ASD diagnosis? That's how it sounded to me anyway but it's easier for me to say that as a third party than it would be if I were in the room with the Doctor at the time, because I too tend to overthink my conversations and interactions with people to the point of exhaustion sometimes - and THAT I believe is an ASD trait. 

    I have occasionally thought, re. some of my ASD traits, 'Just TRY' or 'Just DO IT' when I've been frustrated at myself but once I've calmed down a bit I realise that 'Just' isn't that simple. If it were 'Just' a matter of trying harder then I wouldn't have been diagnosed with ASD at all. It takes a long time to work out what ASD means to each of us as individuals, I'm still at the start of that process and I think maybe you are too. I've no idea how long it takes but I do think the first step is accepting it and ourselves. I'm still trying to do that but it's certainly easier than all of those years I believed I was somehow 'broken' or 'wrong'.  

  • Yes, part of this sounds familiar, although I'm not feeling like it right at the moment. I was expounding recently to people about recently 'imposter syndrome' in the context of doubts I'm really autistic. It's been said that anyone who is a success at anything sometimes feels they don't deserve that success and worries that people will see through them, and that's one type of imposter syndrome.

    But it's pretty similar for other identities or roles. I've had something like 'am I really clinically depressed or am I just using it as an excuse for laziness?' Well, it's not just that I don't want to think of myself as lazy, I really don't want to be and don't enjoy it. I am also sometimes called on to represent autistic people, and there too I worry about saying something that is just about me, or of repeating some myth about autism, and that since I don't have certain autistic traits, I may just be some unclassifiable thing there's no diagnosis for, and someone else should be doing that job.

    Maybe the way over all types of imposter syndrome is to associate with other people of the same kind and talk stuff through with a sense of humour.  If you're a chef, say, and accepting an award, you may be thinking of dishes you've never mastered and disqualify you from being a 'real' or 'worthy' chef and shortcuts other people don't know about. If you have a lot of friends who are chefs you're more likely to realise they do the same thing. Whereas if you're always competing to be top in chef magazines, you're almost bound to feel you don't deserve the award. So my conclusion is that the way to escape from it is learning, not 'unlearning', whatever that is. I also think the idea of being 'in denial' - such that you are lying to yourself - is meaningless Freudian psychobabble that has infected everyday language. Like most psychoanalytic ideas, I don't think there's much evidence for it as an explanatory phenomenon, and it's just a way for professionals to make their 'patients' feel insecure and keep power over them, an ingredient in why the business has been so successful. (It is also sometimes used entertainingly in fiction to give characters 'depth'.)  Oops, sorry, bit of a rant there.

    Back to your question, which I will try to answer in my abstract, unhelpful way. I don't think the only thing you (or I) need to learn following an autism diagnosis is acceptance, although that is very important and talked about much here. You've learned the calming exercises. If you do them when you are getting overloaded, do they help? If so, do them more. I don't think you need to accept (things that you interpret as) external judgements about your behaviour. You will have things in common with non-autistic people, and that's a good thing because so much more is known about non-autistic psychology. Can you see the positives in what your expensive specialist is saying? Is it that you can become aware of the spiral of negative thoughts? Becoming aware of them, can you accept them? Can you find ways to challenge the thoughts, or divert yourself into behaviour that is more constructive? Maybe ask this professional how many times you have to practise something positive before it becomes a habit.

    To be honest, I'd feel better if I were seeing someone like that in the NHS, as then one's more likely to get the treatment that actually has an evidence base. When I've gone private, I've had double impostor syndrome, because I'm paying someone for attention, and they've a continued professional stake in me attending so that I don't feel I can trust their judgement that I'm 'ill'. I'm not saying to stop seeing this specialist, just that when it comes to mental health, the NHS is still unfortunately in the grip of special interests (aforementioned psychoanalysis being one, psychopharmacology another), and it's going to take a lot of work to get it to provide autism-friendly 'therapy' and training.

    I hope some of that was helpful in between the rants.

  • think ASD explains things better than me being 'broken', 'inherently bad', or 'just not trying hard enough'.

    Very true Endymion and also 'imposter syndrome' is an apt way to explain to others how you identify with yourself.  They key is that being in the treadmill of a largely NT world I constantly feel like an imposter and rarely feel that I "fit" or am good enough.

    I am being to identify that I am not an imposter to others, but an imposter having hid my TRUE self for so long.

    It is a sad fact that we seem hard wired to prove our worth by comparing ourselves to others.....society must start celebrating that everyone is unique and everyone has something to offer.... Progress cannot happen if we are all exactly alike.

  • When I've gone private, I've had double impostor syndrome, because I'm paying someone for attention, and they've a continued professional stake in me attending so that I don't feel I can trust their judgement that I'm 'ill'.

    I get that.  I spent a short time seeing a counsellor (referred by work following a 3 month elastic-snap of self)...the shame of having to "buy" company, someone who would listen.....

    I am someone with too much pride! Not in an arrogant way....it is just a sense of shame and fear of falling.

    it is a vicious cycle that I work overly hard to over compensate for my own lack of self worth...and then get even more hurt when I feel that i still haven't hit the required benchmark.....