Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. How’s it going? I’ve just started a sixteen-day weekend, with some well-earned annual leave from the office. I’ve worked three months with no time off, and it’s been tough, partly because of the shoulder and back pain I’ve experienced, partly because of ongoing upheavals in my personal life that I can’t talk about right now, and partly because dealing with people every day is exhausting. Three months without a break is hard.
I would have liked a holiday. This time last year, I was on the east coast, enjoying beautiful clean beaches and the crystal blue North Sea, at Markse, Saltburn, and the surrounding area. We actually saw dolphins one evening, near Redcar, from a distance, with binoculars. But I didn’t book a break this year, partly because of uncertainty around the pandemic, and partly because of the aforementioned upheavals. So it’s a genuine staycation for me, this year. I was thinking maybe I’d soak up some sun in the garden, with a few beers and a good book, but the weather forecast is – pardon me – shit. The upside is that I will get a lot of reading and writing done over the next fortnight, and anyone who knows me will understand that is a very good thing indeed.
Last year on the coast…
Hopefully, I’ll get some exercise as well. I saw the physio on Friday, and she was pleased with my recovery. I’ve been cleared to go back to the gym, which should be a cause for celebration, but to be honest, I’m feeling a bit anxious about it. Before the shoulder injury, I’d built up a decent routine, and was feeling fairly relaxed about going to the gym. But it’s a been a while, and now it feels daunting. The physical situation might be improving, but I now have a psychological barrier to overcome. I’ll let you know how I get on, but for now, on with the main focus of today’s blog, you little faker, you…
I want to talk about something. How do you feel about yourself? How do you feel about your achievements and successes? What about your status in life? Have you got what you deserved? Less than you deserved? Have you made it? Or have you faked it? This week, I’m looking at Impostor Syndrome. Before I get into the detail, a little disclaimer. The subject matter here, at least in the way I’m approaching it, is very much with people in mind who have similar autism spectrum coordinates as myself. It’s necessarily looking at autistic people who have been identified or diagnosed after childhood, probably well into adulthood, and who have masked to an aggressive level in order to function in neurotypical life. I realise this is not reflective of the experience of all autistic people, and in fact rules out many. It’s not my intention to be exclusive in any way, but more about writing from a perspective that I can describe with authenticity, because I have experienced it personally. I would be delighted to hear from autistic people with different coordinates on the spectrum than I have, and would gladly include their perspectives on this blog, either as comments on this post, or as future content. As always, please get in touch with me, either in the comments section, or by messaging through your favourite social media channel. I’m on all the big ones.
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I guess we should start this off by working out exactly what Impostor Syndrome is. Like many things in life, there may be an “official” definition, and then the common usage that most of us are familiar with, and the two are not always exactly the same.
Technically, Impostor Syndrome is a pattern of thinking in which a person doubts their ability, regardless of any success they have achieved, and experiences a fear of being exposed as a fraud. It’s not classed as a psychological disorder, or a mental illness, it is just a recognised psychological phenomenon. Impostor Syndrome first entered the public consciousness following an article published in 1978; The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention, by Dr Pauline R. Clance and Dr Suzanne A. Imes. The article discussed the phenomenon in light of the unease experienced by high-achieving career women, and so was seen as something of a gender issue.
These days, the term, Impostor Syndrome, has widened in scope, and gone beyond gender issues. The term is used both seriously and light-heartedly in conversation. It’s not uncommon for people to joke about Impostor Syndrome when they’ve had a promotion at work, or even when they think they are punching above their weight in a relationship. But for many people, it’s no joke. Impostor Syndrome is linked to depression and anxiety, and it’s not at all clear in which direction the causality flows between them. And Impostor Syndrome is no longer linked only to fears about faking success. Talk to autistic people, especially those who were diagnosed after childhood, and sooner or later, the subject of Impostor Syndrome crops up.
I’m not going to try to tell you that Impostor Syndrome is an exclusively autistic phenomenon, because clearly it is not. But there is something peculiarly autistic about it. Dr Pauline Clance followed up the 1978 paper with further work a few years later, which postulated something she called the Impostor Cycle. Briefly, the idea of the Impostor Cycle is that when someone attempts a performance-related task, they might spend lots of time preparing for the task, or they might procrastinate, and leave things until the last minute. If they then achieve success in the said task, either of the approaches could lead to negative feelings in light of Impostor Syndrome. Someone who spent lots of time and effort on the preparation might feel they only achieved success because they put so much work into it, not because of any innate talent or ability. On the other hand, someone who procrastinated, left it all until the last minute, and got through on a wing and a prayer, might feel (with some justification) that they only achieved through pure luck, not because of any innate ability or talent. You can see from this that Impostor Syndrome is closely tied to low self-esteem; that whichever way you look at it, you’re not good enough. No matter how much success you achieve, if Impostor Syndrome is part of your psychological make-up, you will feel like you’re faking it, and with that comes the fear of being found out, and branded a fraud. But in what way does this relate to the autistic experience?
Interlude: A brief message
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We autistic people talk a lot about masking; the way we adopt, or fake, behaviours that are alien to us in order to fit into neurotypical society. The masking comes in two types; conscious and unconscious. When consciously masking, we are doing it deliberately; going out to specifically adopt behaviours that do not come naturally in order to fit in. Unconscious masking can mean different things, but it is common in autistic people who do not yet know they are autistic. In that situation, we might adopt or copy behaviours and mannerisms that we believe to be safe, or suppress behaviours and mannerisms we believe to be unsafe, when trying to fit in, without fully understanding what we are doing. In my case, through decades of my undiagnosed life, I had no reason to think I was doing anything that other people didn’t do, when I tried to fit in. The masking, or faking of behaviours, is exhausting and debilitating in the long term, and is a prime driver of autistic burnout; a subject that is common in autistic discourse. But we don’t talk quite as much about another element of masking; the effect on self-esteem. To know, or learn, that we have been faking it because that’s the only way we can fit in; to have friends, or to progress at work, or to get a partner, or to avoid bullying, discrimination and exclusion, is mortifying, and is bound to damage self-esteem. But that’s not the whole story. It gets worse…
A gripping paranormal thriller spanning several continents and centuries, Abominations takes struggling writer Claire Adams into the dark urban mystery of Corey Harte. Who is he? What is he? And what is the ancient force of evil that threatens him?
Imagine you’re an autistic adult who has never been diagnosed. With struggles, you’ve managed to get by in life. At some level, you know you’re different from most people, but you barely know a thing about autism, and no one has ever suggested it to you. You’ve had to work hard to shape your behaviours into something that make you a person people can get on with. You’ve managed to hold down a job, and possibly you’ve found a niche in which you’re pretty damn good at what you do. You’ve had relationships, and maybe you’ve settled down, got married, had kids. You’ve even acquired some friends, and take part in social events, regardless of how difficult you find them. Your boss tells you you’re doing a good job; maybe you get a promotion or wage rise or two. Your partner and kids tell you they love you, and you’re great. Your friends are usually happy to see you. But there are problems in your life. Deep inside, you’re different, and you’re finding things tough. You’ve probably been diagnosed with, or strongly suspect in yourself, depression and anxiety. And then one day it reaches breaking point. And finally, someone with a keen eye asks you if you’ve ever considered that you might be autistic. They point out some things about you, things you might have been pretending weren’t there. Eventually, you get an assessment, and it’s time for a decision on your diagnosis. While you’re waiting to be told the decision, you think to yourself, This is ridiculous. I’m xx years old. If I was autistic, I would have known long before now. They’re going to tell me I’m depressed and anxious, and that’s it. I’m good at my job. I’ve maintained relationships. I’m shit at maths. I can’t be autistic! And then the decision arrives. You are told you are autistic, and that decision comes with a six-page breakdown of the reasons behind the diagnosis, and you can’t disagree with a single point of it. Shock sets in. Then cognitive dissonance: I’m autistic. But I can’t be. But I am. But it’s not possible. But it is… And then you have to carry on with your life…
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After that diagnosis, everything changes, right? Well, yes and no. You’re still going back to the same life; the life in which you have experienced at least some level of success and achievement. But it’s a life in which you have always felt different, and now you know you’ve been covering up things about yourself. You’re struggling to accept this even though, in a way, you’ve always known it. You are an experienced, highly skilled impostor; faking it is ingrained into you. And so what happens when you are going about your life in this knowledge, and maybe things are going relatively well for a while? A little voice says, I can’t be autistic! Look at me doing all these normal things! I’m faking it. I’m a liar. The specialist made a mistake. I think I’ve exaggerated things. I’m gonna get found out. I’m so stupid. Maybe you take a few of those free, anonymous online tests, just to check you really are autistic… or prove that you’re not! Well, the results on those tests say you are autistic. But that can’t be right, can it, you ask yourself. It can’t be.
If you’re an autistic person and you’ve experienced anything like this, you’ll know how debilitating it can be. You’ve spent so much of your life faking it that now you find yourself thinking you must be faking the faking, and just typing that makes my head hurt. Some of the problem is due to the low self-esteem you’ve developed during your pre-diagnosis life. As a result of that, you can’t believe the source of your problems is something as simple as an autism diagnosis… surely it’s because, you know, you’re just a shitty person, right? What is happening right there as you suffer through your Impostor Syndrome is actual psychological trauma. Diagnosis that comes after childhood is always going to leave you feeling this self-doubt, and is likely to trigger Impostor Syndrome. But what can we do about it?
Isobel is a mind-blowing short thriller that will leave you feeling profoundly uneasy. This book is a work of experimental fiction. Expect something strange and unusual. At a swish party, the beautiful enigmatic Isobel sits in her wheelchair, smiling and flirting. A cynical writer is entranced by her. But when he starts pursuing an investigation into a forgotten rock band, he is drawn into Isobel’s nightmare world in which people and places seem to fade in and out of reality, and urban myths spring into chilling life. How much is really happening, and how much is in the deranged mind of the protagonist is not immediately clear. Fantasy and reality merge in this off-beat, disturbing, yet beautifully written noir tale.
My antidote to Impostor Syndrome has been to engage with the autistic community. The more I speak to other autistic people, the more commonality I find. For all the wide variation in autistic people, all the uniqueness and individuality among us, there is always some shared experience, often traumatic, that binds us. That familiarity, that sense of knowing that it wasn’t just me, knowing that others have shared, and continue to share, this autistic experience, is like soothing balm. It’s like validation. In a world in which we are perpetually the outsiders, the last thing we need is falling for the uniquely self-damaging psychological process of Impostor Syndrome. Engaging with each other in the autistic community heals us.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.