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mental health mondays :: a phony feeling

the bulk of literature on "imposter syndrome" tells us that it's not like a mental illness, it's just a simple lack of confidence that can be fixed with a few tweaks in thinking. but left untreated, as it often is, it can lead to serious disorders like depression and anxiety. why shouldn't we be trying to prevent that from happening? 


imposter syndrome is the feeling of being a fake or a fraud, believing that one's success has been achieved through luck or error and fearing exposure. it's not classified as a mental illness nor has it seriously been considered as one. that's at least in part due to the fact that experiencing imposter syndrome is not abnormal: up to 70% of people experience it at some point in their lives, which makes those who don't feel like a fraud at some point in their lives the deviants. and i do mean 70% of people. when it was originally described in the 1970s, it was presented as a problem that only affected women, but it turns out that's not true. men are just as likely to experience this set of problems as women, although they tend to talk about it less. [as is often the case with men and mental illness.]

some argue that the experience of feeling like an imposter is a normal facet of workplace life in the modern world, a "phenomenon" rather than a "syndrome". you could describe it that way but it seems like that's a matter of semantics. if a person is experiencing significant distress because of their feelings of incompetence and fear of being unmasked, then by definition it is something that should be addressed as a mental health problem.

many people who find themselves in a position at work where they feel incapable and their working environment itself compounds the problem. the world is rife with "toxic" bosses and coworkers and many of those types understand that keeping an employee insecure is a way of keeping them motivated. when people believe that they are undeserving of their position or incapable of the tasks assigned to them, they will easily believe that their employers are doing them a favour by allowing them to work there. people need jobs to live and feeling that they're forever on the brink of being dismissed is a way of cracking the emotional whip to get them to work harder.

furthermore, imposter syndrome is not limited to the workplace. mothers, especially first-time mothers, fall victim to feelings of inadequacy when faced with the enormity of being responsible for another life. members of ethnic minorities have higher than average rates of imposter syndrome, possibly due to the fact that they are often treated as imposters just for living where they do.

chances are that most people who experience imposter syndrome can get it under control by making adjustments in their thought processes. cognitive behavioural therapy, which trains people to break down their thought patterns and motivations to identify and correct harmful habits. it's like physiotherapy for the brain. even "informal" questioning can help some people.

but when you look at the list of symptoms associated with imposter syndrome, they do bear a resemblance to some of those associated with anxiety and especially depression. after all, people with depression believe that they are less worthy than others. they may even avoid treatment because they believe their depression isn't as serious as others [they're just incapable of dealing with it.]

not all people, not even most people, who go through periods of imposter syndrome will develop clinical depression or anxiety. but a lot of them will. the syndrome/ phenomenon might not be a disorder but it is something and is frequently going to be a precursor or symptom of a deeper problem. for me, an interested amateur, this speaks to the need for a type of "buffer zone" around mental illness, where conditions that don't meet the threshold of a disorder are still treated as something in the same spectrum. this isn't exactly a radical idea; it's one that permeates every other aspect of medicine.

for example, it is very common for women to develop pre-cancerous cells on their cervix. this doesn't mean that they have cancer. it means that something is a little off with some of their cells and that there is a greater chance that these women could develop cervical cancer if nothing is done. so doctors treat them. in the mildest cases, that can just involve monitoring for a little while, because sometimes the cells go back to normal on their own. in many cases, though, it means having them removed via one of several procedures, the most common of which can be done in a doctor's office.

you see where i'm going with this: abnormal cervical cells are not cancer, but you want to treat them so that they don't cause cancer later on. imposter syndrome is not clinical depression or anxiety, but you want to treat it...

ending the stigma around mental illness means admitting that far more of us are at some kind of risk and that it's important to address problems while they're still at the stage of being minor abnormalities. like we do with every other aspect of our health. 

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