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Imposter Syndrome Haunts My Life with Chronic Illness – Here’s How I Fight It

Woman journaling her worries about imposter syndrome and chronic illness in bed
Getty Images/Invizbk

More and more people in chronic illness communities are sharing their struggles with imposter syndrome.

Today, Laura McKee takes a deep dive into why people with chronic conditions may feel like "frauds" when they're anything but. She also shares 6 steps for overcoming these unhelpful thought patterns when we need or receive medical care.

I have been really poorly recently with "normal people" illnesses, surgery, and treatment for my brain condition, idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH). These have affected my mental health, making me doubt whether I was really "ill enough" for the medical interventions my doctors told me I needed.

When I first felt more ill than my usual IIH and chronic migraine symptoms would leave me, I struggled to reach out for help. It took three days of barely being able to move before I phoned my doctor to tell him I'd been fainting, felt weak, and was bedbound.

He sent a paramedic to examine me that day, and he found that I had pneumonia. Blood tests came back showing I had anemia, too!

I wasn’t in a good way, yet I kept playing down my symptoms. I told friends the pneumonia was "only mild" as I didn't want them to think I was making a fuss. Looking back, I see this is classic imposter syndrome behavior.

I recovered from pneumonia reasonably quickly. However, I was still anemic when, soon after that, I began a 4-day hospital stay for intracranial pressure monitoring. Anemia made me even weaker than normal, and I was still shouldering my usual fatigue and debilitating pain. I was convinced the doctors would say I was making a fuss despite how my IIH impacts my daily life. I find it so hard mentally to accept that I need good medical care.

Even when I have “proof” of my sickness, I still worry I’ll be exposed as a faker

The monitoring results showed that my intracranial pressure was higher than expected, which was clear evidence that my illness wasn't hypochondria. I had feared the procedure would expose me as a fraud, but it actually gave me and my doctors the facts to move forward with a treatment plan.

I'm on the mend from the surgery, but the anemia is still kicking my butt. It's making me more exhausted than ever, and there's no quick fix, so my imposter syndrome is flaring along with my physical symptoms. I'm finding it hard to believe that I’m sick enough to need yet more procedures to find out why I'm anemic. I worry I'm wasting the doctors' time, regardless of the specialist consultant ordering these tests.

Today, I’m writing about my experience of chronic illness-related imposter syndrome, as it's a familiar struggle for many people.

I've had these feelings on and off since before I received my list of diagnoses. Over the years, I've also experienced medical gaslighting and misdiagnoses, which have affected how I see myself with chronic illness. Imposter syndrome has reared its ugly head again and again.

What is imposter syndrome?

Do you ever feel that those around you will expose you as a "faker" at any moment? Do you doubt yourself and believe your achievements are down to chance? Do you strive to meet your high, and probably impossible, standards, only to fail and feel inadequate? If so, welcome to imposter syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome: a psychological condition that is characterized by persistent doubt concerning one's abilities or accomplishments accompanied by the fear of being exposed as a fraud despite evidence of one's ongoing success.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Within patient communities, more and more people with chronic illnesses are speaking up about their imposter syndrome struggles. It shows up in many different ways, but it mainly manifests as a feeling that you're not as ill as you think. This doubt can make you believe that you don't deserve good care, and you stop listening to your body.

Likewise, family caregivers can often feel imposter syndrome, convincing themselves that they’ll “mess up” their loved one’s care “at any moment.” It seems that these debilitating thoughts are rife among patients and caregivers in the community.

7 ways imposter syndrome can show up for people with chronic illness

1. You put off speaking to a doctor when you get new symptoms

I genuinely worry that my doctor will think I’m exaggerating my illness or I’m not sick at all. In the past, I’ve also downplayed the urgency of my need for care. The end result? My illness got much worse than it needed to be.

2. You invalidate or minimize your symptoms or pain levels

You may feel okay at 10am, but by 4pm, the pain is so unbearable all you can do is collapse into bed. You have complex symptoms, but make light of how severe these are, leaving you confused and unsure.

3. You doubt or question your diagnoses

Imposter syndrome can make you think you're not really sick. You may know someone in a similar situation or may not trust yourself with the information you have, so you feel like you're exaggerating your symptoms and pain.

4. You compare yourself to others with the same condition

Naturally, this plants seeds of doubt. Comparisons to others can make you feel like a fraud, like you're asking for too much, or you're a failure for not coping as "well" as they are. In truth, we all have unique experiences with our illnesses.

5. You may be prone to thinking it’s “all in your head”

This is especially true if you have an invisible illness and/or have a dynamic disability because others don't see your symptoms. This can be reinforced by those who treat you differently because of your disability. You may even question whether you "deserve" the adjustments you need.

6. You try hard not to talk to loved ones about how sick you feel

You worry you're boring and that people will think you're a hypochondriac. However, your diagnosis is a fact, and you need to remember that.

7. You need to feel that you’re in control

Chronic illness seems to take away your ability to be perfect. You often try to prove to others that you can manage, but at the end of the day, you need a support network around you to cope.

6 steps to overcoming chronic illness-related impostor syndrome

Here’s a list you can start implementing from now on:

1. Create a list of your symptoms

Use this list as a prompt when you clam up or downplay your symptoms to medical professionals or family and friends. 

2. Document your diagnoses, tests, and observations

Having the facts in front of you will help you see that your needs are valid and you deserve the best care.

3. Trust your gut instinct

No one knows your body better than you. Listen to what it's telling you and react by resting or speaking about your concerns to a medical professional.

4. Have a social media break or stop doing things that put undue pressure on yourself

The stress of social media and pressure to keep up appearances cause can lead to a case of “comparison-itis.” Facebook will still be there when you're strong enough to return to it!

5. Reflect on your history with self-invalidation

Imposter syndrome can happen if your feelings were dismissed by others when you were growing up. Reflection helps you understand that imposter syndrome is a "survival mode" against rejection. It's a toxic safety net that can hamper your inner growth.

6. Surround yourself with people who will support you

True friends arent thinking what your imposter makes you believe. They’ll stay by your side through the tough times and the better ones.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, so please let loved ones in and let them help you shoo away the thoughts that call you an imposter.

The takeaway

“It's almost like the better I do, the more my feeling of inadequacy actually increases because I'm just going, 'Any moment, someone's going to find out I'm a total fraud.’”

- Emma Watson, actor and activist.

Imposter syndrome is when you're convinced that your needs and abilities aren't genuine and you will get caught out at any moment. This leads us to switch to “survival mode” and can become very detrimental to our mental health.

When you have imposter syndrome, you may think you're a hypochondriac. You may be tempted to compare you and your illness to others with chronic conditions. It can lead to you doubting your diagnosis and thinking it's "all in your head." 

Denying your physical illness doesn't make you "strong" - it will only negatively impact your mental health. When you have imposter syndrome, you often fall into a toxic cycle of needing to feel in control or be a perfect person.

Instead of focusing on "being perfect," work on accepting yourself as you are. Be prepared that urges to be "perfect" won't disappear overnight! When you start to despair over not being perfect, delve into your bag of coping strategies. Face your doubts, fears, and pressures instead of trying to bury them. Inwardly confront the behaviors and thought patterns that imbed imposter syndrome.

My final word is to be kind to yourself in the ways necessary for your needs. Thoughts of being an imposter can't survive if you listen to compassionate medical professionals and learn the facts about your illnesses. Only by doing these things can you trust that it's not some fabrication or deception made up by you.

In short, take good care of yourself so you're treated as you deserve to be.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 


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