By Zoey Giesberg, MSW
When I first learned I have autism, it felt like a simultaneous blessing and a curse. As I have previously written, I spent most of my childhood feeling like an outsider due to things I couldn’t control and figured I was slowly going mad because no one would give me a straight answer of why I was the way I was. So it’s easy to imagine that the news of my diagnosis was a huge relief in the sense that all my questions were answered. It was, but it also came with the cost of learning that I was not and never will be “normal” because of all the challenges I had. And with not being “normal,” my life would always be harder than most people’s.
In spite of this, I’m often told I’m a “success story.” I made my way through school being fully mainstreamed into honors and AP classes, graduated from college in four years, and received a Masters in Social Work from a prestigious university. I have a good steady job where people appreciate my contributions and have made headway into participating in the disability community of Los Angeles. I live on my own, I don’t excessively struggle with money management, and I have good friends and family I can depend on. At the risk of sounding arrogant, it does seem like I am a “success”.
So why do I constantly feel like I’m barely keeping it together and what I do isn’t nearly enough?
That particular feeling has given birth to one of the most popular terms in pop psychology: impostor syndrome. Coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in 1978, impostor syndrome is defined as believing like one is unintelligent, incapable, or uncreative despite evidence of high achievement. This is accompanied by a constant fear of being exposed as a fraud despite high motivation to achieve. It’s basically having terrible sense of self, despite seeming very successful and feeling that despite one’s hard work they’re not worthy for whatever reason. It’s a fairly common phenomenon and leads to a lot of mental health issues, like anxiety and depression. Women and minorities seem to be especially prey to impostor syndrome due to reinforced societal hierarchies . Anyone who isn’t a white male feels like they have to work harder for the same achievements and live in constant fear that their hard work will always be dismissed as being lesser.
And then there’s the case of disability. There’s no doubt that living with a disability presents a lot of challenges that most people never think of having. And that sense that life dealt me a drastically harder hand to play has affected many aspects of my life. Autism affects my ability to relate and understand the world so being able to meet societal expectations in any area is a daunting task. What are the odds of being a “success” when you have a disability like autism? And what are the odds that you’ll keep that “success” going?
For a long time, I felt that I had to prove that I was “better” than my autism. I had such a negative perception of myself when I learned of my diagnosis that I took the idea of having autism as a deficit. Because I was so different from my peers and had social and processing challenges, I had to be better than them in pursuing the same things they were. I believed that I had the right to want the same things as everyone else, so there was no reason for me to get what I wanted. I refused to let autism “get in my way.”
Yet this deficit-based mindset kept me in a perpetual state of panic of what would happen if my autistic challenges did come to the fore, creating potentially negative consequences. I have often been described as “passing” for acting “normal” in many situations. But with that comes the price of that if any of my symptoms were made apparent, I would be in huge trouble. And I have had many past experiences confirming this fear. I was forcibly put on medical leave during my freshman year in college due to meltdowns. I had lost jobs and internships over panic attacks, and lost boyfriends because they couldn’t “handle me”. These experiences caused me to develop a guarded shell to prevent anyone from suspecting my challenges. This in turn made me feel I had to work twice as hard to maintain the veneer of “normalcy”. With that challenge, it’s been difficult to appreciate what I’ve been able to accomplish because I’m constantly afraid it’ll all fall apart should something go wrong.
I’m in the process of unlearning this fear of inadequacy and appreciating what I have through learning self-acceptance. My experiences working with disabled people has forced me to confront my negative perceptions of myself. I believe there’s nothing wrong with them, so why should I think there’s something wrong with me? Autism has also helped me many ways. M y thought processes have always given me a unique perspective of the world that has garnered respect my peers, my professors, and later helped in my work. There is value in that, and I can appreciate that it makes me special in a good way. And I’m increasing taking joy in the small victories, whether it’s a client getting job interviews or getting my projects done with good feedback. They say it’s the small things that keep people going, and I’ve found that approach to be true for me.
It’s hard to feel worthy of good things when you’ve spent a lifetime feeling undeserving and fearing the worst. Yes, I have worked harder to get what I have and will continue to do so, but it doesn’t make what I’ve done any less great. And I encourage everyone to practice celebrating themselves through what makes them unique and taking joy in the small accomplishments. No matter what challenges anyone may have, I truly don’t want anyone to feel like they aren’t worthy of the good things they’ve worked hard for.