When Mental Illness Makes You Feel Like an 'Imposter' in Your Own Life
“So it says here that we’re supposed to discuss what PT settings we have experience in.”
“Well, I traveled to Mexico once on a medical service tri—”
As we sat in class, the train rattled by across the street for what felt like the hundredth time that afternoon. I tried in futility to continue my conversation with my new teammates, but had to give up shortly after the sound of shaking tracks and a rather piercing horn (are all train horns like this!?) had snaked its way into my brain… but not before an exasperated sigh escaped my lips. Maybe a little too loudly.
Our professor looked up from her computer. All 22 teams audibly muted their conversations as we waited with tired eyes and I-want-to-go-home-and-nap expressions for the train to pass. To my surprise, my professor had a soft smile on her face. “That train can be kind of annoying, huh?” We laughed, nervously, not wanting to ruffle any feathers in just our third week of classes.
She then went on to task us with by far the most impactful assignment I did in my first five months of Physical Therapy school. She paused, and then went on, thoughtfully, “I want everyone to come up with a mantra for themselves. It could be something like, ‘I am enough.’” Thinking she was still talking about our group assignments, my teammates and I quickly tried to come up with the “perfect” answer. As our professor continued to explain, we understood this should be something more private, more personal and more individualized.
“Two people can have the same one — that’s OK! I want you to think about something that is meaningful to you. Then, every time the train goes by, I want you to repeat that mantra silently to yourself. You’ll be hearing that train a lot over the next few years, might as well make it mean something.”
I had my mantra chosen quicker than you could have said, “train tracks.” I’d like to share it with you, but not just yet.
First, I want to talk about the imposter syndrome.
If you Google “imposter syndrome,” which I admittedly did to provide a more scholarly background to this piece, hundreds of articles will come up explaining what it is, how to overcome it and stories of celebrities who have found success (they’re just like us!) even when feeling like they were concealing some big fraud — themselves.
Imposter syndrome is, as the name suggests, the notion that you will be “found out.” “Found out” for having scored achievements not because of your talents, but despite them. “Found out” for not deserving the job, the education, the positive situation you find yourself in and that, somehow, it is all a fluke. Feelings of “imposterism” are common among students and professionals alike, and I have personally noticed it to be more prevalent for my minority friends. For me, being a minority in race and religion has played a large role in my feelings of imposterism.
Throughout my life, I have often been asked where I am from (“No, where are you really from?), making me feel like I don’t belong in this country despite having lived here my entire life. Without any sort of preceding conversation, people look at me and exclaim, “Wow, you don’t even have an accent!” even though I am quite proud of the southern accent I developed while growing up in New Orleans and little ol’ Laurinburg, NC. An accent that really only comes out when I’m talking to people from my hometowns, but a source of pride nonetheless. My headscarf lends itself to long stares, and not always the good kind. I am extremely proud, too, of my Pakistani heritage. Unfortunately, my personal imposter syndrome often compels me to water down some of the best and most unique parts of my identity in order to temporarily send away those thoughts of “I don’t belong here. I don’t fit in here.”
I share those experiences not to make this post all about me or to gain sympathy, but to show that imposter syndrome isn’t always a random occurrence. Sometimes, things do happen that lead people to doubt their legitimacy and it is by no fault of their own.
As I go through PT school, I am learning that imposter syndrome is not just a minority issue. Success in PT school feels of high consequence, because this time, what we learn is directly applicable to the betterment of our future patients. If I don’t have a background in exercise physiology, is there even a point in me being here? I’ve never even heard of “vO2 max.” It feels like everyone else understands it without having been taught it. I didn’t always want to become a physical therapist. Everyone else seems like they’ve been passionate about it for much longer. Everyone else belongs here, but not me.
I have found it so easy to fall into the trap of “I am the only one out of 81 of us who does not know this information and everyone else has grasped it perfectly.” It’s so easy to forget that I am not expected to know everything, that it is from mistakes that I do my best learning, and that if others do know the information better, there is no shame in reaching out to them for help.
A person’s feeling of imposterism might manifest slowly over time, waiting to rear its ugly head in an arguably very intellectually and emotionally demanding time – grad school. Or, a student might start to doubt his or her abilities only upon realizing the talent and intellect that surrounds them in the form of their cohort and professors. No matter what the cause, I am here to tell you that you are not alone in feeling this way. But also to tell you:
You belong here. You are smart enough to be here. You deserve to be here.
One guess as to the mantra I chose for myself.
Image via contributor