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Moving Beyond 'Imposter Syndrome' in My Life With Chronic Illness

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A while ago I wrote an article about facing imposter syndrome because of my illnesses. The gist of the essay was that it is difficult having a chronic illness and it often comes with a lot of insecurity and doubt. For me, these thoughts were intensified by a health care provider who belittled me into feeling like I was the problem, not my illnesses. She criticized my behavior and shot down my concerns. When I discussed the events of that appointment with my psychologist, his first piece of advice was to end any and all interactions with that particular healthcare professional. As a follow-up to that, here are more tidbits for dealing with imposter syndrome and illness.

Stop seeing mediocre/rude/unempathetic healthcare professionals.

It’s worth repeating again: don’t trust your health to people who won’t take it seriously.

Pick your provider carefully.

Access to healthcare can be difficult enough without the frustration of having to deal with a provider who doesn’t listen to you. My best advice is to head it off at the pass. Instead of going in for a visit without knowing who you are seeing, cherry pick who you want to see ahead of time. Ask your friends and family who they see. Use online tools like patient review websites to research your options. Read health forums or use the board certification registry to see who practices what type of medicine in your area. Call your insurance company to ask who your in-network options are. As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense.

When I was searching for a new specialist for my IC/endometriosis, I looked up the best women’s health surgeons in my area, cold-called their office and asked to speak with a nurse. I asked the nurse who she would recommend given my conditions. She gave me her honest opinion and I now have the absolute best doctor. Be bold and resourceful in seeking out who manages your healthcare.

Stop comparing.

When I talked to my psychologist about my feelings of imposter syndrome, he mentioned that comparison is often the root of insecurity. We compare ourselves to other people and conclude we are either more or less deserving of our label. But sickness isn’t an episode of Fashion Police where we should sit and discuss “who wore it better.” Each case is unique and nuanced. Each person is given a different set of circumstances to work with. It can be so tempting to reach for validation or an excuse by comparing our case with someone else’s, but that is a slippery slope that only leads to more negativity.

When we think of ourselves as more deserving of something, we lose empathy for others. When we think of ourselves as less deserving of something, we lose empathy for ourselves. Either way, nobody wins. Focus on your own situation and your own treatment plan without putting someone else’s experience into your equation.

Accept that there is no benchmark of “normal.”

When I struggle with wondering if I am overreacting or making a bigger deal out of something than necessary, I want a solid answer. I like to know for sure where I stand as far as my pain/emotions/reactions. If I am being whiny, I want to know. If I am being irrational, I want to know. But how am I supposed to know? How can I tell if I am overreacting unless I know what the correct reaction should be? How am I supposed to rate my pain when I don’t know what an acceptable amount of pain is? How am I supposed to “buck up” or “calm down” if I don’t know what up or down looks like? What is OK? What is not OK? Someone just tell me what is normal!

But normal is just another word for standard, and standards are typically based on averages. Averages are calculated by comparing a bunch of things to one another and assigning them a relative value. And there is the catch-22: we can’t know what is normal without comparison, and as we’ve established, comparison is often counterproductive.

Instead of reaching for a collective definition of normal, I focus on my own normal. Instead of asking, “Is this normal?” say, “This is/isn’t normal for me.” My only measure for my pain/emotions/symptoms is my own experience.

Play “What is more likely?”

The encounter that provoked my imposter syndrome was inexplicable. I still can’t wrap my mind around why a provider with all my charts, labs and notes, would think she could swoop in and tell me my physical body is fine, it’s my mental health that needs more attention. My psychologist talked me through an easy little exercise to help me deal with the residual doubt: put true situations in objective language and decide what statement is more logical, also known as ‘What is more likely?’

What is more likely, that my three other specialists are right in my diagnosis and treatment, or that this provider knows better than all of them combined? What is more likely, my tumor was fake and a big conspiracy, or that this provider was being insensitive? What is more likely, that my pain is real, or that this provider is misinformed? What is more likely, that I am a big fraud, or that she was having a bad day?

Playing my own personal version of Occam’s razor helps me ground my emotions, rebuild my confidence and let go of the nonsense.

Acknowledge that providers are human.

I have two friends who are physicians and three who are mid-level providers. All of them care deeply about their patients and want what is best for each one. Recently, I was with one of these friends while she was on-call. She received a message from radiology that a patient’s scans came in over the weekend. I don’t know specifics (HIPAA is real, people) but whatever it was, it was really bad. My friend stepped away from our social gathering to make the phone call none of us ever wants to receive.

Later that night, her pager went off again. This time it was a basic question from a patient about a run-of-the-mill medical issue. My friend, still upset from her previous situation, stepped away again to handle the call but was noticeably less engaging. In fact, her demeanor was so perfunctory it bordered on rude. It wasn’t that she was mad at the person calling or didn’t care, but she just had to do a terribly awful thing and was mentally drained and incredibly sad. Those emotions seeped into her next interaction.

Working in medicine is hard. Day in and day out providers see people who are suffering and they may or may not be able to help. Even the most emotionally detached people have cases that get to them, and they react in a very human way. The nurse practitioner that fostered my doubt and insecurity should’ve been more professional, that’s for sure, but I should also be a little more gracious. I don’t know what situation she just stepped out of when she stepped into my exam room. I don’t need to subject myself to her “care” again, but I choose to forgive her and give her room to be human.

When I wrote the first article, I was still in the throes of navigating how to be OK with being chronically ill. I let the doubt, fear and anxiety of a bad medical appointment provoke me into wondering what was real and what wasn’t. With the help of my psychologist, I have a better handle on managing my imposter syndrome and my health, and I have learned to let it go.

Getty image by Zoran Zeremski.

Originally published: May 28, 2019
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