An issue related to autistic shame is what I call ‘Imposter Syndrome’. I can best illustrate what I mean by this by talking about my own life. At a fairly young age, I realised I was ‘not normal’, not like the others around me. I perceived this as a lack of some kind, something others had but I didn’t, an inferiority on my part. I also realised it was something I needed to hide – because when my difference from others was revealed, in whatever way, a whole ton of negativity landed on me. So I definitely got the message, that this ‘not normal’ was not a good thing to be.
So I started to pretend. I watched others, I mimicked them, I modelled myself on them. I devoted a huge amount of my time and energies to learning what ‘normal’ behaviour was, and doing my best to present that to others. I built, in effect, a façade, a front or mask, of ‘normality’. This front was imperfect of course, a lot of negativity still came my way, and so I was forever revamping, reinforcing and refining it. I did this for years, decades even, of my life. I devoted time and energy to it that I now feel could have been better spent on enhancing my life in myriad other ways. And yes, I learnt a lot of what might be termed ‘social skills’ along the way – it was essential in fact, to the construction and maintenance of this front.
But there was a catch – the more polished my ‘mask’ or front became, the more l lived in fear. Fear of being ‘found out’. Fear of having someone ‘spot’ my secret abnormality, and exposing me with a pointed finger and a shout of “You! You’re not normal! What are you doing here amongst us regular people! Get out!!” Or words to that effect. Each occasion I ‘got away with it’, my fear that someday it would happen only increased all the more. I felt like an imposter, a ‘pretend normal person’, a sham, even a monster. It also had a ghastly feedback effect on my secret shame – the more I hid my true self, the more ashamed I felt of what I was hiding, and the more I tried to hide it, and hence the more my shame grew… And if any possibility of ‘exposure’ threatened, however faintly, I would redouble my efforts to hide it, and build that façade even stronger. While behind that front, my fear and shame gnawed away at me, corroding my self-esteem more with each year that passed.
And then I began the journey of realising I have Aspergers. This was a total surprise – I’d never thought that the source of my secret shame and façade had a name, an actual diagnosis. Even more, I had never thought there might be others like me. I thought I was the only one, ever. It was stunning, and very hard to take in at first, but also very welcome. I wasn’t ‘weird’ or ‘abnormal’ after all, I was an aspie!! With the aid of my new friends, the shame and the low self-esteem finally began to shift. I began, cautiously, to reveal that true self I’d hidden for so long.
However, over time a curious problem has developed. As I don’t yet (due to lack of money) have a formal diagnosis, that slip of paper or signed report or letter from some ‘expert’ saying that yes, I definitely do have this condition, my ‘imposter syndrome’ has done this strange 180-degree turn. Maybe, the little voice in the back of my head now whispers, maybe you’re just kidding yourself, because you want so much to fit in somewhere. Maybe you’re just ‘jumping on the latest bandwagon’, diagnosing yourself with the ‘condition de jour’, inventing ‘symptoms’ just so you can belong. Maybe, that voice says, it’s all in your head, and you aren’t really aspie/autistic after all, but just that weird, useless, deficient, sub-standard reject you always thought you were.
This despite having done every online test I can find (often more than once) and having had them all confirm I am well out of the NT range, not to mention several years of research that has confirmed yes, all my ‘quirks’ and ‘abnormalities’ can be explained by this label, the repeated and emphatic confirmations of my peers, and feeling accepted and understood for the first time in my life by those same peers. In spite of all that, still, still, there is this lingering doubt. I believe only that formal diagnosis will rid me of that doubt, this voice in my head like a worm nibbling at the foundations of my new and still precarious self-esteem.
And as if that’s not enough, there’s the irony that, having polished this NT act so well, sometimes when I have tried to tell people I have Aspergers, they refused to believe it. “I’ve seen Asperger kids, and you’re not at all like them!” I had to do a lot of explaining to some of my family, pointing out that I am forty years older than those kids and female anyway, and it manifests differently in females, before they slowly began to accept it. I know this has happened to many others on the spectrum also. It’s as if they see only the exterior, and not what it has cost to construct and maintain that, or what it still costs. They don’t seem to see how I force myself to endure, for example, sensory challenges that bring me close or even into overload; or understand how strange or new situations or people can frighten or overwhelm me. And so on, etc, etc, etc. I’m sure anyone who has ever experienced this ‘imposter syndrome’ will know exactly what I mean.
This is why I believe diagnosis is so important, for us adults on the spectrum. It’s not about being able to get access to services – for the most part, there aren’t any. It’s not about support – again, there mostly isn’t any, apart from what we give each other. It’s about knowing, for the first time in our lives, absolutely and without a doubt, what we are and where we belong. It’s about self-acceptance. It’s about killing that horrible wormy little voice of doubt within, and ridding ourselves, once and forever, of the crushing weight of the ghastly Imposter Syndrome. Being able, finally, to breathe free, walk with confidence, be our true selves, exactly as we are, without apology or concealment.
I live for the day that happens for me.