How the 5 types of impostor syndrome can affect those with MS

A columnist explains why his disease sometimes makes him feel like a fraud

Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

by Benjamin Hofmeister |

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With my kids in school, me being retired, and, of course, the limitations of my multiple sclerosis (MS), I have a lot of free time on my hands. I’d like to say that I always use it productively, but that’s far from the truth.

I putter — if you can do that from a wheelchair. I assume you can, but the dictionary definition is a little vague on that point. Regardless, only some of my activities are truly aimless. I watch television, surf the internet on my tablet (and then the smaller internet on my phone), and read.

Not all of my reading is about multiple sclerosis, though, for obvious reasons, I do devote quite a bit of time to it. I still keep up with topics from my past life in the U.S. Army, and recently, I came across an article about impostor syndrome as it applies to military special operators. It was a fascinating read, prompting me to consider how the syndrome affects those of us with a chronic disease.

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Reflecting on my experiences with MS

Impostor syndrome is essentially the feeling that, despite your successes, you don’t possess the attributes that others think you do, and you fear being found out as a fraud. According to Valerie Young, an expert on the topic and co-founder of the Impostor Syndrome Institute, there are five types of impostor syndrome. I believe each type correlates to feelings that those of us with MS might experience.

First, we have the Perfectionist. This type believes that there’s always something they could’ve done better, and that they’ll never be as good as others think they are.

With my very visible disabilities, I occasionally hear words like “hero” and “inspiration” to describe me. Most people probably use those terms because they think they’re supposed to. I smile and express my thanks because I think that’s what I’m supposed to do. But I feel like a fraud sometimes because hearing that I’m a hero or an inspiration reminds me of all the times when I wasn’t.

Second is the Expert. This type feels like a fraud because they don’t know everything there is to know about a certain subject.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about realizing how much I don’t know about my MS — but it wasn’t always like that. There was a time when I tried hard to project my expertise about how my disease would (or would not) progress. Being wrong so often has proven otherwise. This type of impostor syndrome also tempts me to compare myself with others. If someone is doing “better” than I am, it must be because I don’t know enough. I hope no one notices.

Next is the Natural Genius. With this type, a person might feel like an impostor because they don’t believe they’re naturally intelligent or able to master a task on the first try.

If I were smarter, then I’d have seen MS coming. Whether that would’ve made a difference is anyone’s guess. I saw the symptoms, but ignored them until I couldn’t anymore. I don’t feel intelligent at all. Stubborn, maybe, but I’ll try to hide that, too.

Then there’s the Soloist. If you aren’t able to accomplish something on your own, you question the value of your abilities.

I have MS, but MS doesn’t have me. I don’t need any help. I can do it all by myself. I hope nobody sees the impostor behind the curtain and realizes the truth: It does, I do, and I can’t.

Finally, we have the Superhuman. With this type of impostor syndrome, you might believe you’re a fraud if you fail to reach the highest achievement possible.

I sometimes wish I had a billboard mounted above my wheelchair that listed all of my accomplishments. When I imagine people thinking that I’m just not trying hard enough or have given up, I could point to it and say, “See, I did things. Hard things. Things that scared me. But I never once quit!”

Yeah, yeah, go ahead and say it. I’m just projecting my feelings onto them and hoping they don’t see that sometimes, when MS gives me a setback, I feel like that billboard is a fake.

I still feel like an impostor from time to time, but it’s nothing compared with my early years with multiple sclerosis. The support of friends and family changed that — or maybe it was my acceptance of their acceptance. It’s hard to say, but what isn’t hard is acknowledging that sharing the whirlwind of my emotions and experiences with you all makes a huge difference.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Thank you for letting me be me instead of an impostor.


Note: Multiple Sclerosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Multiple Sclerosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to multiple sclerosis.

Comments

Cynthia MacFarlane avatar

Cynthia MacFarlane

Thank you .

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thank you for reading it Cynthia!

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Alex avatar

Alex

I think I feel all of these from time to time. I appreciate how you spelled out all the different types. Thank you for writing about it.

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks Alex! The crazy thing is, I really learned about imposter syndrome from an article that had nothing to do with MS. As I read it I kept thinking that I do that, or feel that way and it's because of this disease, so I decided to try and write about it.

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Robert Bartholomew avatar

Robert Bartholomew

Well-written, interesting!

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thanks Robert!

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Deborah Rombouts avatar

Deborah Rombouts

It is always a battle between “accepting” loss of mobility as a part time wheelchair user, and thinking that if I just concentrated on my physical strength I wouldn’t need mobility aids. I have such bad imposter syndrome (MS plus late-diagnosed ADHD) that I would only begin to accept my limitations when I got an “ultra cool” set of wheels in the form of my Omeo. Even now I question whether I REALLY need it or is it just a fashion accessory. My ability to fall hard without any particular reason would choose to disagree 😂. Thank goodness my years of physical activity gave me very strong bones.

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Tom A avatar

Tom A

I'm sure the snurfer and skiing, the balance board, and other "skills" learned and simialr toys help me out today. My primary care doctor's list of issues says :"balance problems", to which I say- If i didn't have good balance I'd be falling all over the place.

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

For me, it was strong bones and years of parachuting that made it ok for me to fall so much. Being good at falling down stopped being important when I couldn't choose where I fell or couldn't pick myself up after. The soloist type of imposter syndrome is my nemesis. I don't like the idea of being dependent on anything, but I (grudgingly) accept that I am. Accepting doesn’t have to mean embracing, or liking.

Thanks for the great comments Deborah!

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Mary Davis avatar

Mary Davis

THANK YOU. Lately, I've been going through/thinking all of those. I got worse over the pandemic, stopped walking bc I was falling a lot, and said I'm going to sit so I won't fall. I have a caregiver to help with bathroom, dressing, getting into bed. My right arm and fingers are weaker but I blame myself for it all. OH and Im in a power chair that I hate. I feel I disappoint everyone all the time, just having a bad day :(

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Hi Mary! Hope your bad day is past and that you never feel "bad" for having one. I think we deserve a little self care from time to time and sometimes that care is letting ourselves have a bad day

Ben

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Jenny avatar

Jenny

I have definitely felt all of these Ben. I have to admit that "Natural Genius' hits me the hardest as I was so well with my MS I thought that I must be doing something right. But when it all went downhill I realised that I definitely wasn't! It is a really interesting way to think of all the different imposters that can impact on our MS. Thank you :)

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

But...I read your blog to get all the answers.

Seriously, I read https://trippingthroughtreacle.com/
because of you never pretended to know everything. I'm less of an imposter because of your humble honesty.

Ben

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Christine Jackson-Smith avatar

Christine Jackson-Smith

Thank you Ben, I've never heard of imposter syndrome and your article was quite an eye opener! I feel that I have exhibited all of these at any one time over the 48yrs of my MS. I feel that I'm more of the Perfectionist, followed by the Soloist. I've always thought that I can do everything by myself, that I don't need any help. The problem with that is that I've done such a good job impressing friends and family that I manage OK, that I think they tend to forget my limitations, particularly as I'm now Secondary Progressive, where I'm slowly deteriorating. I feel like I'm slowly falling apart, both physically and mentally, especially since Covid and the lockdowns. I relate with everyone who has commented here, and send my love and good vibes to you. Thank you again Ben, 😉

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Benjamin Hofmeister avatar

Benjamin Hofmeister

Thank you Christine! I am very guilty of expending a week's worth of energy to be "fully functional" in front of family/friends and then crashing back down to normal when they aren't around. I'm not sure who I'm trying to impress more, me,or them. I'm faking being well (there’s an idea for a column). We're whatever the opposite of a hypochondriac is. Thanks for that!

Ben

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