This past week has been “Mental Health Awareness Week” and in addition to all the current talk around Coronavirus and coping with the world in lockdown, the media has been shining a light on the impact mental health struggles can have on our own lives and of those around us, particularly in these current circumstances. I often try my best to hide away from news and social media during big awareness raising campaigns like this. Seeing an onslaught of celebrities and journalists detailing their own experiences of mental illness, or the experiences of others really triggers those anxious thoughts around my own struggle with mental illness – “Am I over exaggerating how I feel?”, “Do I deserve more support?”, “Will people just think I am ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ as so many people are talking about mental health at the moment?”.
This type of thinking, according to psychologists, is described as imposter syndrome – where you believe you are not as competent as other people believe you to be. I openly admit, I’ve long since believed this about myself, no matter how often people have tried to convince me otherwise. It hinders me a lot. I procrastinate and struggle to push myself to go ahead with new ideas because I think that its just not good enough – so what’s the point?
I was listening to a podcast recently by Kerry Lyons founder of The Imperfect Life Co. about imposter syndrome and how to ‘lean into it‘, and although I found that what she had to say was really useful and inspiring, I constantly found myself asking “…but what if you’ve been used to people patronising you and praising you for doing things that you and most other people do every day due to their ignorant perceptions of disability? How can you trust other people’s judgements about your capabilities when you, and other disabled people with similar medical conditions have been patronised and given unnecessary praise in the past which has made you feel infantilised and not taken seriously?” I can imagine that any therapist or psychology expert out there would say that this questioning is one of the ways in which imposter syndrome works its magic, but questioning the sincerity and reasonings behind people’s praise and compliments is something I have found myself doing for a very long time.
Ever since I was little, I’ve always been aware of the fact that people can treat me differently from other people my age due to my disability: Being given easy read picture books aimed at 5 year olds when I was in fact 10 years old, a bibliophile and in the top of my class in English & reading. People asking questions about me to my parents or support teacher at school when I was right there in front of them ready to answer. Being given undue praise from strangers just for getting on the bus by myself in my wheelchair when I was 21. I’ve seen similar things happen to other disabled people throughout my life too. Disabled students have often been singled out and given special awards for taking part or ‘showing courage’ at events in school when nobody else apart from the overall winners would have received anything. There are numerous social media stories showing high school teens asking their disabled friends or family members to be their date for their prom in front of cameras or a crowd of people – usually followed by lots of comments saying how “emotional” it was to watch and how “inspirational” the abled student was for making the disabled person’s dream come true.
I never want to be seen as an object of pity, or as an inspiration to people solely because I do every day things like everyone else (get up, socialise etc…) but I happen to have a disability. I want what I do to be judged on the same merits as everyone else, regardless of disability, race, sexuality or gender. But the truth is, it happens. I’ve had people who I have never met come up to me and say “I think its amazing that people like you can get out and about” – why? I can imagine with more questioning, their answer would reveal some deep hidden stereotype about disabled people they didn’t realise they had for example: “I thought all people in wheelchairs couldn’t do anything for themselves without help”. It may sound like it is a positive compliment, but perhaps unconsciously it ends up showing long held, ignorant prejudices and beliefs you didn’t know you had.
The late, great Disability Rights campaigner Stella Young did an amazing TEDx talk back in 2014 entitled “Inspiration Porn and the Objectification of Disability”. This video was an eye opener for me – finally other people agreed with me and there were some actual academic discussions going into it too!
Young coined the term Inspiration Porn to describe the way one group of people (in this case disabled people) are objectified to benefit another group of people. Often images of physically disabled people doing things like racing to the finish line or graduating from high school are accompanied by phrases such as “Your excuses are invalid”. This insinuates that having a disability means that you are not expected to achieve anything that non disabled people would take for granted and achieve almost as a rite of passage (especially when historically those born with disabilities were left to languish in institutions). Therefore when you do achieve those things as a disabled person, such as going to school or living in your own home, they are considered exceptional as they surpass people’s ignorant and misguided perceptions of disability.
We have been told the lie that to have a disability is a ‘Bad Thing’ […] and to live with disability makes you exceptional. It’s not a bad thing and it doesn’t make you exceptional.Stella Young – “Inspiration Porn and the Objectification of Disability” (TEDx Sydney 2014)
Discount my disability, Treat me like you would anyone else
I don’t want the quality of my efforts and work in life to be judged in consideration of my disability or to be given extra praise for something purely due to my disability when that work would have been considered average had it been produced by someone who was not disabled. When I hear a compliment and ask for further clarification as to why, I don’t want to hear the words “…considering you’re disabled” tagged on the end. Why was my article or presentation “inspirational”? Was it because I was an eloquent writer and had a way of expressing myself that you hadn’t seen from anyone else before? Or was it because I surpassed your own expectations of how a disabled person can express themselves and what they can achieve?
The problem is I have become so accustomed to seeing disabled people’s actions treated this way throughout my own life and through society and the media, that my own mind naturally questions compliments as soon as I hear them and I struggle to take them at face value. There have also been countless times where I’ve felt I’ve needed to prove myself to people to ensure that they don’t treat me a certain way as soon as they spot my wheelchair – “I graduated with a degree at university”, “I have passed my driving test (first time!) and drive my own car”, “I love cooking and I cook some meals from scratch”.
I saw this tweet by “TheDisabilityEnthusiast” the other day and it really encapsulated the truth about what I often feel I need to do in order not to be judged on my disability. I have to be exceptional in certain areas of my life unconnected to my disability in order to prove that I am good at something and therefore am not getting the kudos purely based on other people’s misguided preconceptions of disability and achievement (Phew! That took a while to put into words!). Maybe the majority of the time I am getting genuine compliments about my work. But I am so fearful of being patronised, taken advantage of and finding myself slotting neatly into the stereotype of the pitiful, vulnerable disabled person, that half the time I question it purely to protect myself from hurt & ridicule and to validate my own abilities to ensure that I’m not getting a ‘free ride’ due to the condition I was born with. I never want to be an imposter and take away someone else’s opportunity when their work is much better than my own.
How do I stop feeling like an imposter?
One of the effects imposter syndrome and the fear of my accomplishments being judged around my disability has on my mindset is that I am very much a perfectionist. If I don’t feel that what I have done, or what I would like to do is good enough, then I feel a failure and more often than not I can’t be motivated to try. I’ve listened to another of Kerry Lyons’ podcast episodes called “Why you don’t need to be ‘fixed’ before you can start” and in it she discusses perfectionism and how we often feel that “things need to be done a certain way before we can start to feel okay with it”. Take this blog post for instance. I’ve had the ideas for this post bubbling away in the back of my mind for months now and I have only just got the confidence to write this. Inspired by what Kerry had to say, even though I had heard mentioned it in similar guises before, it gave me the nudge I needed to just forget about things being perfect and to just try and write from the heart and see how it goes. The results of which you are reading right now!
The biggest thing you can do for yourself to help starve off the perfection monster is to just give yourself permission to try. Forget what other people will think. Start whatever you want to do as if it is a first draft on a piece of scrap paper. I am telling this to myself as I write too, as I know I am bound to contest this advice when I am in a low, self critical mood!
If you want the opinions of others and are frightened of being patronised or flattered, then ask those you trust will give you their honest opinion.
To those of you who are still of the belief that disabled people are exceptional purely because they can do things like get on a bus or graduate from university, when you know nothing of their lives, experiences or personality – please try to educate yourselves! We know you aren’t intentionally wanting to hurt or patronise and are probably genuinely happy to see someone, who you’ve been unconsciously taught to pity and feel sorry for, enjoying their lives. However, disabled people are as capable as anyone else to achieve anything (or not) depending on their own motivation and desires, it is the lack of access and support that makes us unable to see them to fruition in the way abled people can. By over praising our every move, it can make us doubt our genuine talents and abilities.
I don’t want to be amazing “…considering [I’m] disabled”. I want to be amazing because I am me, Charlotte, a human being! 🙂