Stonewall's take on imposter syndrome and depression in the LGBT community
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Imposter syndrome

I’m an imposter. Always have been.

Perhaps I’ve passed by unnoticed at times: stealth’s the name of the game. Perhaps you blew my cover, caught me out. Maybe this caused me consternation and anxiety; or maybe, just maybe, I secretly liked it.


I can’t help wondering whether being gay, lesbian, bi or trans might actually be perfect training ground for espionage? After all, we’re raised to be experts in self-editing, reticence and deception.


It was only 13 years ago that you could effectively be fired from your job for being LG or B, 15 years since the ban on LGBT people serving in the military was lifted, and only 12 years since Section 28 was repealed, which made it illegal to “promote” homosexuality and made working life very difficult for teachers, resulting in some leaving the profession. Considering the psychological hangover of this, is it any surprise that so many employees are still reluctant to tick that dreaded box on monitoring forms under sexual orientation? Should we be surprised that declaration rates are so typically low?


Of course, life can still be very difficult for many employees, across a range of sectors and industries. We know from our work with over 700 employers that within the last five years 2.4m people of working age have witnessed verbal homophobic bullying at work. A further 800,000 people of working age have witnessed physical homophobic bullying at work.


“I don’t want to know about who you sleep with” is just one of the many objections to the monitoring of sexual orientation that we hear from people who are taken aback by this question, sometimes from senior members of staff. I don’t want to know who you sleep with either; I just want to be myself, thanks. I want to talk about my boyfriend or who I’m dating, and what I did with them at the weekend. Sometimes we do things outside the bedroom, you know. Did you know we can go to the cinema/park/restaurant too? I can be as equally regular and mundane as you.


Don’t believe me? Look at my pictures on Facebook – if you want to be my friend, that is. If you want to know me at all.

At times I suppose we’ve all felt imprisoned within our own minds by the norms dictated from the world outside. What we should like and value. How we should act and behave. Who we should be – and more importantly, who we shouldn’t be.


For so long, we’ve been told we’re wrong. Not about a quiz in a magazine, not on some kind of flawed line of deduction, not in answer to a mathematical equation; our core identity, our sense of self, our esteem.


But no person is inherently wrong.


We know that LGBT people disproportionately suffer mental health problems – and is it really any surprise? We know from the RaRE report on trans mental health that 48 per cent of young trans people have made at least one suicide attempt in their lives, compared to 26 per cent of cisgendered people. We learnt from our own research in 2013 that four in five (79 per cent) lesbian and bi women surveyed said they have had a spell of sadness, felt miserable or felt depressed. We also learnt that at the point of survey, 22 per cent of gay and bi were experiencing moderate to severe levels of depression.

A colleague recently enlightened me about imposter syndrome. A psychological theory more than a recognised mental health condition, imposter syndrome is characterised by the feeling that you’re going to get caught out at any second. Particularly common among high-achieving women, it is defined by the Harvard Business Review as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success”.


It’s the voices inside your head that chime you’re not good enough – for your friends (to be liked), for your job (to be competent, talented and knowledgeable), for your family (to be a star in their constellation of 2.4 children, complete with white-picket fence).


The ceiling is real – and we didn’t place it there ourselves. Why wouldn’t we want to see the sky?


I suppose society has taught us resilience. Sometimes you slip a couple of rungs down the ladder of our supposed meritocracy; but it’s important to cling tight, “keep calm and carry on”. After all, what’s the alternative?


But society would also obscure us from the knowledge of particular people’s very existence. History is regularly re-written with glaring omissions, and unless challenged it’s soon accepted as fact and as though these individuals and their stories didn’t exist at all. Only through calendar events like Black History Month (this month, FYI) and LGBT History Month are we made aware of critical figures without which the world simply wouldn’t be the same.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Bayard Rustin. Marsha P. Johnson, to name a few.

We know it’s possible to hide your sexual orientation of your own accord, especially when intimidated into or encouraged to do so. We know it’s possible to hide your gender identity or your gender history – some due to fear of prejudice, some others striving to “pass”. We also know it’s possible to hide your mental health. We do this all the time.


But hiding a fundamental part of who you are can be exhausting. It can self-induce shame. And burying rather than acknowledging and confronting mental health problems specifically can cause it to echo in your mind, louder still with each resound.


Anxious and panicky. Despondent and isolated. Trapped and tangled. Downwardly spiralling with guilt that you can’t fulfil your duties and guilt that I could even be so self-absorbed and indulgent to be depressed. Using every last ounce of energy to prove to the world around me that there’s nothing wrong, to put on that show-face.


But I’m just so over it now. My secret isn’t that I’m not good enough, it’s that I’m at times unnecessarily overwhelmed by self-doubt. And my secret isn’t that I have a mental health, it’s that I wonder with trepidation whether the world is ready to accept it.

I don’t have to be an imposter anymore. And neither do you. Just be you.