Hyperbole and a Half Tackles Depression (Again)

Allie Brosh, creator and author of the blog Hyperbole and a Half, has recently returned after an extended absence from the blogosphere. Before her unplanned hiatus, she published a post about her experience with depression; and now, upon her return, she has published a follow-up on her continuing struggle with the mental illness. Brosh’s posts are as insightful as they are entertaining. I cannot recommend them enough. For those who are suffering, or have suffered, from depression, you will find much in common with Brosh’s experiences. And, for those who haven’t been touched by depression, you will find it very eye-opening; Brosh does an amazing job of describing this often frustratingly ineffable experience. Follow the links below to Brosh’s blog, and prepare for a take on mental health like you’ve not seen before.

(WARNING: Both posts contain coarse language.)

“Adventures in Depression”

“Depression Part Two”

Follow all the links

Am I Disabled?

disability word

Application forms are a nuisance, no matter who you are. But, for me, there is one question in particular that I dread each time I fill one out:

“Do you have a disability?”

I have never once answered ‘yes’ to this question. But should I? Is my mental health condition a disability?

Am I disabled?

Before I continue, a brief aside: today’s post will be rather more informal than those previous. I want to share my thoughts on this question, but I am woefully short of answers. As always, I have cast about for other material on the subject, but have found precious little. However, while this week’s piece is little more than a collection of musings, I hope it will still resonate with some of you, and perhaps inspire more conversation on the topic.

To Declare or Not To Declare…

disability declaration application question form

I find myself in a difficult situation where this question is concerned. My mental illness is not so serious that I am unable to work; indeed, I am fortunate that it has hitherto not disrupted my work. And yet, it is serious enough that it can at times be a very real challenge requiring professional attention. This middle ground in which I find myself makes answering the question above complicated at best.

There are two different reasons why declaring my mental illness gives me pause.

Equal Treatment

First, I loathe the thought of receiving special treatment on account of my mental health. Does my application really deserve special attention because of my condition? In my case, I am convinced that it doesn’t. After all, my condition hasn’t compromised my work. It seems unfair to plead special circumstance when those circumstances were not so challenging as to adversely affect my results. And what is more, I should like to think that my place at university or my offers of funding were granted on the merit of my academic excellence alone. Indeed, it is for this same reason that I also never declare myself to be a member of a visible minority; but of course, the two questions are not quite analogous. And so-called “positive discrimination” is a topic for another day.

Who am I?

My second concern, however, I find far more compelling than the first. To me, the more challenging question is this: Am I prepared to adopt the label ‘disabled’? More than a question about legal definitions, it is a question about my identity. Do I see myself as a person that is disabled?

On the word itself, the OED offers the following:

adj; …2. Of a person: having a physical or mental condition which limits activity, movement, sensation, etc….

But I do not feel less able than my colleagues; my scholarly activities aren’t limited. I attend talks, teach classes, write papers. In all the relevant ways—that is, all the ways relevant to being an academic—I am equally able as my peers.

And yet, there are nevertheless days when emerging from my room is an ordeal, and days when my anxiety erupts into full-blown panic.

So am I disabled…?

I suppose my activities are indeed limited on the days described. But there are equally days on which I experience no such distress. Unlike many other disabilities that pose a constant challenge, my mental health difficulties are intermittent. And it is unclear to me what degree of limitation constitutes a disability.

Finally, I am particularly fearful of the label because I am an academic. Qua academic, I am my mental capacities. So, to say of myself that I have a disability on account of my mental illness feels like a threat to that identity. But this, I recognise, is an oversimplification.

And perhaps so too are many of my concerns. After all, we are none of us reducible to the conditions that we suffer. But knowing this, I find, does not make answering the question any easier.


Do you declare your mental health condition when completing applications? Do you have concerns about the label ‘disability’? How has declaring/not declaring affected you? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

On Impostor Syndrome

Impostor hiding in group. Impostor discovered.

The experience known as “impostor syndrome” has been a topic of increasing interest in recent years, featuring in many blog posts and newspaper articles. I have found it reassuring to read the experiences of so many academics who share this experience, and so would like to add my own contribution in the hopes that others might take some comfort in it. As such, at the risk of repeating much of what has been said by others already, I present to you my thoughts on this pervasive phenomenon.


First, though, a note about terminology: although called a “syndrome,” impostor syndrome is not a medical condition. It is rather a convenient expression for referring to a quite common experience in academia—that of feeling that one is a fraud. (NB: the phenomenon is not restricted to academics, but is alarmingly common among them.) I have my qualms about referring to the experience as a “syndrome;” it is, I think, indicative of our growing desire to pathologise the entirety of the human experience—a trend to which I am staunchly opposed. Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (1978), the first to identify the experience, named it the “impostor phenomenon;” and so, in what follows, I shall use Clance & Imes’ terminology.

It is worth noting that some mental health professionals also share my reticence to apply the term ‘syndrome’ to this experience. In an article in Nature, Dr. Mayada Akil, Director of Outpatient Psychiatry at Georgetown University Hospital, Washington DC, is quoted as saying that while the experience certainly occurs, it is “not a disorder or a syndrome;” Dr. Akil feels that much has been made of the so-called syndrome for “commercial purposes.”

Now, it might seem odd to devote this amount of space to a terminological discussion. The point, however, is not a minor one; there is power in words. In labels. In this case, I think to pathologise the experience is to absolve the academic environment of too much responsibility—an environment that, as I wrote last week, allows phenomena like this one to thrive.

So much, then, for terminology.

Hiding in Plain Sight

I’ve just pulled the wool over their eyes…

This line, and many others like it are a constant refrain in my internal dialogue. Worse than a doubt, I harbour an unfaltering conviction that I have not earned my place here in the hallowed halls of academia. A conviction, I hasten to add, that is utterly irrational—one that is dogmatically impervious to all assurances and evidence to the contrary. And yet, as much as I’m aware of its irrationality, it is a belief from which I seem unable to divorce myself.

What is more, the impostor phenomenon is not just a belief about one’s own unworthiness. It is also the constant fear of being exposed. The fear that the next question you ask, the next presentation you give, the next page you write will be the one that gives you away. It is the fear that you are surrounded by people who can smell deceit—by, as Colonel Pickering might have it, “impostorologists.” Indeed, combined with the combative atmosphere that prevails in academia (see “Shame and Academic Darwinism”), the impostor phenomenon makes one feel like a sheep in wolf’s clothing. One who is amidst many hungry wolves.

The tragedy of it is, the impostor phenomenon is strikingly common. And yet we each feel alone in our experience; we don’t realise that we’re in what amounts to a fancy dress party—so many supposed sheep in wolves’ clothing.

As many of the articles on this topic explain (see “References and Further Reading” below), one of the most effective ways of combating the impostor phenomenon is to talk about it. This is why I felt it important to add to the already sizable literature on this all too common experience. That being said, I must admit, it is with no small amount of trepidation that I confess to feeling this way. Despite having met numerous students and peers who have expressed fears very similar to my own, I cannot help but think, “their beliefs may be mistaken, but I am in fact a fraud.” A truly laughable thought! And one that demonstrates the self-reinforcing nature of this troubling phenomenon.

Cognitive Distortion and Negative Self-Image

I take my experience of the impostor phenomenon to be part and parcel of my mental health issues (namely, anxiety and depression). Indeed, in my experience, all three feed into one another, each reinforcing the deeply negative beliefs engendered by the others. The worse my depression, the more I feel an impostor, and so the more anxious I become. This often leads to a deepening of the depression, thus completing the circle.

One of the most notable symptoms of depression is the possession of a negative self-image and the cognitive distortions that accompany that image. There are many different kinds of cognitive distortion, among them one called “disqualifying the positive.” As the name suggests, it is typified by a tendency to explain away positive experiences. For instance, dismissing compliments as merely polite gestures, or attributing successful results to luck.

Sound familiar?

The impostor phenomenon is itself a product of this cognitive distortion. To be certain, not all who experience the impostor phenomenon suffer from a mental health condition. While cognitive distortion is common to both depression and the impostor phenomenon, this does not imply that all who experience the latter necessarily suffer from the former. As with so many symptoms of mental health conditions, cognitive distortions admit of degrees of severity, not all of which suffice for clinical diagnosis. However, what this overlap does explain is why those suffering from depression are particularly susceptible to the impostor phenomenon. It suggests that the two experiences are deeply related.

Fighting Back

So, what can we do to overcome the impostor phenomenon? To answer that, I will point you to a marvelous article at GradHacker entitled “Banishing Impostor Syndrome.” In her article, author Andrea Zellner outlines four main strategies for combating this phenomenon:

     (1) Share how you feel.
     (2) Be kind to yourself.
     (3) Fake it ‘til you make it.
     (4) Help others.

See the full article for more details.



Do you have experience with the impostor phenomenon? Have you overcome it? What do you think causes it? Share your thoughts in the comments.



References and Further Reading

Beck, J., 2010. Do you have the imposter syndrome?. Huffington Post. 22 July 2010. Available from: <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-s-beck-phd/the-imposter-syndrome_b_656252.html> [19 April 2013]

Carey, B., 2008. Feel like a fraud? At times maybe you should, 05 February 2008. New York Times. Available from: <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/health/05mind.html> [19 April 2013]

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A., 1978. The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247. Available from: <http://www.suzanneimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Imposter-Phenomenon.pdf> [19 April 2013]

‘Cognitive distortion.’ Wikipedia. Available from: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_distortion> [19 April 2013]

“I was crippled by impostor syndrome”: one woman’s story, 02 February 2012. Geek Feminism. Available from: <http://geekfeminism.org/2012/02/02/i-was-crippled-by-impostor-syndrome-one-womans-story/> [19 April 2013]

Kaplan, K., 2009. Unmasking the impostor. Nature, 459, pp. 468-469. Available from: <http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7245-468a> [19 April 2013]

Kasper, J., 2013. An academic with imposter syndrome. Chronicle. 02 April 2013. Available from: <http://chronicle.com/article/An-Academic-With-Impostor/138231/> [19 April 2013]

Rippeyoung, P., 2012. The imposter syndrome, or, as my mother told me: “Just because everyone else is an asshole, it doesn’t make you a fraud.” (a guest post). 11 December 2012. The Professor is In. Available from <http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/12/11/the-imposter-syndrome-or-as-my-mother-told-me-just-because-everyone-else-is-an-asshole-it-doesnt-make-you-a-fraud-a-guest-post/> [19 April 2013]

Rivero, L., 2013. Face your imposter. 07 April 2013. Psychology Today. Available from: <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-synthesis/201304/face-your-imposter> [19 April 2013]

Zellner, A., 2011. Banishing impostor syndrome, 02 September 2011. GradHacker. Available from: <http://www.gradhacker.org/2011/09/02/banishing-impostor-syndrome/> [19 April 2013]

Good article from the blog Depression’s Collateral Damage on the persistence of stigma and the value of openness.

“People are hurting.  They’re looking for a chance to talk about how mental illness is affecting their lives.  Too often the stigma prevents them from discovering that others are living in similar situations. Loneliness, isolation, abandonment abound.  One simple act of sharing can change all that.”

Find complete post at “Exposing the Stigma of Living With Depression”.