Monday, March 12, 2018

Real Talk: Hayley the Impostor



**TW / CW - mental health, anxiety, depression, imposter syndrome**

This will always be a style blog where you can come for a bit of fatshion inspo and some body positive pep talks, but I have been wanting to grow my blog for a while now - to focus a bit more on 'real talk'. This year I want to talk a little more about my experiences. Particularly with mental health. Since the birth of Curves n Curls (some three years ago) and way before that, I have battled some serious mental health demons. I have posted about this once or twice, but I haven't written much of significance. Mainly because the last three years have been about survival. I didn't know how to write about a lot of this stuff when I was in the middle of it.

There are also a lot of posts out there that discuss what it's like to struggle with certain issues - and I think they are incredible, because they allow people to really relate and feel like they aren't alone. But when I was really ill I found that most of the mental health content I found was really based either around sharing experiences or learning to cope, rather than overcome. And I wanted solutions. I wanted to hear from people who had fought these battles and won. Because I wanted so badly to get better, but I just didn't know how or if it was even possible.
I know I will never be completely, 100% free. The spectre of the black dog will always be with me, and keeping well will be a life long struggle. Of this I have no doubt. But I have learned some things that have really changed the odds. Some things that mean it is a fairer fight. And I want to use my blog to share that with other people who are suffering, and looking for ways to fight back.

**Please note - I don't have any qualifications. I have no proof that things that work for me will work for anyone else. Some of the things that pulled me out of that long, dark winter might not be the right fit for you. But even if they aren't its important to read the stories of those who have fought and won. Those who continue to resist. And if you are really struggling or are thinking of harming yourself or others, you need to contact a mental health professional urgently or call the Samaritans.**

So, yesterday I let my guard down on my instagram stories. Social media tends to be a very one sided account of life as a human. My social media profiles do tend to be a positive place - even in real life I am very very adept at hiding my mental illness. But in an attempt to live my life on social media with more authenticity, where helpful I am going to try and share my experiences of the ups and downs of my mental health (and believe me, all people have peaks and troughs in their mental health). So, I discussed my anxiety and my battle with impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome is a 'concept describing individuals who are marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a "fraud".' Welcome to my inner world.

Now, at this point I think it should be mentioned that social media has only made impostor syndrome worse. This parade of people's achievements and amazing dinners, incredible holidays, promotions and wonderful relationships, gym selfies and fucking granola flat lays is just another part of the capitalist machine - which exists purely to make us feel shit about ourselves so we buy crap we don't need. You know it. It also makes it seem like everyone else has their shit together.

And so, while you steady your panic attack ridden hands long enough to take an artful photo of your morning flat white beside a novel you've only managed to read four pages of, you feeling like a total fucking sham. Never mind the bitch next to you is doing the exact same thing, and half of the influencers you follow have one instagrammable wall in their shitty flat and a piece of faux marble they use to shoot all their beauty products on, and everywhere else is a pigsty of unwashed pants and used coffee cups. Never mind all that - because there is a total prick of a voice in your head that is convincing you that you are the only one that doesn't have their shit together. And worse still either everyone knows, or everyone is about to find out.

When things in my life (usually sub consciously) start to cause me anxiety a lot of things happen as a result. My sleep gets worse, my concentration levels deteriorate, my temper gets shorter, my depression begins to loom. And that snarky little voice in the back of my head that says 'you're not good enough' suddenly gets a PA system. They almost always come together - my anxiety and the self doubt. That voice has lots of shit to say, but it’s all variations on the same theme. It’s all cruel and undermining. It can all be adapted to fit just about any situation. And it all revolves around the idea that I am useless and worthless and unlovable and a fraud. Fun.

We all have one of those voices I think – it tends to turn up when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable or insecure. Mine was strong for a very long time. It is fuelled by anxiety, depression, insomnia – and in the last 10 years it has had a fuck-load of fuel. The lower I get, the louder it shouts. Until no amount of positive reinforcement or reality can drown out it’s twisted narrative of me as a total and utter failure. A loathsome creature who does not deserve friends of family, love or kindness.

Those thoughts tend to sound something like this – You are a loser. No one likes you. Everyone knows you’re an idiot. You’re not fooling anyone. You’re not talented / intelligent / good at what you do, you’re just lucky. You’re ugly. No one could ever love you. People are just friends with you out of pity. You will always be unhappy because you deserve it. They’re all going to find out you’re a fake. They’re all talking about you. You don't deserve more than this. You will never be happy. You will always have this half life. You can’t do this. It’s all your fault.

On a loop.

When I am feeling down, mountains of evidence to the contrary make absolutely no impact on my belief in the validity of that fucked up little voice. My mind sifts through memories looking for proof that I am a failure. That I am the exact person that voice describes. And god do I find it – because I, like the vast majority of human beings, have catalogued and neatly filed every flaw and every mistake. Every failure, every silly statement, every drunken indiscretion. All of it. To be used as ammo by that cunty little voice whenever I am down and need another good kicking.

Another sure fire way to make sure that voice is proved right - I set myself up for failure. I tend to set super unrealistic goals. So high that I actually can't get started because I am already sure that I won't be able to do the task I have set myself. I get stuck in a quagmire of indecision and pessimism. I focus on things being absolutely perfect. I am particularly bad at this in my career. I hold myself to intimidatingly high standards, which see me working well into the night to finish something to the highest standard. Because nothing is ever good enough. Sometimes I do the same thing with my blog. (FFS, even this post is taking me way longer and has had more edits and rewrites than it should.) Some of my most popular posts – I look back on them the day after they’re published and think “that was crap, why does everyone like it, I should have done this, I should have said that, I write like an amateur.”

I almost always doubt praise. I think the person giving it to me is misled. That I have hoodwinked them in some way to see me as better than I really am. That I have somehow woven a false impression, and really I am not good at my job, am not a nice person, do not really know what I am talking about. It gets so bad that I think anyone who gives me praise is either a) condescending or b) an idiot.  [Please don’t let this stop you all from saying lovely things – I am both desperately in need of and made incredibly uncomfortable by compliments].

And that complicated relationship with compliments – that comes from a very shaky sense of my own self worth. Somewhere along the line the things that needed to happen for me to believe in my own abilities, to trust the things that people tell me or just the things that are patently obvious, didn’t happen. While I grew a pretty tough exoskeleton, inside I remained soft and raw. Unable to withstand the blows that life gives to us all. Every blow eroded my already fragile sense of self until it was just ashes and smoke.

Last year I realised that my confidence was obliterated. Not my ‘I have a bikini body’ confidence. Not my ‘of course people want to fuck me, have you seen me’ confidence, not my 'I can talk to anyone' confidence – although all of those were pretty much sprayed on at this point too. All the outward trappings of confidence were still there. I was missing the intrinsic confidence you need to survive. To live. To take risks. To keep going. The thing that makes you get up in the morning. The bit that at the deepest levels allows you to believes that you are a capable, good person, worthy of good things. It was gone.

Christ – how do you even begin to repair that? Where do you start? I felt like I had spent months, maybe years, trying to figure out why it was so depleted in the first place. Figuring out where it had all gone. But it turned out that that didn’t really matter. Finding a reason, placing blame – it wasn’t going to help. I needed to get it back. I had to rebuild. An embryonic, burgeoning sense of confidence was the basis on which all other work on my mental health could be done. It was the very foundation.

I had found a course that offered a more proactive approach to overcoming mental illness, and as part of it they asked me to do an exercise in building self-confidence. I am positively allergic to most forms of self-help. It feels American (soz), and phoney and self-congratulatory and hollow. In my heart of hearts, I am both an optimist and a cynic. Strange bed fellows, I admit. I had high expectations of this course that promised to heal me, and yet I was wary that it would not and it would be one more failed experiment in my quest for wellness.

What they were asking me to do was simple. I started off by making a list of ten things that I was grateful for (gratitude is the most incredible thing people – I really must write another post about this some time, and it’s connection to good mental health). Ideally they would be things that would have happened recently, however if that was not possible you could rummage through the archives I guess. They could be tiny (thankful the bus was on time), or huge (thankful for my family). It didn’t matter. To give you a better example let me tell you about one of my first ten. I said “I am grateful that, despite being a bad friend for the last year because of my mental health, so many friends showed up for my birthday party and made me feel so special.” (Yup even in my gratitude posts I managed to self flagellate) Then you needed to say why you were thankful – what about that made you grateful. I was so grateful because my friends are so kind, have put up with so much from me and made me feel so loved and cherished.

And lastly (and this is the hard, but key bit) why the thing you were grateful for was down to you, was something you deserved. Urg! For a person with no confidence you may as well ask them the square root of a daffodil. So, another more helpful way you can approach it is to answer in the way your best friend might answer that question – why did Hayley deserve all those people turning up for her and celebrating with her? And the answer a best friend might give is “because she is awesome. Because she is a great friend. Because she is well liked and loved. Because she would do that for other people, because she is fucking fab”.

Sounds like an ego trip, but realising that people wouldn’t have shown up for me if they didn’t like / love me and want to spend time with me (despite all my impostor voice’s protestations) really helped. Believe it or not you can do this for every single one of them, if you think about it hard enough. Bus was prompt - well done for leaving on time to get to your appointment. Grateful someone said you’re makeup looked nice - good job on applying it this morning. And so on, all the way through those ten examples. Once you have your ten (I kept a short note on my phone of each one, with key words that reminded me what they were), whenever you get a moment go through that list and really connect with why you are grateful, and most importantly how you made something like that happen in your life. Everyday add a few more to the list, and delete the older ones. Keep a running list of gratitude.
I bet this sounds like utter narcissistic madness – trying to relate every good thing that has happened to you. To something you did. And yeah, it totally is. It’s not a necessary task for someone with a normal sense of self, and a core of confidence. This is an extreme reboot. It is basically building yourself a bank of evidence that reminds you why you are worthwhile, why you are deserving, why you are good. A bank that most people have. But if your confidence is gone, then you don’t.

It’s also about learning to re-frame things. Instead of focusing energy on why everything is your fault, you’re training your brain and that awesome cheer-leading voice to keep making connections about why you’re responsible for the good things. Because in most cases you are. And that self deprecating “oh no it was nothing, I was lucky, someone else did most of the work” voice (and I know that fucker has a British accent! There is nothing so British [or female] as not taking credit for one’s own successes) can fuck off. For the woefully unconfident, there is no space for being modest. Because you have to own your wins!

So, I did this for two weeks, dedicatedly. It was like taking a course of confidence antibiotics. In the beginning I rolled my eyes at myself, ever the cynical bitch, sniggering at my own ridiculous belief that this might have an effect. But it did. And so quickly. It was like a little fire catching in my soul. It warmed me. Suddenly things were easier, and my mind was lighter. That horrid voice was muffled by all these thoughts of the good things, of the things I could be proud of. And recording those opened the gates to the memory banks and suddenly I could remember other times when I had been awesome, when I had been worth it, when I had received and given love. It was like being frozen for the longest time, and feeling the sensation return to your fingers and toes. It was weird, and almost painful. Realise just how low I had been. Just how much self loathing was being slowly thawed out of me.

It was the start of my journey to wellness. Of a return to self belief, and of a purpose. It was the start of an inner compassion that had been missing, and that we all need if we hope to find any peace. Last night I could feel that anxiety flaring (as it does on a semi regular basis), for numerous reasons, and the accompanying shrieks of 'I told you so. You're not good enough. You're going to fail. No one likes you.' It is a conscious effort, but now I can rouse a voice to drown it out. A confident steady voice, that knows my worth, that brings with it all the good stuff. If it is a particularly rough day I make sure I write myself a list and keep it close to me all day. I go to the people who boost me, I distance myself from external dissenting voices. I protect that little flame, because I never want to live without it again. 
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3 comments

  1. Beautifully candid Hayley. I completely agree that social media fuels some of these feelings. I'm sure it is something that will resonate with all people. Thank you for your honesty.

    Kelly xoxo www.jellywiththebelly.co.uk

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  2. I’m glad you found something that works for you.

    www.somethinginthewayshemoves.me

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  3. This is so beautifully written. It's so hard to not compare and contrast and in doing so, second guess everything which comes our way. But for what it's worth, I think you do a lot of good for being a voice and a beacon, and are definitely worthy of blogger icon status. x
    http://blog.fashionlovesphotos.com

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