We’ve all felt flickers of imposter syndrome at some point. Waves of self-doubt that are so intense they take the joy out of otherwise clear markers of success: praise from superiors, raises, promotions, the satisfaction of leading a well-functioning team. For the most part, we consider imposter syndrome to be a career-related ailment.
But during my time at the firm, I’ve also noticed a variant of it in the survivors who seek our counsel. I’ve spoken to nearly 100 victims of sexual assault and rape. Time and again I’ve heard them describe a sense of uneasiness and insecurity about what’s happened to them. They may verbally devalue their experience or become convinced that their reaction to a traumatic event is excessive or disproportionate.
What triggers this internal distrust? Many factors, but I’ve seen two emerge most often. Survivors may try to diminish the severity of their assault if it doesn’t meet the societally recognized criteria of violent, stranger-danger rape. Thoughts like: it’s not as bad as… At least he didn’t… take over. A second reason is that our culture’s instinct is to redefine survivors’ experiences as next-day regret. If drinking or drugs were involved then even more skepticism clouds their accounts.
These influences are so powerful that they frequently prevent victims from reporting assaults, leaving them to feel foolish or fraudulent for even considering legal action against their attackers.
Historically, our society has normalized sexual violence. From catcalling to groping, we ask victims, particularly women, to get over it or take it as a compliment. To keep themselves from feeling powerless in the face of prevailing dismissiveness, victims may repress the emotional impact of their trauma, or even attempt to rewrite the incident in their minds so that it can no longer be categorized as assault.
As the critics of #MeToo rant, red-faced, discrediting survivors with every victim-blaming tactic imaginable, we must remember that our current inclination towards belief in the victim is still in its infancy.
There are those who shame survivors, and there are prosecutors who are unwilling to bring an “imperfect” case before a judge. The cultural pillars that uphold the normalization of sexual violence are ubiquitous. Defending or ignoring these forces in our society coerces victims into thinking they are complicit in their own violation. It strips them of allies, leaving the most vulnerable among us to feel like imposters, their suffering without merit, unworthy of the attention of our justice system.
To survivors, we say this: you are worth it. We see you. We hear you. We believe you. Don’t let others diminish your pain.