Imposter syndrome and ACT

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a psychological phenomenon where individuals develop a deep doubt about their own abilities and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a fraud despite clear and ongoing evidence of their competence. People experiencing imposter syndrome often feel inadequate and believe that they have achieved their successes due to luck or external factors, rather than their own skills or qualifications. They may have difficulty internalising their accomplishments and attribute their achievements to external validation or mere chance.

People with imposter syndrome commonly make statements such as:
  • “I just got lucky.”
  • “I don’t deserve this opportunity.”
  • “I feel like a fraud.”
  • “Everyone else is more qualified than me.”
  • “I’m afraid they’ll find out I’m not as capable as they think.”
  • “I must have fooled them into thinking I’m competent.”
  • “I’m just winging it and hoping for the best.”
  • “I don’t feel like I belong here.”
  • “I’m not as talented as people think I am.”
  • “I’m just waiting for someone to discover I’m a fake.”

 

Imposter syndrome can affect individuals in various areas of their lives, including work, education, or personal relationships. It can lead to feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and a fear of failure. However, it’s important to note that imposter syndrome does not reflect a person’s actual competence or abilities. It is a subjective experience that can be addressed through self-reflection, building self-confidence, and seeking support from others. Paradoxically, imposter syndrome can intensify as individuals advance in their personal or professional lives, leading to a growing disconnect between external perceptions and internal self-perception.

What does imposter syndrome look like?

There are many ways that imposter syndrome can present, here are some of the main ones:

  • Self-doubt and anxiety: The primary drawback of imposter syndrome is the negative impact on mental well-being. Constant self-doubt, anxiety, and fear of failure can be emotionally draining and can undermine one’s confidence and overall happiness.
  • Undermined achievements: Imposter syndrome may cause individuals to discount or downplay their accomplishments. They may attribute their successes to external factors, luck, or deceive themselves into believing they are not worthy of recognition or praise.
  • Reduced risk-taking and opportunities: The fear of failure and being exposed as a fraud can lead individuals to avoid taking risks or pursuing new opportunities. This can limit personal and professional growth and prevent individuals from reaching their full potential.
  • Increased stress and burnout: The pressure to constantly prove oneself and the fear of failure associated with imposter syndrome can contribute to chronic stress and burnout. The persistent anxiety and self-imposed high standards can take a toll on mental and physical health.

Overcoming imposter syndrome involves building self-confidence, seeking support, challenging negative self-talk, and focusing on personal growth rather than comparing oneself to others.

Are there any positives to feeling like an imposter?

Imposter syndrome is primarily considered a negative experience, as it can lead to self-doubt, anxiety, and hinder personal and professional growth. However, some argue that there may be a few potential benefits or positive aspects such as:

  • Motivation to excel: Imposter syndrome can serve as a motivator for individuals to work harder and strive for excellence. The fear of being exposed as a fraud may push individuals to continuously improve their skills and knowledge.
  • Humility and self-awareness: Imposter syndrome can foster humility and self-awareness. It reminds individuals that they have room for growth and encourages them to seek feedback, learn from others, and acknowledge their limitations.

It’s important to recognise that in most cases the negative aspects of imposter syndrome will outweigh any potential benefits.

How can ACT help people with imposter syndrome?

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) can be a helpful approach for individuals experiencing imposter syndrome. In ACT, the goal is not to eliminate imposter syndrome entirely but to change one’s relationship with it and develop psychological flexibility in the face of imposter syndrome-related thoughts and emotions. This can lead to increased self-confidence, resilience, and a greater ability to pursue personal and professional goals.

Working with a qualified therapist trained in ACT can provide individuals with specific techniques and guidance tailored to their unique experience of imposter syndrome. These may include:

  • Cognitive defusion: ACT helps individuals to defuse from their imposter syndrome-related thoughts by recognising them as passing mental events rather than absolute truths. Through techniques such as metaphor, humour, or imagery, individuals can create distance from their negative self-beliefs. This allows them to see their thoughts as simply thoughts, rather than accurate reflections of their worth or abilities.
  • Self-as-context: ACT emphasises the concept of “self-as-context,” which involves understanding that one’s thoughts and feelings are separate from the core sense of self. By understanding that imposter syndrome thoughts are not reflective of one’s true identity, individuals can develop a more objective perspective and reduce the impact of imposter syndrome on their self-esteem.
  • Values-driven action: By focusing on meaningful goals and activities, individuals can shift their attention away from imposter syndrome and towards pursuing what truly matters to them. This values-driven action helps individuals build a sense of purpose and fulfilment, reducing the influence of imposter syndrome.
  • Mindfulness and acceptance: ACT incorporates mindfulness practices to help individuals observe their imposter syndrome-related thoughts and emotions without judgement. Individuals can develop a more compassionate and accepting stance towards their imposter syndrome experiences. This mindful acceptance allows individuals to respond to imposter syndrome with greater self-compassion and resilience.
  • Self-compassion: ACT encourages individuals to practice self-compassion as a way to counteract the self-critical thoughts and feelings associated with imposter syndrome. By treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance, individuals can develop a more supportive inner dialogue and respond to imposter syndrome with greater self-care and self-encouragement.

An ACT therapist can provide guidance, support, and personalised strategies to address imposter syndrome using ACT principles.

For individuals:

If you are suffering with feelings of fraud or imposter syndrome and would like to speak to an ACT trained therapist, please visit our therapy page. You may also wish to check out the Mindfulness and acceptance workbook for self esteem by Joe Oliver and Richard Bennett, which is a self-help that sets out a programme to help with issues related to imposter syndrome.

For professionals:

If you would like to learn more about ACT or how it can support people with imposter syndrome take a look at our upcoming training sessions or visit our blog and resources for additional reading and insight.

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