Impostor Syndrome as an Unwanted Guest

When you externalise and personify your Impostor Syndrome, you can then look at how the two of you are getting along. So, how do you experience your Impostor Syndrome, what sort of relationship do you have with it and what it tells you? How do you respond to Impostor Syndrome when it shows up and starts telling you what will go wrong, or it tells you why you shouldn’t do the things you want to do?

When you look at the relationship you have with your Impostor Syndrome, the natural response is to view Impostor Syndrome as the enemy, a problem that needs fixing. You are then likely to engage in your best efforts to try and get rid of Impostor Syndrome, keep it quiet, or get away from it. This is the natural thing to do, to move away from the painful or uncomfortable experiences. To pull away from or escape painful experience is a natural and hardwired response, for example, if you were to touch something very hot, you would have a reflex to pull away from the heat. In this example this reflex is very helpful. The problem though is we tend to engage in similar responses to “psychological heat”, we try to pull away from “painful” thoughts, feelings, memories and when we do this it doesn’t tend to work in the same way.

It can be helpful to view Impostor Syndrome as being your guest, and whilst it was not invited it has come to visit anyway. We can then ask what sort of a host are your being to it? Are you welcoming and accommodating this guest, or do you resist and try to get rid of it. It is natural that we do not welcome it because of how it feels, what it says to you, however, the problem with this relationship – treating it as an unwelcome guest- is that despite your best efforts at getting rid of it, it has not gone away, it is still there.

A more effective approach may be to see if you can create a healthier relationship with your Impostor Syndrome. So what would happen if you allowed it to come in, or if you were even able to welcome it! Now, this is not the same as liking it, this is about taking a pragmatic approach, so if your experience has been that you haven’t been able to stop this guest from showing up, then allowing it, accepting it, or even inviting it, may be a more effective way of having it that can reduce the power it has over you.​​

There are a number of different metaphors that illustrate this idea, including the unwanted guest metaphor described in many Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT ) books. This video by Joe Oliver is a nice illustration of the metaphor.

A nice variation on this metaphor which focuses on anxiety as the unwanted guest is “Uncle Argument” by Dr. David Carbonell, who describes this metaphor in his book “The Worry Trick – How your brain tricks you into expecting the worst & what you can do about it”.  Below is an adaptation of this metaphor and how it applies to Impostor Syndrome.

Uncle Argument.

Imagine that you are going to a family wedding which you’re really looking forward to. However, when you arrive at the reception venue and see the seating arrangements you discover that you’ve been seated next to Uncle Argument.

Uncle Argument is someone that really likes to argue, this is how he interacts. He will always take an opposing view to your opinions and loves to get a reaction from whoever he is talking to. Normally you will do your best to avoid Uncle Argument but on this occasion you’re going to be stuck with him. You’re enjoying the day so far and you were looking forward to the meal, to some nice conversation, and the last thing you want to be doing is to be arguing with Uncle Argument. So, what can you do?

The problem is you can’t move to another table as all the seats are taken, and no one is going to want to swap seats with you because nobody wants to sit next to Uncle Argument. So unless you skip the meal or leave, you are going to have to sit next to him. So you take your seat next to him.

So, what could you do to avoid arguing?

You might try ignoring him but that will just make him louder and more persistent, and he will start commenting and teasing you as you won’t give your opinion. You could just yell at him to try to shut him up, but Uncle Argument loves this and it encourages him to carry on. You could debate with him and try to convince him how he is wrong, but he will never admit to being wrong and will just argue harder. You could hit him, but then you’ll get into trouble and will miss out on the rest of the wedding.

The Alternative Approach.

So rather than trying to stop him behaving the way he always behaves, you recognise that this is how he is, and this is what he does, so it is pointless trying to change this, and instead you could accept this fact, and you could try humouring him. You could agree with everything he says – whether you believe it or not, e.g., “how true!” “so wise!” “I totally agree with you!” Now for a person who loves to argue, this is not going to be much fun for him, so after a while, he may well decide that he would rather try to argue with someone else.

So given that he is going to be next to you, your choice is that you can resist how he is and struggle with him, or you can accept that this is the way he is and take a more pragmatic and effective approach in which you accept and humour him.

One way of looking at this is to say that Uncle Argument will keep inviting you to engage in arguments with him, so your choice is that you can either accept that invitation and engage in the argument, which is what he wants, or you can decline that invitation and this will then free you up to focus on what you want.

So the same is true with Impostor Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome will repeatedly invite you to engage in worrying, doubting yourself, avoiding etc.. You can choose how you are going to respond to the invitation. It is important to remember that it is a choice, you certainly don’t have to accept that this is what your Impostor Syndrome does, and you have every right to resist and fight it, but it is useful to look at your experience to see how this is working for you.

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