Struggling with Impostor Syndrome – Tug of War Metaphor

Do you find yourself struggling with self-doubt, a fear of failure, or feeling like you are a fraud? And despite your best efforts, achievements and successes, you've not been able to get rid of these feelings. These are common experiences for people who struggle with Impostor Syndrome. The struggle with these Impostor Syndrome can sometimes feel like being in a Tug of War.

Looking at the struggle as though you're in a Tug of War can be a helpful metaphor. Here it is adapted from the "Tug of War with a monster" metaphor from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

On one end of the rope is your Impostor Syndrome and you are on the other end. Your Impostor Syndrome is like a very negative, doubting, critical person, that will show up in certain situations, e.g., when presenting or when in meetings, and when it shows up you find yourself grabbing hold of the rope and start pulling to try to defeat the Impostor Syndrome.

Between you both is a deep pit and it can feel like the Impostor Syndrome is trying to pull you into this pit. As the Impostor syndrome pulls on the rope  it will start to tell you things such as "you're not good enough!" "you're going to get found out!" "You're a fraud!" It will tell you what will go wrong, e.g., "What if you don't know the answer to any questions?" and can tell you that "You don't belong here!"

It's natural to try to defeat the Impostor syndrome by pulling it into the pit, getting rid of these doubts and negative thoughts. The problem though, is that despite your best efforts to win you've not yet been successful. You will have been trying various strategies to win including thinking positively, relaxation techniques, breathing exercises, distraction, overpreparing, reassurance seeking, trying to "be strong" etc., and yet you have not been able to defeat this Impostor Syndrome.

Even though you may have achieved many things, received positive feedback, it still hasn't stopped the Impostor Syndrome from showing up and telling you the same things. The problem with battling the Impostor Syndrome is that it is hard work and draining and at times it can feel like you're the one that's getting closer to the pit and the Impostor Syndrome seems to getting bigger and stronger.

A problem with getting stuck in this struggle is that when you are engaged in the tug of war it is keeping you away from other things in your life, e.g., your relationships, interests, social life, and it may stop you from taking opportunities that arise.

So, what do you do when what you are doing isn't working? Unfortunately, we have a tendency to try harder or to give up, often switching between the two. Trying harder means doing more of the same which means more struggle but unintentionally this can strengthen the Impostor Syndrome, whereas giving in to it effectively means doing what it tells you, e.g., avoid, procrastinate, overprepare.

But, there is an alternative option.

If your experience is telling you that despite your best efforts you have not been able to win the tug of war then your experience is suggesting you need to try something different.

The alternative is to drop the rope and let go of the struggle. Whilst dropping the rope might feel like you're giving up or losing, it is actually freeing you up from the struggle and allowing you to focus on and do other things. By dropping the rope, the Impostor Syndrome will keep showing up and trying to get you to grab the rope again and re-engage in the struggle, and sometimes (being human) you will; but with practice you can get better at noticing when it shows up and either declining to take the rope or choose to drop the rope so that you can shift your focus onto the things and people in your life that matter to you. A consequence of doing this is that the Impostor Syndrome is getting less attention, is having less impact and influence over you and tends to become weaker and less important.

Therapy can help you to develop the skills to be able to consistently drop the rope and end the struggle with your Impostor Syndrome, allowing you to invest your energies into your goals and values.

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