Imposter Syndrome and self-esteem

By guest blogger Eleanor Holmes

What is Imposter Syndrome?

Imposter Syndrome (IS) is the experience of lacking confidence in your own abilities and feeling like a fraud. This is coupled with the internalised fear that others will realise you’re not as skilled or competent as they thought. Although IS is not a mental disorder listed in the diagnostic manuals, it is a common psychological experience.  Nevertheless, it can be very uncomfortable and strongly relates to having low self-esteem.

What are the causes of Imposter Syndrome?

It has been theorised that having a strict upbringing can lead to IS. Specifically growing up with a family that values high achievement and success may influence a young person to worry about being good enough. This is usually caused by frequent criticism, teaching the child to value perfectionism, whilst experiencing a sense of constant underachievement.

Alternatively, parents providing superlative compliments can also be damaging. Phrases such as “You’re the smartest boy in the world!” and “you’re the best at science in your entire school!” allows the child to not necessarily believe in their own capabilities. Instead, these compliments could lead a young person to worry about meeting the high expectations of others. Another example that could be risk factor for IS include new beginnings. For example, this could be starting at a new workplace or college. This may trigger feelings of lacking in self-worth, and assumptions of being incapable of doing a good job.

How is Imposter Syndrome maintained?

There are a number of factors that help maintain feeling like an imposter. One such factor is mental illness. Experiencing a lack of self belief can be related to dips in mental health, such as during an anxious or depressive episode. For example, struggling with social anxiety can be coupled with a sense of not belonging in social situations. Likewise, depressive episodes can act as a magnet for negative thinking, including thoughts that are self-deprecating in nature.

Others ways in which it can be maintained is through comparing yourself to others. It is fair to say we all do this, especially as a way of judging our own progress against our peers. It can be motivational, pushing us to continue to try out best, and help us set goals for our future. However, comparisons may act as a tool for thinking about ourselves poorly, and assuming other’s are better than we are. This then solidifies beliefs of not actually being good enough and being a fraud.

How does Imposter Syndrome present?

Some of the associated symptoms of IS are: 

  • Self-deprecating verbalisations 
  • Self-doubting thoughts 
  • Behaviors that sabotage your own success
  • Setting very difficult goals, and feeling disheartened when not meeting them
  • Assigning success to external factors (e.g. luck)
  • Assigning failures to internal factors  (e.g. personality traits)
  • Worries about ‘being found out’

How does Imposter Syndrome relate to low self-esteem?

At the heart of IS is a lack of self belief, and a struggle to acknowledge positive attributes and achievements. When an individual struggles with low self-esteem, they may hold core beliefs that allows for repeated negative self-assessment, whilst also worrying that other’s will draw the same conclusions about them. We can see how this links with a client feeling like a fraud, as commonly seen in IS.

How to overcome Imposter Syndrome

As we’ve said, IS is not a mental condition, so many ways in which to challenge it link to interventions used to boost self esteem. There are a number of helpful techniques that can help change the mindset that fuels IS and low self-esteem. This can include: more manageable goal setting; writing down and challenging self-deprecating thoughts; and encouraging yourself to acknowledge your positive attributes, as well as evidence for your successes being due to internal rather than external factors!

We are hosting a Boosting Self Esteem workshop on Tuesday 29th June 5:30-7pm on zoom. This workshop will go through how self-esteem starts, how it stays maintained, and how we can use CBT therapy to tackle it. Although the main focus will be on self-esteem, the information and techniques covered can certainly help with IS too. You can find out more information about it here.

We are also planning to run some digital courses about Imposter Syndrome too, building on the information from this blog. You can sign up to our mailing list here to keep up to date with our courses as they release.

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