Imposter Syndrome: When the perfectionist feels like a fraud (and how to overcome it)

Clinical Psychologist Subiaco Perth Imposter Syndrome Perfectionism.png

IMPOSTER SYNDROME: WHEN THE PERFECTIONIST FEELS LIKE A FRAUD (AND HOW TO OVERCOME IT)

By Joyce Chong

 

Jessica, 29, looks like someone who is winning in life. She has a great job in her dream organisation, is the youngest person to hold the position that she does, and there’s considerable buzz surrounding her amongst senior managers and in the wider industry as being ‘one to watch’.

Yet…Jessica finds it hard to accept any of this.

She thinks she obtained her job through good fortune and timing. That people in her industry view her capabilities positively only causes her to worry more about being found out – she can’t possibly know as much as people think she does!

Sound familiar? That’s because what Jessica experiences is quite common, and around 70% of people have experienced the Imposter Syndrome at some point in time. Indeed, Imposter Syndrome has been uncovered in university students, academics, medical students, marketing managers, and physicians.[1]  Heck, even Natalie Portman, actress and Harvard graduate, has alluded to experiencing the Imposter Syndrome.


WHAT IS IMPOSTER SYNDROME?

The Imposter Syndrome, or Imposter Phenomenon as it is also known, refers to when people believe themselves to be intellectual frauds due to an inability to internalise their successes. Along with this is a fear of being exposed.

There are certain transition points in life when we may expect Imposter Syndrome, for example:

- Starting a new education adventure like Natalie Portman  (e.g. high school, university, postgraduate studies).

- Becoming 'qualified' in your field, leading others to treat you as if you are 'fully-fledged' yet you feel you have only just scratched the surface of the knowledge in your field.  

- Being looked up to due to your years of experience (e.g. relative to junior members or people outside of the field) or to your position as an expert (e.g. teacher, lecturer, tutor).

However, there’s also suggestion that Imposter Syndrome is linked to stable personality traits such as neuroticism, conscientiousness, negative core self-evaluations across situations, and also maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies.[2]

 


IMPOSTER SYNDROME AND PERFECTIONISM: WHAT'S THE LINK?

Six key components of Imposter Syndrome have been identified, and show a link with perfectionism, including (1) A need to be special or the very best; (2) A desire for superhero status where there is pursuit of excellence most areas of life; (3) A fear of failure when faced with achievement-related tasks, leading to anxiety; (4) Denial of competence or discounting of praise; (5) Fear and guilt about success in instances where the imposter feels undeserving of success; and (6) The Imposter Cycle. [3]

The Imposter Cycle is a particularly important component of the Imposter Syndrome. Here, an achievement-related task triggers a fear of failure and anxiety, leading to over-preparing (or to initial procrastination followed by an intense last-minute work rate). When the goal is achieved a process of discounting may kick in, thereby diminishing the validity of the achievement.

As you can see, there is much overlap between the key components of Imposter Syndrome and perfectionism as outlined in our previous post from the pursuit of excellence, the desire to be the very best, and the discounting of achievements.

Delving deeper into the relationship between perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome, it’s been found that Imposter Syndrome is linked to perfectionistic self-presentation, a heightened concern over making mistakes, and a need for approval.[4]

With this relationship in mind, let’s look at some tips for change.


HOW TO OVERCOME THE IMPOSTER SYNDROME (AND PERFECTIONISM!)

1. Ease the unrealistic standards

Sometimes things seem daunting and unattainable because we’ve built them up in our minds so that they’re bigger than Ben Hur. The uneasiness and anxiety that goes with this is awful enough to put anyone off. Guess what? The unrealistic standards make you want to start the task even less! So ease the unrealistic standards, and consider setting a task that extends you rather than deflates you.

 

2. Ask THE tough question

For those who find procrastination a big stumbling block, this question may be confronting – Is it worse to go through life dominated by a fear of failure, or is it worse to have found your limit even if it's not exactly where you thought it was (and, be honest, are your perfectionistic standards likely to be met?)? 

It's comforting to hide behind the possibility that you could’ve done better (“if only…”) and prop yourself up by going over the top in your efforts, but it can also be extremely tiring and never-ending.

 

3. Choose some, not all

Sure, you can choose some areas to focus your efforts on, but what happens when you try to be the best in all areas of your life, all at the same time?

Are your efforts diluted (and therefore, in your mind, less than perfect)? Do you have the energy to cope with applying unrealistic standards to all areas of your life, push yourself hard to achieve in every domain, and maintain performance at this level for a sustained period of time?

 

4. Set experiments to test your predictions

If you think your efforts will only be good enough if you put in 110% then let’s test if that is true. Let’s say you’re making lunch for friends. Maybe in your mind, your friends will only be happy if you prepare an eight-course degustation menu with matching wines.

Let’s test that. What if we served a four-course menu? Would it lessen their enjoyment?

What if you prepared one main dish, assembled a tasting platter, and bought a dessert? Would it lessen their enjoyment?

Putting your thoughts to the test is a great way to see if others really expect that of you, or if it's what you think others expect of you (see more on socially prescribed perfectionism here).

 

5. Be fair in weighing up the evidence

Remember Jessica from the start of this post, the ‘one to watch’ in her industry? The one who discounts her multiple achievements, instead worrying about being found out? How do you think Jessica would view criticism? Would she give it the same weight as she does praise? Or would she let one small speck of criticism cloud her judgement of her abilities?

There’s a real negative filter at play here (you can read more about the negative filter, and other unhelpful thinking styles here), where one small negative outcome overrules all positives that may apply. So, exercise fairness when it comes to weighing up the evidence.

 

 

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REFERENCES

[1] Sakulku, J., & Alexander. J. (2011). The imposter phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, 75-97.

[2] Vergauwe, J., Wille, B., Feys, M., De Fruyt, F., & Anseel, F. (2014). Fear of being exposed: The trait-relatedness of the imposter phenomenon and its relevance in the work context. Journal of Business Psychology. DOI: 10.1007/s 10869-014-9382-5.

[3] Sakulku, J., & Alexander. J. (2011). The imposter phenomenon. International Journal of Behavioral Science, 6, 75-97.

[4] Dudau, D.P. (2014). The relation between perfectionism and imposter phenomenon. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 127, 129-133. Doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.03.226.