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How Does Your Perfectionism Fuel Your Imposter Syndrome?


If you’re a perfectionist, you probably feel self-conscious about practically everything you do. And over time, the significant amount of self-reflection and constantly feeling like you aren’t as good as everyone around you can lead to experiencing imposter syndrome. 

Imposter syndrome refers to your internal experience of believing that you aren’t as competent as others think you are. While this definition is typically narrowly applied to intelligence and achievement, it’s also associated with perfectionism.

This article explores both imposter syndrome and perfectionism and a few ways to cope with them. 

What is imposter syndrome?

Simply put, imposter syndrome is when you feel like a phony. You may feel like at any moment you’re going to be discovered as a fraud-like you don’t belong in the position you’re in, and you only got to where you are because of luck. It can affect anyone regardless of their social status, work experience, education level, or skill level.

There are a few commonly experienced  transition points in life where we may expect imposter syndrome, for example:

  • Starting a higher-level education program or job.
  • Becoming ‘qualified’ in your profession, leading others to treat you as if you are ‘fully-fledged,’ yet you feel like you’ve barely scratched the surface of the knowledge.
  • Being looked up to because of your years of experience as an expert (e.g., teacher, tutor).

Some of the well-known signs of imposter syndrome can look like

  • Doubting yourself
  • Feeling unable to assess your ability and skills realistically
  • Blaming your success on external factors
  • Criticizing your performance
  • Having a fear that you won’t live up to certain expectations
  • Overachieving 
  • Self-sabotaging your success
  • Setting extremely challenging, unrealistic goals and feeling disappointed when you fall short.
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Imposter syndrome and perfectionism: what’s the link?

Perfectionism plays a significant role in imposter syndrome. If you’re a perfectionist, you may think there’s a perfect ‘script’ for conversations; you can’t say the wrong thing, you probably spend a lot of time worrying, brooding, and immersing yourself in a secret dialogue about a need to be flawless, all of the time. You may even have trouble asking for help from other people and procrastinate due to your high standards. And when you fall short, you’re constantly ruminating about it.

Researchers had developed a scale to measure ‘mistake rumination’ or going over and over your mistakes or when you did something wrong. They later examined how ruminating over mistakes relates to perfectionism.

First, researchers asked participants to think about the last time they made a significant mistake. The participants then rated how much they had agonized about the event.

The study identified a link between amplified mistake rumination and two aspects of perfectionism, including:

  • Having an internal drive for perfection, all of the time
  • The belief that others require you to be perfect — which may or may not coincide with reality. 

Components of imposter syndrome

Six key components share similarities between imposter syndrome and perfectionism, including:

  • A need to be unique or the very best
  • Fear of failure when facing achievement-related tasks, resulting in anxiety. 
  • Denial of competence or discounting of praise
  • Fear and guilt about success 
  • The imposter cycle 

The imposter cycle is a particularly significant component of imposter syndrome. An achievement-related task triggers fear of failure and anxiety, leading to over-preparing (or procrastination first, which is later followed by an intense, last-minute work rate). When the goal has been achieved, a process of discounting may kick in, thereby diminishing the validity of the achievement.

Coping with perfectionism and imposter syndrome

Start by asking yourself some tough questions, such as the following:

  • “What core inner beliefs do I have about myself?”
  • “Do I truly believe I am worthy of love and success?”
  • “Do I need to be perfect to receive approval from other people?”

To move past these inner feelings, you need to start getting comfortable facing some of those deep inner beliefs you hold about who you are. This can be tough because not everyone realizes that they have them, but here are a few techniques you can use to start:

Share and discuss your feelings. Talk to other people you trust about how you’re feeling. Certain irrational beliefs tend to linger when they’re suppressed and ignored.

Assess your strengths.  If you have inner core beliefs about your inadequacy with work, school, or other areas of your life, take some time to make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Write down your accomplishments and the things you’re good at, then compare that with your self-assessment.

Start small, and take it one step at a time.  Try not to focus on doing things perfectly, but rather, do them reasonably well (and reward yourself for doing so). For example, in a group discussion, share an opinion or a story about yourself.

Question your thoughts. As you start to evaluate your skills and take baby steps, question your thoughts. Are they factual and accurate? Does it make sense that you’re a fraud, given your experience and knowledge?

Quit comparing. Every time you compare yourself to others, you’ll inevitably find some fault within yourself that ignites the feeling of not being good enough. Instead, focus on listening and paying attention to what’s happening around you and what others are saying. Express a genuine interest in learning more.

Don’t fight your feelings. Instead, try to lean into them, observe them for what they are, and accept them. When you acknowledge them, you can then start to resolve those core beliefs that only hold you back.

Refuse to let imposter syndrome and perfectionism hold you back. Regardless of how much you feel like you don’t belong, don’t let that stop you from pursuing your goals. Keep going and refuse to be stopped.

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