Healthy Mind

Imposter Syndrome and Perfectionism Feed Off Each Other—Here’s How To Break the Vicious Cycle

Erica Sloan

Holding yourself to a high standard can be a boon for success and productivity. Even if you miss the moon, so to speak, aiming high can still land you among the stars. But when that high standard skyrockets to "perfect and nothing less," it quickly becomes unreachable. And as soon as you equate that impossible goal with being competent, it’s easy to feel as if you’re always coming up short. A version of this mindset is often present for folks who deal with imposter syndrome and perfectionism, with one perspective simply feeding into the other, making both more charged and damaging, according to mental-health experts.

Imposter syndrome often shows up as a sense of self-doubt that can make a person feel like a fraud—despite evidence suggesting otherwise—but there are a few different pathways a person might take to get there. “Imposter-syndrome expert Valerie Young discovered that not all imposters define competence in the same way, and uncovered five competence types, or internal rules that people who experience imposter syndrome attempt to follow: the Perfectionist, the Superhero, the Expert, the Soloist, and the Natural Genius,” says UK-based integrative psychotherapist Abby Rawlinson, MBACP.

Of these types of imposter syndrome, two tend to be most closely linked with the experience of perfectionism—the Perfectionist (no surprise there) and the Expert. The former often embodies a similar ethos as the above scenario: “They’ll think, ‘Being competent means I should never make any mistakes,’ or ‘Nothing short of perfect is acceptable,’” says Rawlinson. By contrast, the latter tends to cut themselves down whenever they’re struggling with something, thinking, ‘If I were really smart, I would already know everything I need to do this,’ says therapist KerriAnne Sejour, MHC-LP: “This largely minimizes the person's inherent abilities by setting the expectation that they ‘should’ be all-knowing—which falls right in the crux of perfectionism, too.”

How imposter syndrome and perfectionism can work hand-in-hand as part of a vicious cycle

Consider someone who’s experiencing classic signs of imposter syndrome: Perhaps, they’re feeling like a failure, or as if they’re a fraud, even when they make major achievements. To cope with those feelings, they might set a high standard of performance: “They’re thinking, ‘If only I can do everything the best, the quickest, the insert high-achievement metric here, then maybe I won’t be found out as someone who doesn’t know what I’m doing or is lacking in some way,’” says psychologist Yesel Yoon, PhD.

But, as it turns out, reaching any of those aforementioned superlatives never ends up being sufficient for shaking that feeling of not being good enough: “If the person achieves some metric of success, they tend to attribute it to external factors—for example, ‘The task was not actually that hard’—or even, at times, sheer luck,” says Sejour.

"When perfection is the aim, everything falls short, meaning that success is never internalized." —Abby Rawlinson, therapist

As a result, the person may feel pushed to set even higher and higher standards (landing in perfectionism territory) in an ill-fated effort to actually generate the warm and fuzzy feeling of success. “But when perfection is the aim, everything falls short, meaning that success is never internalized,” says Rawlinson, “which can spark or perpetuate those insecure fraudulent feelings of imposter syndrome.” And so, we arrive back at the beginning of the cycle.

Signs that you might be stuck in this cycle of imposter syndrome and perfectionism

Perhaps the most noticeable indication of the imposter syndrome-perfectionism cycle at work is some version of overdoing, over-preparing, or just plain overworking—that is, in an effort to achieve the un-achievable goal you might have set for yourself.

“A desire to be the best is often present in someone who finds themselves regularly overwhelmed by a long to-do list. They’re attempting to do all things, all the time,” says Sejour, who also points out that feeling tokenized as a person of color within a workplace can perpetuate this need to take on too much in an effort to prove one’s worth. “This type of over-functioning can also look like extreme attention to detail, difficulty delegating, and trouble switching off,” says Rawlinson. “Thoughts tend to have an ‘I must’ flavor to them, as in ‘I must never make a mistake,’ or ‘I must do it all myself.’”

While it may seem like just the opposite scenario as the above, under-functioning—in terms of procrastinating or missing deadlines—can also be a product of imposter syndrome and perfectionism. “A person might feel unable to complete something because it will simply never be ‘good enough,’” says Dr. Yoon. Or, perhaps, you avoid tackling the project entirely because you doubt your ability to see it through.

This tends to happen when you get so overwhelmed that the steps of the project become insurmountable obstacles laid out in front of you, says Rawlinson: “When a person is in this headspace, their thoughts tend to have an ‘I can’t’ flavor to them, like ‘I can’t even look at my emails,’ or ‘There’s no point in even trying because I know that I can’t do it.’”

In either case, whether it results in over- or under-functioning, the imposter syndrome-perfectionism cycle can also make any achievement feel totally insufficient, no matter how large or visible it may be. So, if you're stuck in the cycle, you might not be able to view successes as the real wins that they are, and instead, minimize or attribute them to external factors—like another person, pure luck, or even your own fear of being outed as a fraud, says Sejour. But, thankfully, the cycle doesn't have to continue forever.

5 steps to escape the detrimental mindset that contributes to the imposter syndrome-perfectionism cycle:

1. Become aware of it.

To boost your self-awareness—which is a crucial first step for getting yourself out of the cycle—Rawlinson suggests asking yourself these questions: What is my perfectionism trying to protect me from? What am I afraid will happen if I set more realistic standards? What am I giving up because my perfectionism tells me to work harder, do more, and prove myself? The answers can often illuminate how this mindset isn’t in service of your larger goals—but rather, hindering you on the pathway to achieving them.

2. Adjust your self-talk.

Because the message you tell yourself tends to reinforce how you feel, reaffirming that you don’t know what you’re doing, that you don’t belong, or that you need to achieve something specific to prove yourself only revs up anxiety and stress, says Dr. Yoon. “Instead, replace the internal messaging with what you might tell a friend who was struggling with similarly high standards of perfectionism,” she suggests: You are good enough as you are, and, in fact, being imperfect is what makes you human.

3. Break up big tasks into smaller ones.

Small tasks just feel more manageable and achievable than big ones, says Sejour. And the more you can really feel like you’re achieving things—because you are—the less likely you are to feel like you’re coming up short.

4. Take note of your achievements.

There’s nothing quite like a reminder of tangible wins to prop you up when you’re feeling like you’re inadequate for the task at hand. “If your manager sends you a shout-out at work via email, bookmark that email, and save it to read later,” says Sejour. “If your best friend sends you a card in the mail sharing how inspired they are by you, or thanking you, keep that someplace handy to revisit in moments of self-doubt.” Perhaps even compile your accomplishments of all sizes in a running document on your laptop or a note on your phone that’s easy to access whenever you could use a boost.

5. Get a reality check from someone you love.

“We are our own harshest critics,” says Sejour. To get some perspective, check in with someone you trust by sharing as much as you’re comfortable revealing about your perfectionist mindset. This can be a helpful practice to identify any irrational thinking, and receive the bump you may need to stop it in its tracks.

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