Many of us strive for excellence and set high standards for ourselves, which helps us to be driven and productive. However, when taken to the extreme, you can get caught in a vicious cycle of perfectionism and imposter syndrome.
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Perfectionism is characterized by the relentless pursuit of flawless performance, while imposter syndrome involves feeling like a fraud despite evidence of competence and achievements.
The Link Between Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome
Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are closely intertwined, with one often fueling the other. Perfectionists hold themselves to impossibly high standards and believe that anything less than perfection is unacceptable (even though they know that perfection is impossible). They equate their self-worth with their ability to achieve flawlessness, leading to a constant fear of falling short.
People who struggle with imposter syndrome, on the other hand, doubt their abilities and feel like frauds, despite evidence of their competence. They believe that they have deceived others into thinking they are more capable than they actually are. This self-doubt is reinforced by the perfectionistic mindset, as any perceived mistake or imperfection further validates their belief that they are not truly competent.
The Perfectionist's Perspective
Perfectionists often fall into one of two categories: the Perfectionist and the Expert. The Perfectionist sets unrealistically high standards for themselves and expects to never make mistakes. They believe that nothing short of perfection is acceptable. And since true perfection isn’t really possible, they always fall short in some way.
The Expert doubts their abilities and believes that if they were truly intelligent, they would already know everything they need to succeed. They believe that being an expert means having all of the answers. Not being able to do so makes them a fraud.
Both types of perfectionists are trapped in a cycle of striving for unattainable perfection, which perpetuates feelings of imposter syndrome.
The Imposter's Perspective
People with imposter syndrome constantly worry that they will be exposed as frauds. They attribute their achievements to external factors, such as luck or easy tasks, rather than recognizing their own capabilities. This mindset leads to a constant fear of being “found out,” so they pursue perfection to prevent being discovered as incompetent.
Even when they achieve success, though, they struggle to internalize it and often attribute it to external factors rather than their own abilities. This lack of self-acknowledgement further fuels imposter syndrome and perpetuates the cycle of self-doubt.
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The Vicious Cycle: How Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome Feed Each Other
The cycle between perfectionism and imposter syndrome is a self-perpetuating loop that is difficult to break. Perfectionists set impossibly high standards, hoping that achieving these standards will finally make them feel successful and competent.
They dismiss their accomplishments as not being good enough (because they’re not perfect) or they attribute them to external factors. This reinforces their belief that they are frauds and intensifies their imposter syndrome. In their heads, because it’s not really perfect, it doesn’t count. They were just lucky enough not to get caught by others.
As a result, they set even higher standards because now they really have to prove themselves to cover up what they think is inadequate.They need to prove their competence, perpetuating the cycle of perfectionism and self-doubt.
Signs of the Perfectionism-Imposter Syndrome Cycle
In order to break free from this cycle, you need to be able to recognize the signs of the perfectionism-imposter syndrome cycle.
Overworking and over-preparing
Perfectionists often feel the need to overdo tasks and invest excessive time and effort to ensure flawless outcomes. If they are told to write a 2 page paper, they write 5. If they have to supply a treat for a class party, they go all out and have homemade, handmade unique treats (no package of Oreos here).
Perfectionists have a hard time trusting others with tasks, fearing that they won't meet their high standards. We’ve all worked with these people in school (or maybe like me, you are this person). They’d rather do the whole project than trust that the others will do it well.
Perfectionists tend to compare themselves to others, often feeling inadequate and diminishing their own accomplishments. And they don’t necessarily choose fair comparisons. Have you ever heard the expression “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle?” Perfectionists do it all the time. They release their first novel and believe they’ve failed because they’re not as successful as Stephen King.
Self-criticism and fear of mistakes
Perfectionists beat themselves up over any perceived mistakes or failures, reinforcing their imposter syndrome. Instead of viewing mistakes as a path to learning and improving, they are seen as failures (often ones you can’t come back from). When you approach mistakes this way, you will ultimately see yourself as a failure.
Overwhelming to-do lists
Perfectionists take on too much, attempting to do everything themselves in an effort to prove their worth. The inability to delegate coupled with the need to over-prepare in order to prove their competence means that perfectionists are ALWAYS working on something. They don’t know how to take a step back.
If you relate to these signs, it's likely that you are caught in the perfectionism-imposter syndrome cycle. Read on for some steps to help you break that cycle.
Letting Go of Perfectionism: Strategies for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome
Overcoming imposter syndrome requires addressing and letting go of perfectionism. It’s easier said than done, and often requires a lot of self-reflection, but you can start challenging your thought process now.
Embrace “good enough”
Instead of striving for perfection, aim for excellence and recognize that perfection is unattainable. For most perfectionists, “good enough” doesn’t exist. Anything less than perfection is failure and total slacking off.
But take a look around at others and what they are doing. Are they working 10 extra hours on the same project? Probably not. But they might get the same grade or pay you get. Set realistic expectations for yourself and accept that mistakes are part of the learning process.
Embrace mistakes as opportunities for growth
This is a HUGE part of having a growth mindset, which I feel like I’ve been talking about forever. Without a growth mindset, you won’t be able to learn and change. You need to view mistakes as learning experiences rather than failures. Understand that making mistakes is a natural part of growth and development.
Challenge negative self-talk
Replace self-criticism with self-compassion. Treat yourself with kindness and understanding, just as you would treat a friend who made a mistake. You might not even be aware of how negatively you speak to yourself. Start keeping a log. And if you don’t think you’re being too harsh on yourself, imagine saying those same things to your best friend or your kid. If you wouldn’t say it to them, you shouldn’t say it to yourself.
Practice self-reflection and self-awareness
Growing and changing is a long process. Understand the negative impact of perfectionism on your well-being and relationships. Acknowledge the costs of perfectionism, such as sacrificing self-care and joy. If you can’t acknowledge the issues, you won’t be able to change them.
Focus on your progress
Celebrate your achievements and acknowledge how far you've come. Compare yourself only to your past self, rather than constantly comparing yourself to others. This is hard for most people, but for perfectionists, it might feel impossible. You need to focus on your growth, not the end result.
Remember, overcoming perfectionism and imposter syndrome is a journey, and it takes time and effort. Be patient with yourself and celebrate each step forward. You are capable and deserving of success, regardless of any perceived flaws or mistakes. Embrace your unique strengths and abilities, and let go of the unrealistic pursuit of perfection. You are worthy of success and happiness, just as you are.