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Imposter syndrome and perfectionism – the next behavioural endemic? 

 By Roisin Noonan

The terms “imposter syndrome” and “perfectionism” are by no means unfamiliar to any of us. From celebrities to artists, poets to playwrights and singers, even the most famous and talented among us confess to experiencing them. Michelle Obama, Jennifer Lopez and Emma Watson have all confessed to feeling like an imposter at different points in their lives, while artists like Monet and Michelangelo were known for their destructive perfectionist tendencies. 

Imposter syndrome is defined as having feelings of self-doubt and incompetence about one’s own ability. Doubting your skills and talents despite your achievements and success, education or training. It can lead to people feeling as though they are a fraud in their work and being found out as such by others. You might down play your successes or attribute them to luck instead of recognising it was your own hard work that got you such success. 

Although it has the potential to lead to mental health issues such as anxiety, stress, low self-esteem and depression, imposter syndrome is not classed as a mental health disorder, but rather a phenomenon that can occur in an individual.

The term “imposter syndrome” is not a millennial conception contrary to what one may have thought. In fact, the phrase was coined in the late 1970s by two American psychologists researching a group of 150 women. In their essay “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”, Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes developed the phrase and created the notion of the syndrome itself after carrying out research with a group of successful women from different fields. The study found that despite having high standards of education and having been recognised by colleagues for their academic successes, this group of 150 women would not acknowledge their own achievements as being a result of their own abilities and intelligence. Some wrote them off as being a result of luck and some said that it was merely others overestimating their abilities. In 1978 when the essay was published, the phenomenon was thought to be really only prevalent amongst women, and that it was a cause of gender roles and familial stereotypes at the time. 

However, it is now seen as a more widespread phenomenon occurring very regularly in both men and women. Similarly, the causes of imposter syndrome are thought to be different today than when first studied in the 70s. Researchers and psychologists believe that imposter syndrome nowadays can stem from a wide range of factors in an persons’ life, including their upbringing and early childhood, individual personality types and the culture that they were raised in. For example, children who are raised in families that tend to praise and focus on achievement or success over anything else, have a higher chance of experiencing imposter syndrome at some point in their adult lives. Either when entering university, starting a new job, or taking on a new role professionally or otherwise. 

Dr. Valerie Young in her book on the subject, identified five different types of imposter syndrome. “The perfectionist” is someone who will only accept a 100% perfectly done job. If they cannot or do not reach this impossibly high standard that they have set for themselves, they will feel unworthy or fraudulent. “The superwoman/man/person” will overload themselves with work to try to make themselves feel like they are not an imposter in their job, and will feel guilty when not working or studying. In contrast, the “natural genius” type is used to getting straight A’s without the effort. They must obtain their high standards with speed and with ease to avoid feeling like a failure and they do not need help from others to do so. Similarly, the next category, “the soloist” will not feel they have accomplished or succeeded in any task if they have accepted help or if they have not completed it on their own. The final category “the expert” may feel as though they never have enough knowledge or education to be capable or able to do a job. 

Chances are that one of these categories has resonated with you or has set off alarm bells. If that is the case then you are not alone. Recent studies are now suggesting that over 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their life. These statistics are only expected to increase in the coming generations, as pressure to do well and to succeed mounts on young people thanks to the constant presence of social media. 

If we feel insufficient or fraudulent or not good enough, the first or most natural response may be to make ourselves work harder, to push ourselves more and to impose higher standards on ourselves to do better.  This is where the perfectionist tendencies can come into play. There is a strong link between imposter syndrome and perfectionism, as research has shown, and it flows both ways; perfectionism can be both a consequence and a cause of imposter syndrome.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines a perfectionist as someone who demands of themselves “an extremely high or even flawless level of performance”. Traditionally, perfectionism might have been seen to be a good personality trait. Having high standards for yourself and your work is something that we are all told about and taught to strive for when we are young. Wanting to do your very best and striving to succeed are traits nurtured in most children from early infanthood. However, there is a difference between working hard and striving to do your best (which may be referred to as conscientiousness) versus constantly holding yourself to impossibly high standards.  Perfectionism is now thought by psychologists to do more harm than good, with the APA citing that it is “associated with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems”. It is now sometimes even referred to as a personality disorder. 

Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill from Bath and York universities respectively, carried out a study of over 40,000 college students from America, Canada and Britain between 1989 and 2016, investigating perfectionism through the generations. Their study found that in this time frame perfectionism has increased by 33% since 1989, with social-prescribed perfectionism seeing the most dramatic increase. This category of perfectionism as set out by Curran and Hill relates to those who believe that they must be perfect in order to “fit in” or be accepted by others in their social circle. It is not surprising that this was the type of perfectionism that increased the most given the dominance of social media in the last decade in displaying unrealistic standards of body image, wealth and celebrity status that are deemed “ideal”. 

Perfectionists criticise themselves to the extreme. The fear of starting a task and failing or not reaching the impossible standards they set for themselves, can lead to a paralysing kind of procrastination. They would rather put off doing the task than to try doing it and “fail” (by their standards), it is an all or nothing mindset. They will ruminate on mistakes, on what they should have done or could have done better. Their focus on end results and unrealistic goals can lead to crippling stress out of fear of not reaching them. If they don’t reach these standards they may feel like a failure or a fraud i.e., imposter syndrome. 

Perfectionism has been linked to several mental and physical disorders also, just like imposter syndrome. Studies have shown that perfectionists are more prone to severe stress, depression and anxiety and it can even lead to the development of eating disorders and chronic fatigue. Sarah Egan, researcher at Curtin University in Perth, stated in an article to BBC Future that there are now studies which show that “the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to suffer” 

Again, similar to imposter syndrome, perfectionist tendencies are thought to develop from the familial surroundings and social environments in which we are raised. Interestingly however, there is also some research that concludes that some perfectionism can be genetic and is therefore passed on to younger generations. Parental and guardian behaviour can also lead to perfectionist traits in children who model their parents’ example. 

In a Harvard Business Review article Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey argue that “imposter syndrome” is a misdiagnosis imposed on women as a result of biased, racist and unequal working environments. Their argument is that in order for us to stop feeling like an imposter we have to begin by changing our working environments. We as a society have to move away from cultures that value over-working and perfect standards that feed imposter syndrome.

The reality is that most people will relate to some if not all of what is written above.  Most people today have experienced imposter syndrome at some point, if not on an ongoing basis. Most people will have perfectionist tendencies in at least some areas of their lives, and most people will probably say that it has had a more negative impact rather than a positive one on their mental health. 

Given the research on the increases of these tendencies in the younger generations, there is no doubt that the prevalence of these issues will become more and more widespread with each new generation. Both imposter syndrome and what is known as “toxic perfectionism”, will become more serious issues in society. Researchers have even questioned if it will become the next public health endemic. 

Mental health sites and google searches are awash with advice about how to overcome imposter syndrome and perfectionist tendencies.  First of all, acknowledging that you are certainly not the only one to have ever felt like a fraud in a job or in a college course, even if others don’t outwardly say so. Yoga is thought to help us to learn to speak kindlier to ourselves, to inject some positivity to the inner self critic in all of us. Trying to let go of the perfect standards – this goes to improving both imposter syndrome and perfectionism itself, because as seen above these two tend to go hand in hand and feed into each other. 

The bottom line is that perfection in anything is an impossible standard. We have to lower our own standards for ourselves and stop comparing ourselves to others. We need to realise that sometimes good enough is better than perfect and “I tried” is better than “I succeeded”.