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Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome: The Vicious Cycle and How to Break Free

by | Nov 7, 2023

I can’t ask for help.

Everyone else is more capable.

They must see by now that I don’t belong here.

I need to work harder so I never make a mistake.

Do any of these thoughts feel familiar? Have you found yourself thinking these things, even though you can point to signs of success in your career and personal life?

These are the thoughts of a harsh perfectionist, of someone dealing with imposter syndrome. These are thoughts rooted in fear, not reality. But they can feel very real when perfectionism has become the lens through which you view yourself. 

Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome: a destructive duo

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome are both the result of an unbalanced drive to succeed and achieve. Motivation to improve is a good thing. But when perfectionism and imposter syndrome morph beyond realistic expectations and into a critical, crippling force of internal demands, they can become destructive and hinder you from flourishing in your career.

There are many ways to cope with perfectionism and to thrive in spite of imposter syndrome. When you better understand why you experience perfectionism, and how to handle feeling like a fraud, you can empower yourself to overcome this unhelpful view of yourself and fully embrace the success you’ve been striving for all your life.

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism, when it becomes toxic, is an internal demand to do better, always, even beyond reasonable expectations. Perfectionists bow to internal demands that do not allow room for grace or acceptance of mistakes. These internal demands are often based on fear of failure or punishment, stemming from early and persistent external demands that don’t respect your inherent need to try, fail, try again, and grow.

Symptoms of perfectionism

If you regularly:

  • set unrealistic expectations for yourself (and others),
  • focus solely on mistakes and perceived failures while brushing off any successes,
  • take on far too much responsibility at the expense of your wellbeing,
  • procrastinate on beginning or trying new things, for fear of failure,
  • only value external validation from specific people in your life,

you may be suffering from perfectionism. You may feel burned out, stressed, or start to show signs of depression and anxiety. 

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome was a term coined in the 1970s, specifically to describe the experiences of highly accomplished and competent professional women who felt like frauds in their work. They felt they were actually undeserving of their successes, that they were doing things anybody could do, or that they did not belong where they were. It has since become clear that imposter syndrome is a very common experience for men and women, with anywhere from 56%-82% of professionals experiencing it at one point or another. 

Signs of imposter syndrome:

If you feel like:

  • you’re fooling the people around you about your abilities and competency,
  • you do not deserve your successes,
  • that you’re doing things that anyone could do, and you are totally replaceable,

you’re likely dealing with imposter syndrome. Feeling burned out at work and like your mental health is suffering due to your worries about being “found out”, or feeling like a fraud, are also signs that you’re dealing with imposter syndrome.

How do perfectionism and imposter syndrome feed into each other?

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome work hand-in-hand, as imposter syndrome will drive you to perfectionism as a defense mechanism. When trapped in this dynamic, you believe you are a fraud, and striving for perfection is a way to hide this insecurity and avoid detection. In this case, perfectionism will demand you do all you can and more, to avoid feeling like you’re not worthy.

Perfectionism can lead to a drive to achieve and rack up accomplishments, garnered in an attempt to sate self-doubt by turning to external sources of approval. The resulting high accomplishment, ironically, can also lead to imposter syndrome. The higher the education and success level someone attains—particularly for people who are typically underrepresented in their profession—the more likely imposter syndrome becomes.

Negative impacts of perfectionism and imposter syndrome

Perfectionism and imposter syndrome can both lead to a level of stress that can mimic, or even lead to mental health concerns like depression, OCD, or anxiety. Your physical health can also suffer from chronic stress. The expectations you put on yourself may also increase your internal tension, to the point you start lashing out at your loved ones, or coworkers, unleashing your inner perfectionist and inner critic on them. Conversely, due to a fear of failure, you may be keeping yourself from the career growth and satisfaction you are truly capable of obtaining. 

Overcoming perfectionism and imposter syndrome

You recognize you’re struggling, personally and professionally, because of the stress that your internal expectations cause you. But what can you do?

You deserve freedom from the burdens of perfectionism, and you deserve to empower yourself in ways that counterbalance the negative internal voice of imposter syndrome. Here are several ways to rebalance; they involve acceptance, shifting your mindset, and looking for a more realistic, holistic approach to your work and yourself.

Offer yourself grace

“Oh, I must be a fake, all I do is struggle,” might pop into your mind with ease, because you’ve trained yourself to see only the snags in your process. 

Offer yourself the grace of acceptance, and of recognizing that good work includes struggles, mistakes, and failure. Know that even the process of abandoning perfectionism for realism, and imposter syndrome for self-confidence, will have its bumps along the way. You aren’t a failure, you’re a human and one who brings a lot of brilliance to the table as you learn and grow.

Balance out all-or-nothing thinking

Perfectionism is often rooted in all-or-nothing thinking; things are either perfect or a wreck, nothing in between. Take a look at your thinking, and note when you make absolute judgments about yourself or your work. Try to replace these thoughts, in the moment, with a more measured thought.

“This is terrible” can be changed to “This has a mistake but can be fixed.” You give yourself space for learning and improvement when you abandon all-or-nothing thinking, and you give yourself space from perfectionism at the same time.

Dig into your fear

Digging into the source of your perfectionism—the fears that led you to demand nothing but an impossible level of perfection from yourself—can be a great starting place toward understanding what you need in order to overcome the feeling that you are fooling everyone around you.

Embrace failure

This may sound impossible, but embracing a situation where you will experience failures is a powerful way to abandon perfectionism. Starting a new hobby, or learning a totally new skill, will mean you start at the beginning and have to fumble through mistakes to learn. You aren’t an imposter here, you’re a beginner.

Try to work through the fear, and the urges to abandon your new venture, so you can gain the perspective needed to see that perfectionism isn’t a reflection of your ability or worth and that you aren’t an imposter, you simply have room to grow.

Pay attention to successes

It’s easy to write off success when you’re struggling with perfectionism or imposter syndrome. But your successes are part of your bigger picture as a person, and they deserve to be recognized. Try to keep a running document of daily successes, and put effort into celebrating the big successes in your life. When you put in the effort to pay attention to all that you do, instead of simply the mistakes you might make, it gets easier to have a more balanced mindset overall.

Find a mentor

In the professional sphere, imposter syndrome and perfectionism can often stem from not seeing how you fit into where your accomplishments have taken you. Finding a mentor who is similar to you, who has been there before and knows what you’re experiencing, has proven effective in helping people overcome imposter syndrome. Feeling seen and heard can make a huge difference. 

Consider executive coaching

One component of acknowledging you don’t have to do it all yourself is to reach out, to find support in overcoming perfectionism. Consider executive coaching services to help you find your footing again in the corporate world. The guidance of an executive coach can help you see the roots of your perfectionism, and allow you to shift your focus away from fear and failure, to a balanced well-being that takes into account all of you. 

If you feel like you could use extra support as you work to disentangle yourself from the grip of perfectionism or the shadow of imposter syndrome, consider contacting us today for a free consultation to see how our coaches at Holistic Wellness Practice can help.

Resources for overcoming perfectionism and imposter syndrome

It can be handy to have external input and support as you work toward releasing perfectionism and quieting the voice of your imposter syndrome. Here are a few handy resources to continue your work toward a better understanding of your true self:

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About Gleyce | View Profile

Gleyce Almeida-Farrell is a psychotherapist and the founder of Holistic Wellness Practice in Alpharetta, GA. She specializes in helping adults manage stress and overcome symptoms of anxiety utilizing a holistic and integrative approach to mental wellness.

We offer in-person and virtual services – contact us today to learn more!

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