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Escaping the Prison of Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome

Could imposter syndrome be a normal response to microaggressions against women?

Key points

  • Destructive perfectionism can set up the likelihood of imposter syndrome, as both are based in fear.
  • Recent research shows that women experience imposter syndrome due to the inequities, stereotypes, and microaggressions in the workplace.
  • You can look for what you have control over to combat imposter syndrome.

It only took three weeks in graduate school before this thought crept into my head, "If I can get into this program, anyone can."

 MarieClaudeLemay/Pixabay
Fearing the façade will vanish....
Source: MarieClaudeLemay/Pixabay

My fight with imposter syndrome was on.

Origin of the Imposter Syndrome Concept

In a recent article in The Harvard Business Review, Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey describe the origin of the term:

The term emerged in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes who developed the concept, originally termed "imposter phenomenon," in their 1978 founding study, which focused on high-achieving women. They posited that "despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise."

Yet, destructive perfectionism and imposter syndrome may likely feed on each other. If your perfectionism emerged as an adaptation to early trauma, cultural pressure, or familial dysfunction (as I've defined in perfectly hidden depression), then it's also constantly fueled by fear and shame: "I must look perfect to please." "I can never express emotional vulnerability." "I'll lose my power if I appear out of control." Yet, somewhere deep inside of you, you sense that there are silent feelings you don't understand or that you cannot allow yourself to express.

So, as a highly competent adult, you get the job. You take on a huge challenge. And, as you push yourself harder and harder, the more you must deny that anything is a struggle. But, on nightly rides home or in the shower in the early morning, you can hear this shaming voice: "You're not who everyone thinks you are." And in an effort to burrow into your psyche, that insecurity finds a home in your already well-established fear. No one has known who you really are for years. An adaptation that was likely created as protection, as emotional survival, now could easily morph into a fear of being found out. And imposter syndrome can be created.

There are fascinating changes in how to evaluate the insecurity of imposter syndrome. Could we be blaming the victim once again?

Years of research have shown that imposter syndrome occurs with more women than men. Prior to the Harvard researchers mentioned above, this was touted as true for various reasons.

Yet Tulshyan and Burey emphatically state that the environmental work milieu for women isn't being considered strongly enough as a source of women's workplace insecurity:

Imposter syndrome took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women. As white men progress, their feelings of doubt usually abate as their work and intelligence are validated over time.... Even if women demonstrate strength, ambition, and resilience, our daily battles with microaggressions, especially expectations and assumptions formed by stereotypes and racism, often push us down....And women from other cultures or [who] aren’t white heterosexual females have it even worse....So even if a black or Latina woman enters a system going great guns, she’s silenced by the lack of true support and enthusiasm. In truth, we don’t belong because we were never supposed to belong.

How to Deal With Imposter Syndrome

So what can you do about imposter syndrome? No one is going to change the work milieu overnight. But you've still got to make a living and go to your job every day. And you don't want to be plagued by incessant fears of being found out.

Here are five common-sense suggestions:

  1. Step away from depending solely on external validation and use internal validation instead. This is basically monitoring your own self-talk to make sure you're giving yourself positive feedback about your work and performance.
  2. Don't go it alone. Find a mentor and adopt an “I still have much to learn” attitude, without accepting the idea that you're somehow inferior. Talk with other women for support and encouragement, especially those who share your ethnicity, sexual orientation, and/or gender identity. You can be a wonderful resource for one another.
  3. Challenge your perfectionism. Develop a hobby in which you force yourself to begin at the beginning — risk, laugh, and accept messiness. It can help make the learning process fun again and remind you how you used to enjoy learning. Maybe you can again.
  4. List your own strengths and your vulnerabilities and strongly claim what is your expertise. When you can do this, you don't have to be the best at everything.
  5. Know the dynamics of your triggers. Where did you learn this strategy to have to be perfect? Making connections with your past when you may have begun to camouflage your vulnerabilities and strap on a perfect-looking façade can shed a huge light on how you're trying to emotionally survive today.
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