Last year, I held a workshop session with employees at my daughter’s company to explore Impostor Syndrome. These employees are high-achievers, yet they complained of feeling anxiety, stress, and overwhelm — and they believed these feelings were getting in the way of their performance at work and their enjoyment of life.
The common thread among the group? Perfectionists, all of them. And for people who struggle with perfectionism, two things hold true: failure is not an option, and “good enough” is never enough.
And for people who struggle with perfectionism, two things hold true: failure is not an option, and “good enough” is never enough.
Perfectionism is only one of the five “fingerprint” Impostor Behaviors, but it’s certainly one of the most impactful. Feelings of perfectionism are deep-seated — and they’re hard to undo. But a powerful first step to counteract perfectionism is to visualize what life would be like if the behaviors associated with it didn’t exist.
To do this, I ended the session with my daughter’s co-workers with what we refer to as a “brain hack.” I had a volunteer imagine that their clone was sitting next to them. The clone is identical to them in every way — has the same life experiences, the same education and experience, the same pressures and dynamics in their personal life.
But they differ in one important way — the clone never experiences the fear, self-doubt, and anxiety associated with her perfectionism. It’s like those thoughts and feelings just never occur.
Case study: Using a clone to get to know your own perfectionism
We asked our volunteer, Nikki, to talk about how her clone would prepare and show up differently for an upcoming presentation. Nikki laughed ironically.
“She’s not all that concerned. She has enough time to put some real thought into giving a great presentation without any distractions. She got a great night’s sleep the night before. And in the days leading up to the presentation, she wasn’t constantly over-thinking things like I do.”
“That sounds lovely, but a tad bit unrealistic,” I said politely. “What you just described for your clone is a life you fantasize about if your personal circumstances were such that your time were unconstrained. But remember that your clone has the exact same life as you: same husband, same kids, same responsibilities, same mindset, same challenges, same everything. With all that in mind, what might she do differently in preparation for a big presentation?
Nikki took a moment to think and really let this idea sink in. “Well, for one, my clone would go to bed a little earlier the night before. Then the next morning, she’d wake up a little earlier than usual, so she’s not rushed. Then she’d do a short meditation and thirty minutes of yoga.”
“That sounds perfectly reasonable,” I agreed. “What do you usually do on the morning of a presentation?”
Nikki smiled sheepishly, like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. “Wake up tired. Run through my presentation. Check emails. All before I even leave the house.”
“Wow. Would your clone do all that, too?”
Nikki thought carefully before she answered. “No, I don’t think so. If my clone started her day differently, I think she’d be way less stressed and nervous walking into that presentation.”
“And if the Nikki clone didn’t have the anxiety and self-doubt,” I asked, “would that impact the quality of her presentation or how well she delivered it?”
“I’m sure she’d do a lot better,” Nikki replied. “With that kind of calm state of mind, if she got questions she couldn’t answer, she wouldn’t panic. Instead she’d say something like, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out and get back to you.’”
Nikki took a moment to picture this in her head, but then quickly added, “However, if I’m being honest, the anxiety and self-doubt make me go the extra mile to ensure my presentation is perfect.”
“Yes, but that’s you,” I reminded her. “What about your clone?”
Nikki again took some time before she answered. “I guess my clone doesn’t need stress and self-doubt to fuel her to work hard and do well. We both have high standards for our work, but there’s one big difference.”
Nikki could see where this was going, which is exactly what I wanted for her. “She knows when enough is enough,” she concluded. “And because she is more relaxed and confident going in, she has a lot more composure, she’s more authentic, and she connects better with her audience. It’s kind of like water off a duck’s back. Whatever comes at her she just deals with.”
When we do this demonstration, it’s always inspiring because everyone in the room lights up with a sense of hope. While we all know such a shift is not easy, what Nikki demonstrated is that even though these Impostor Behaviors are within us, they are also within our control, and it is therefore possible to free ourselves of them.
How Impostor Syndrome goes beyond perfectionism
While perfectionism is common, it’s far from the only factor that can make you feel like an “impostor.” Impostor Syndrome is complex and wide-ranging — and it’s a lot more common than you may think.
Most people, women and men, understand instinctively what it means to feel like an impostor. 70% of people report experiencing at least one such episode in some aspect of their lives.
We try to be simple and precise in our definition of Impostor Syndrome: Despite evident success, an individual perceives their competence to be less than others perceive it to be.
Yet, that does not fully capture the impact of that burden or the personal and professional costs that result. People who struggle with chronic or lifelong impostor feelings are often successful outwardly — but they have a deep internal belief that they are, to some degree, a fraud.
People who struggle with chronic or lifelong impostor feelings are often successful outwardly — but they have a deep internal belief that they are, to some degree, a fraud.
Over many years, Impostor Syndrome takes an emotional, physical, and psychological toll in many ways, and it can derail professional potential and achievement.
However, the reality — as Nikki learned — is that impostor beliefs exist exclusively internally. And, more often than not, they’re completely unfounded.
In that reality, there is hope.
How impostor syndrome shows up
In our research, we have identified five dominant Impostor Behaviors, as outlined below.
Impostors who struggle with perfectionism strive for flawlessness in everything they do. This compulsion for perfection drives them to over-prepare, over-think, out-work, out-hustle, and hang on long after “most people” would call it a day.
Impostors don’t feel the elation or satisfaction of accomplishment, despite whatever external acknowledgment they may receive. At best, they feel some internal relief even as they prepare for the next thankless ordeal — it’s the only way they know.
People with Impostor Syndrome are incredibly sensitive to being judged, criticized and found lacking. As a result, they tend to feel shame and take any negative feedback as a personal judgment against them.
In their hyper-vigilance to avoid such rejection, they tend to be highly attuned to the emotions of others and are driven to solve others’ problems. This may make them valuable contributors, but the constant people-pleasing and approval-seeking is exhausting and comes at a great cost to their psyche.
Impostors feel like part of the “out group” and have an inherent sense of unworthiness. They see their own flaws too clearly, in stark relief to those in the “in group.” They believe that any success or accomplishment doesn’t measure up to others, and this can leave them feeling like they deserve less — less recognition, less compensation, less opportunity. Even when they are in elite company, they don’t feel like they belong.
They compare and judge themselves too harshly to have any pride or comfort in their own competence. They under-value themselves consistently, even as they may also seethe with the resentment that comes with a lack of recognition. It’s a deeply distressing contradiction.
A person with Impostor Syndrome may also lack sufficient confidence in his or her ability to do a particular thing, take on something new, or handle a stretch role or project. This lack of belief in themselves goes to their very core.
As with perfectionism, that fear of failure persists in their adult life, often holding them back from the kind of experimentation that leads to faster learning and growth. Overcoming those insecurities through force of will can take a deep psychological toll.
Success for impostors does not result in a belief that they actually deserve the rewards of status, prestige, or money. Instead, they feel inauthentic and phony. Despite all the striving, effort, and anxiety, little sense of self-worth comes from any accomplishment. Impostors don’t trust that it is, in fact, their competence that brings success.
An ever-present fear of being exposed as a fraud often blinds impostors to their own emotions and needs, perpetuating the endless cycle of anxiety, overwork, and a fleeting sense of accomplishment.
Why Impostor Syndrome disproportionately affects women and “out-group” others
Impostor Syndrome can be incredibly damaging. We suffer at an organizational and societal level from the resulting loss of talent, contribution, leadership, perspective, and experience. But that’s nothing compared with the personal loss of a life that is less creative, engaged, accomplished, and satisfying than it could and should be.
Unfortunately, our research shows us that this “loss of life” affects some far more than others.
After surveying the employees at my daughter’s company, the data was highly consistent with what we have seen across many different groups and surveys. The women (and those in underrepresented racial and ethnic groups) and men showed distinct differences in their Impostor Behaviors.
The women were about a third more likely to feel a lack of self-confidence in their jobs than the men, two-thirds more likely to experience depressed entitlement, and about half more likely to feel rejection sensitivity.
While unsurprised by the results, I found the numbers particularly disheartening on this occasion. Perhaps without realizing it, I’d hoped that this younger generation of women and underrepresented professionals, both of which my daughter is a part, would experience their professional reality differently than I had almost 30 years ago.
I wanted these younger women to believe in themselves innately — to understand how much they had to offer, to be as confident in their capabilities as their accomplishments warranted, and to feel good about what they had done and would do going forward. That was not the case.
To dig in beyond the data, we conducted smaller breakouts with the women we surveyed. I soon heard a very familiar refrain.
One woman told me that she worked under an extremely critical project manager. Her own fear of screwing up created so much anxiety that she was often harsh and impatient with her co-workers.
Another woman told me that she was still affected from a previous experience of having a powerful presentation she gave to an executive team go completely unacknowledged. Now, she refrains from speaking up or even being creative.
A third woman told me that the product her team was developing was so complicated that she didn’t always know how to solve the problems they faced, yet she was afraid to ask for help. She’d noticed, however, that the men on the team were more likely to ask for help, and their teammates usually responded well and with good humor.
All of the women struggled with a range of commonly shared doubts: Am I competent? Do I belong? Is it okay to make mistakes? Do I deserve to be here?
To cope with the constant strain of self-doubt and a lack of psychological safety, the women doubled down on their anxiety and stress, only fueling their overwork and perfectionism — until they felt completely burned out.
But, while this can be hard to see at times, what we know is that impostor-fueled burnout is far from an inevitable result. When we take fate into our own hands and work to break through our Impostor Behaviors — just like Nikki did — we can envision a life free of the anxiety, stress, and self-doubt that hold us back.
The power of developing a healthier, more caring relationship with ourselves, and a safe environment for others, is massive. Just imagine scaling that transformation across your organization and society as a whole, and the good that could result.
Now, we invite you to ask yourself: Are you ready for your breakthrough?
This article was written by Kate Prumal and originally appeared on Women 2.0