The Imposter Syndrome & Being Better Than Perfect

It’s always been a bit of a puzzle for me: is perfectionism a good or a bad thing?  In my psychology training it was was mostly discussed as a problem as it led to unrealistic goals and standards, stress disorders and often burnout.  In fact, I’ve spent a good deal of my professional life helping successful, yet quite distressed, perfectionistic people who’ve even been suicidal when their imperfections have become public.

On the other hand, I’ve worked with many very high achievers, a good percentage of whom were clearly perfectionistic, yet who were also in excellent physical and psychological health.  So, what is it to be?  Bad or Good?  Well, somewhat predictably, it turns out to be both – and that will be our focus here.  So, what do we mean by perfectionism? Here is a pretty typical definition:

Striving for flawlessness and setting the highest performance standards, often accompanied by critical self-evaluations and pervasive concerns regarding others’ evaluations.

This definition, as with many others, emphasises the negative side of perfectionism.  What do we actually mean by this kind of unhealthy perfectionism?  Well, at the heart of it, is unrealistic standards and goals.  Unless something is 100% perfect it is perceived as a failure. This is a very punitive standard and rarely corresponds to the real-world requirements of one’s tasks or demands.  Very often, ‘good enough’ is perfect for what is required; as is ‘very good’; or indeed ‘excellent’. It all depends on the task and the context. But almost never is 100% required.  Indeed, overworking things often wastes time, energy and money. 

I’ve known many high performers who attribute their sustained success to their perfectionism, and they don’t always display the negative emotional, physical and psychological features so often accompanying perfectionism.  On the contrary, they value their perfectionism and very understandably reject my misguided attempts to deprive them of their formula for success!

So, what’s going on?  The answer is obvious when you see it: there are two types of perfectionism, one healthy and one unhealthy.  I’m indebted to Elizabeth Lombardo’s explanation in her book Better than Perfect – which distinguishes between perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. There are two distinct motivations that can drive perfectionism, and these motivations make all the difference.  Most of us have a bit of both.

Strivings are very healthy as they are motivated by passion and curiosity.  The focus is on the task not on self.  The person is nurtured by intrinsic motivation and develops a strong internal locus of control.  Although not concerned with self-improvement, their self-esteem is naturally high because they do achieve at a high level.  Mistakes and failures are therefore less disruptive and ultimately are used to guide even further task improvements.

In contrast, perfectionistic concerns are motivated by fear and anxiety.  Mistakes signify failure and the worst failures are public ones.  Accordingly, self-esteem is volatile, rising and falling with task performance.  Thus, standards must be absolute, mistakes are enormously threatening, and wellbeing is routinely sacrificed in the service of impossible standards. Such a person is just one mistake away from personal and public humiliation.

So how can we tell the difference in our motivations?  It shows up in our thinking:

Is it: I try to do my best in everything I do?

Or is it: My best just never seems good enough?

Is it: I expect myself to try my best?

Or is it: Often, I feel as though I am one failure away from being exposed?

Being able to change these thought patterns is critical to building healthy perfectionism.

 And where does the imposter syndrome fit into all of this?  It is a type of ego trap related to perfectionistic concerns.  When you believe important others have a higher appraisal of your knowledge and abilities than you do, it can create a continuous, punitive insecurity and obsessive activity to stave off the inevitable day when ‘they’ll find out’ and you lose valuable public status.

Importantly, it also plays out differently for different personalities: those lower on conscientiousness, and perhaps ability, just don’t try.  They avoid failure by never risking it.  Or the person who is less sensitive and more disagreeable won’t care so much what other people think. But it’s those who are high on conscientiousness – and who also happen to be more sensitive and agreeable – who are at much higher risk of the imposter syndrome.

So now we’ll examine how unhealthy perfectionism works in practice and how can we improve our perfectionism, to actually be better than perfect!   There is a punitive logic to perfectionistic concerns, and we need to understand it if we are to escape its trap.  It’s quite like obsessive compulsions, for example, obsessive hand washing. The hand washing at first reduces anxiety, so it is reinforced.  In similar fashion, getting things perfect can trap us in obsessive fears of failure. So, here’s the very punishing logic of the imposter syndrome:

We start with an assumed gap between my ability and the public’s more positive view – which leads to obsessive activity to overcome this assumed self-public gap. When my action is perfect, my anxiety is reduced, and now I’m addicted to perfection. When my actions are less than perfect I either deny the feedback or I feel very anxious and depressed.  Either way, I then commit to working even more obsessively! So, it can be a terrible trap.

This type of perfectionism impedes your actual potential & productivity because: it is exhausting, it stifles collaboration, and the anxiety impedes creativity and high-level thought.  It often closes us to new approaches and to constructive feedback. Finally, it blinds us to the notion of being ‘better than perfect’.  That is, providing what is required of a task and not wasting further time and emotional energy, thereby freeing us up to get onto new tasks and new challenges. 

And being better than perfect means not being driven by fear of social judgment!   It’s not about improving self but improving knowledge and skills. In a nutshell, it’s about growth. And the way to do this is to change our thinking and therefore our emotions around action: our motivations. 

 An important strategy to reduce the imposter syndrome is to identify perfectionistic concerns in your thinking and change them to perfectionistic strivings, thereby shifting the underlying motivation. Here’s some examples of changing the motivation to one of striving:

Instead of saying: I worry that people will find out I am not as good as I pretend to be …

Replace it with: Errors and imperfections help me get better and better.

Instead of: Anything less than the best feels like a failure.

Replace it with: Anything less than the best means there is more scope for growth.

Rather than: I feel I always have to be the best.

We can think: Aiming to be the best helps me learn and grow.

Another way of reducing perfectionistic anxiety is to set realistic goals.   One should identify what is impossible (outside your influence) and shift your attention to what you can influence.  This is realistic optimism.  Doing this, we are consciously reframing our goals to still be excellent, but also achievable.

It is important to note that this is not by repressing or supressing our fears, or by trying to think positively.  It is acknowledging concerns we can’t do anything about and then shifting attention to what is more practicable and more constructive.

In this way it is much better than an ideal of perfection, which sets us up for constant anxiety and inevitable failure.  This is another way we can learn to be perfectly OK.

Finally, one of the primary mechanisms of the trap that is the imposter syndrome, is secrecy.  Speaking to another person is the key that unlocks the trap!  This is an excellent way to identify and change unrealistic, obsessive thoughts. 

In my experience, when people share such thoughts with me, upon hearing themselves, they spontaneously begin editing them to be more realistic and more helpful.  They often precede this with statements like “I know this sounds crazy” or “I know this is an exaggerated fear” etc.

In other words, the feared social condemnation not only doesn’t happen, but they’re also validated by the person they chose to speak to.  So, break the trap.  Share with someone!  That’s much better than trying to be perfect!