Several weeks ago, I had the privilege of leading three powerful conversations on the Impostor Syndrome and the toll it takes on our confidence, careers, and overall well-being. The Impostor Syndrome, for those who are unfamiliar, is the term for the feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy we experience despite evidence to the contrary. It’s the belief that while you might seem to the outside world like you know what you’re doing, underneath it all, you’re actually a fraud.
During these recent discussions, one of the key areas we explored was the link between the Impostor Syndrome and perfectionism. Many sufferers of the Impostor Syndrome struggle with the need to be perfect. Even in situations that don’t warrant special attention or extra diligence, it’s difficult to let go of the perfectionism.
It makes sense if you think about it. When you struggle with the Impostor Syndrome, as I have in the past, it’s terrifying to imagine someone finding you out. That fear of being exposed as a fraud is so anxiety provoking that you’ll do anything to prevent that from happening. It would be unimaginable to ask for help or let on that you’re not as competent or capable as everyone thinks you are.
It might make sense but it’s not helpful. First of all, there’s no such thing as perfect. If you keep chasing an unrealistic ideal, you’ll burn out trying to reach an impossible goal. Your commitment to producing high quality results is admirable and you shouldn’t lose that. But it’s important to recognize when something is complete and no additional effort is necessary.
Perfectionism also distracts you from other areas you care about. If you’re using up all of your energy trying to perfect your work, you won’t have the mental or physical bandwidth to engage with your family and friends, participate in recreational activities, or even manage your own health. It’s self-defeating and doesn’t buy you much in terms of success or reputation. Quality work is quality work. Nobody gets credit for the extra ten hours they spent on something that could have been completed in two.
While many consider perfectionism an admirable quality, even taking pride in their perfectionistic tendencies, it’s not a trait that we should nurture. Perfectionism, despite its deceptive appearance, is a toxic manifestation of fear. If you want to let go of perfectionism, you first need to face your underlying fears.
Consider the following questions:
1. What are you afraid of?
What are you afraid will happen if you let go of being perfect? Consider this carefully as this is not a simple question to answer. Try to connect with what truly scares you.
Do you have a fear of failure? Do you worry about giving up control? Are you afraid that someone will perceive you as less capable or qualified to perform your role? Do you fear that you’ll no longer be loved or respected?
2. Where does this fear come from?
Try to trace the roots of your fear. Why do you think you feel this way? Think back on your oldest memory of feeling this way. Were you a child? Were you in another vulnerable place in your life?
Many times these feelings of fear and vulnerability emerge when we feel that we have limited control over our lives and circumstances. A perceived lack of control feeds anxiety, leading us to seek out ways to control our environment, even if such control is, in reality, just an illusion. Perfectionism is such an illusion of control. We believe that if we work that much harder or invest that much more time, it will be “perfect” and thus protect us from our deeper fears.
3. What can you do about it?
It’s only natural that we would assume that to protect ourselves from fear, we must avoid the fear itself and the forces that trigger it. Counterintuitively, however, the only effective way to reduce fear is to face it directly. The more you try to avoid your fear, the more powerful it becomes. By embracing your fear, you dilute its power and recognize that the object of fear is not as scary as you initially thought.
Identify one immediate step you can take to begin to let go of your perfectionism. If you’re working on a project, set a firm limit on how much time you’ll allow yourself to commit to it. If you’re writing an email, limit yourself to two re-writes. If you’re working on a low priority task, allow it to be “good enough.”
After taking that first step, notice what happens. Does the world collapse around you? Do you lose your job? Do you lose the respect of everyone involved? I’m confident that the answer to each of these questions will be no. What likely will happen is that you’ll recognize that your worst fears were not realized. And you’ll gain the courage and strength to continue to chip away at your perfectionism, one step at a time.
Have you found strategies to manage your perfectionism? If so, please share.