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Perfectionism, Procrastination or Impostor Syndrome?

Every morning, I am full of dreams, things to do and plans for the future. Yet, some mornings I find myself constantly held back from getting things done. I feel the need to be perfect and hence keep working on a single task. Instead of checking it off my to-do list and moving on, I dwell on its imperfections and little errors; all because of a fixation on perfectionism. Other times, I procrastinate because I feel that something is too tedious or challenging for me to handle.

“Low self-esteem is like driving through life with your hand-break on.” – Maxwell Maltz

However, on particular occasions, I experience a combination of these two phenomena. Self-doubt combined with low self-esteem come together to form an 'unwarranted sense of insecurity’. A voice inside my head goes on and on, disabling me from taking the first step to begin something. 'I am not good enough', 'I don't have everything held together', 'I'm not qualified for this', 'I don't deserve this', et cetera.

Feeling like an impostor

Have you ever felt undeserving of your successes and afraid you will be found out for your incompetencies?

This feeling of being a fraud is what psychologists Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes term, the ‘impostor syndrome’. In 1978, they published “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women” after studying this intense, internal experience among a group of high achieving women over the course of five years. Their study included undergraduates, graduate students, faculty members, medical students and women working in professional fields. Regardless of their successes, these women do not experience an internal sense of success and instead, declare themselves ‘impostors’.

“When she goes to school her doubts about her abilities are intensified. Although she does outstanding work, she does have to study to do well. Having internalised her parents' definition of brightness as "perfection with ease," and realising that she cannot live up to this standard; she jumps to the conclusion that she must be dumb. She is not a genius; therefore, she must be an intellectual impostor.” – “The Impostor Syndrome in High Achieving Women”

Before I heard about this syndrome, I did not have a word or phrase to encapsulate this feeling of perpetually being 'not good enough' in every aspect of my life. Instead, other words came to fill in this question mark-shaped blank, such as ‘perfectionism’ and ‘procrastination’.

Additionally, while growing up, I was constantly compared to others. Parents, relatives and teachers compared my learning ability, grades and achievements to siblings, peers and classmates. As a result of this, I subconsciously internalised this constant comparison. I felt disappointed with myself when I could not achieve “perfection with ease”. As I struggled to do well, I compared myself to peers whom I considered brightest, gifted and most successful in life. Of course, I fell short in comparison.

Because of these unrealistic comparisons, even when I did well in an assignment or scored a good grade on a test, I felt unworthy of the achievements. Now that I am an undergraduate in university, I still constantly discredit my achievements, brushing it off and saying it was only because I was hard-working or lucky, not smart.

Not alone

When I learnt more about impostor syndrome, it was reassuring. Finally, I could put what I was feeling into words, and, more importantly, I knew I was not alone in this.

If you thought that highly successful people do not ever doubt themselves, you’ll be surprised. Even Albert Einstein and Maya Angelou admitted to feeling like a fraud! This shows that impostor syndrome can affect anyone. Hence, it does not do anybody good to make unfavourable and unrealistic comparisons of themselves to others. 

Everyone privately doubts themselves, even the overachievers and high-flyers. However, because no one else voices out and articulates their feelings, you feel like a lone impostor out of a sea of high-achieving people. In reality, everyone feels the same way.

Everything looks effortless, perfect and easy when you look at the lives of others. However, that is only what is seen on the surface. Remember this: Especially with social media, what you see is only a glimpse of the highly curated highlights of another person’s daily life. What you rarely see are the struggles, mistakes, failures, hard work, effort, and learning journey they go through.

Building confidence

Impostor syndrome doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It is true that the feelings which come with impostor syndrome can negatively affect you. For example, it can make you unable to be confident in yourself. However, this does not mean that impostor syndrome has to hold you back from doing your best.

One of my professors recently shared that it is common that English Literature majors start out doubting themselves when writing essays. However, as she has observed with her students, over time, they will become more confident and instead of pondering 'is this right?’, they progress to confidently write, ’my reading is as follows…’. You can reframe your doubtful thoughts and worries to help yourself improve in what you are doing.

It is not easy to overcome self-doubt and combat impostor syndrome. However, it is simple to take a small step forward and have a conversation with someone you trust. Most of the time, it is not what others tell you but what you are telling yourselves that perpetuates self-doubt; you are your harshest critic.

In my personal opinion, impostor syndrome overwhelms and overcomes me by making me feel alone in my doubts. My self-doubt is reduced when I open myself to others who I know care about me and hear what they have to say. Having conversations can also reassure you that there are others going through similar struggles, and helping one another can help to build up your support networks. Talking with another person helps you to take a step back from your current situation and view things from a different (and hopefully, more positive) perspective.

And so, dear reader, build confidence in simple truths. Build up your confidence by affirming yourself with the positive feedback you have received in the past. Use it to encourage yourself to learn from your mistakes and know your strengths. With this confidence, face every new morning as a fresh start, a blank page to make your hopes and dreams a reality.

 

References:

"Clance IP Scale", https://paulineroseclance.com/pdf/IPTestandscoring.pdf

"How to Overcome 'Impostor Syndrome'", https://www.nytimes.com/guides/working-womans-handbook/overcome-impostor-syndrome

"Perfectionism and Students: The Hermione Granger Effect", https://blogs.adelaide.edu.au/what-messes-with-your-head/2017/06/02/perfectionism-and-students-the-hermione-granger-effect/

"The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention", https://www.paulineroseclance.com/pdf/ip_high_achieving_women.pdf

"What is imposter syndrome and how can you combat it? - Elizabeth Cox", https://youtu.be/ZQUxL4Jm1Lo