Idaho, Iowa, Des Moines
July 22, 2023

Imposter Syndrome and Perfectionism, Shame, Unrealistic Expectations, and the Patriarchy: How to Combat the Internal and External Causes of Feeling Like a Fraud

Imposter syndrome is defined as anxiety about lack of success, despite objectively high external achievements. 

First coined in the 1970s by Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, this term originally referred to high-achieving women who’d made a lot of headway in their particular career fields. People who experience imposter syndrome internalize a sense of “intellectual phoniness” and feel like they’re deceiving the people around them into thinking they’re more intelligent or successful than they really are. 

Sound familiar? If so, you’re not alone. More recent research on the subject shows that any gender, race, or socioeconomic class can experience imposter syndrome, but women and minorities feel the brunt of it.

Imposter syndrome is often caused by a combination of external and internal factors. External factors include traditional workplace culture, which prioritizes productivity over people, as well as cultural biases and microaggressions. Internal factors include perfectionism, using shame as a motivator, and having unrealistic expectations of ourselves. 

While you can’t change the actions of others, you can change your relationship to perfectionism, unrealistic expectations, and shame. 

Imposter syndrome and unrealistic expectations

Imposter Syndrome and Perfectionism

Feeling like a fraud sucks. Feeling like a fraud all the time because you’ve internalized unrealistic standards of perfection sucks even more. You’re likely terrified you’ll be discovered for who you really are – a faker who gets through life on luck and charm alone.

Many of my clients are millennials with anxiety and neurodivergence. One reason imposter syndrome persists in people I work with every day is they tend to be anxious perfectionists. Perfectionists put a ton of pressure on themselves not only to succeed, but to be the best. The problem with this perspective is “the best” is subjective, dynamic, and not even a real concept. It’s impossible to achieve because it doesn’t really even exist. 

When you try to be perfect all the time, it’s only natural that you’ll feel like an imposter. Other people will only see your external achievements and how much you’ve accomplished. But on the inside, you don’t feel accomplished. Instead, you feel like you’re putting on an act, and that you’re not nearly as good or smart as everyone seems to think. You might feel certain that you’re only one misstep from everything crashing down around you. 

Perfectionists often think in black-and-white, all-or-nothing terms. One antidote to imposter syndrome is to reframe your perfectionistic thoughts. The first step is just to start recognizing when perfectionistic, all-or-nothing thoughts are happening. Say you have a thought like, “I’m behind on this deadline; I’m such an idiot and a total fraud and everyone will find out soon.” Notice how quickly you jump from being behind on a deadline (a very human thing) to labeling yourself an idiot and a fraud. Gently practice reframing thoughts like these to more neutral ones. You might think, “I’m behind on this deadline, but I have a lot on my plate and it’s okay to ask for an extension. I’m a human, not a machine.” 

Imposter Syndrome and Unrealistic Expectations

If your standards for yourself are unrealistic, you probably expect yourself to be an expert in everything you do. You might compare yourself to others – peers in your career field or friends with the kind of life you want – and then beat yourself up for not being able to have those same accomplishments. You often overlook your own significant accomplishments, assuming they don’t matter or aren’t good enough. You also discount your expertise, attributing your success to outside luck or external factors. 

To combat imposter syndrome when you have unrealistic expectations of yourself, practice tolerating doing just a tiny bit less than what you’d normally do. We’ll call this practicing “enoughness.” This is a challenging task and probably will feel very uncomfortable, because you likely have a lot going on at once and want to be the best at all of it. The “enoughness” number I strive for in myself and with my clients is 80%. If you can be just 80% good enough at the task or situation at hand, then that’s good enough. Period. 

Imposter syndrome and shame

Imposter Syndrome and Shame

Shame is another factor that drives imposter syndrome. High-achieving people often use shame as a motivator to try and encourage themselves to do better and achieve even more success. The problem with this tactic is shame is not an effective long-term motivator. Shame makes you feel bad about yourself at your core, which fuels imposter syndrome and other mental health issues like depression and anxiety. 

In order to recover from imposter syndrome when you use shaming and shoulding as motivators, practice separating outcomes from who you are. This helps you create space between your achievements and your self-worth. Instead of thinking, “I made a mistake; I’m a shitty person and I’ll never recover from this,” gently approach this assumption with an alternative thought. For instance, you might think, “I messed up in this situation, but I did the best I could with the knowledge I had. This doesn’t reflect my worth or who I am inside.” 

The Reality of Imposter Syndrome: Both External and Internal Factors

The reality of imposter syndrome is that there are both external and internal factors at play. The onus of imposter syndrome isn’t solely on you. Yes, you may have developed perfectionism and hold yourself to an impossible standard. Yes, you might have unrealistic expectations for yourself. Yes, you might use shame as a motivator for success. Changing your thinking through cognitive behavioral therapy can help you unlearn these patterns and form new, more accurate, beliefs about yourself and your abilities. 

But imposter syndrome impacts minorities, including women and people of color, at a much higher rate than non-minorities. Why? Because of biases, microaggressions, and cultural ideas of what “professionalism” means that are based on white male standards.

You’re not alone and not broken if you experience imposter syndrome. The authors who originally coined the term – and back then, it was impostor phenomenon, not impostor syndrome – meant to normalize the experience, not pathologize it. Because of the patriarchal and capitalist world we live in, you’re likely entrenched in systems that fail to support you. Imposter syndrome is a result of those unsupportive systems.

There’s no easy fix for this, but community makes a big difference. Surrounding yourself with people who experience the same feelings as you – that they aren’t good enough despite appearing incredibly accomplished and put together – can help you push back against imposter syndrome in yourself. Seeing people you look up to and respect fighting the same battles as you can help you realize how sneaky and pervasive imposter syndrome is. And if it’s impacting other people whose success seems obvious to you, then maybe you’re not as much of an imposter as you think you are. 

Therapy Can Help You Push Back Against Imposter Syndrome

There are no easy answers for how to overcome imposter syndrome. Working on reframing your thoughts, putting less pressure on yourself, and talking about your struggles in community can all greatly reduce the impact of feeling like an imposter. 

If you want support working through imposter syndrome, I’m here to help you do all these things. You’ll learn how to challenge and reframe your thoughts, practice “enoughness” in all areas of your life, untangle shame from your internal monologue, and gain skills to reach out to your community for support. 

I’m ready if you are. Reach out today to schedule a complimentary consultation.

Meet the author

Danielle Wayne

Danielle is an anxiety therapist. She specializes in helping busy millennials dial down their anxiety and ADHD, so they can perform at their best. Danielle has been featured on Apartment Therapy, SparkPeople, Lifewire, and Now Art World. When Danielle isn't helping her clients, she's playing video games or spending time with her partner and step children.

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