Three quarters of Harvard Business School students feel like they got in by some failure of the admission process. Even executives and professors live professional lives “smitten with a fear that sooner or later something is going to happen–probably that you’ll make a mistake–that will cause people to recoil in horror and say, ‘How did we hire this person? Obviously they’re not up to the job.'”
What’s the deal? Is no one actually qualified to have any job? If you pay attention to organizational psychology, the answer is no. What these people are experiencing is imposter syndrome.
If you haven’t heard about it–or possibly experienced it–before, imposter syndrome is that feeling where, deep down, you can’t believe that you deserve the job, title, or career that you’ve landed. Over at Pacific Standard, Ann Friedman provides the phenomenology:
a nervous undercurrent that runs through your day-to-day experience, unacknowledged, only to crop up in salary negotiations or in small phrases like, “It might just be me but….” or “Not sure I know what I’m talking about….” If you’re pressed to step outside yourself and try to adopt an outsider’s perspective, maybe you can articulate what it is you feel you lack—or admit that you have the same concrete skill set as your coworkers of similar standing. But most of the time, the feeling remains a quiet, hidden thing that you can’t quite express.
As the Harvard Business Review states, folks who always feel like they’re imposters are often also perfectionists, people who set “excessively high, unrealistic goals and then experience self-defeating thoughts and behaviors when they can’t reach those goals …perfectionism often turns neurotic imposters into workaholics.”
Let’s unpack that a bit further: First, workaholics aren’t addicted to work, they’re addicted to the validation that comes from success. Second, as the beloved sociologist Brené Brown has told us, if perfectionism is driving you, then shame is riding shotgun.
“We struggle with perfectionism in areas where we feel most vulnerable to shame,” the author of Daring Greatly, one of the best business books of 2012, told the Huffington Post. “So we’re all comfortable saying, ‘I’m a little perfectionistic,’ which is code for ‘I do things really well’–but I’m not comfortable saying I have shame.”
Perfectionism, then, is a way of thinking that says that “If I look perfect, live perfect, work perfect, I can avoid or minimize criticism, blame and ridicule.” As she tells Oprah:
See it for what it is: a surreptitious cycle of self-recrimination.
Since you don’t feel you’re the absolutely most perfect person at your job, you quietly accuse yourself of being a fraud, and then feel shamed for being so phony, and then intensely vulnerable for feeling shame, fueling a need for further self-protective perfectionism.
The task for us imposters, then, is to exercise a little emotional agility and step away from the cycle–and go public with the fact we felt it in the first place–that way our fellow perfectionists can loosen up, too.
Hat tip: Pacific Standard