One of the primary causes for social anxiety is impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome can affect almost anyone with feelings of self-doubt and unworthiness. Left unchecked, impostor syndrome leads to an endless cycle of social anxiety, over preparation and procrastination–while avoiding the real work that needs to be done.
However, by understanding where impostor syndrome comes from, such as perfectionism and fear of failure, you can break this impostor cycle to become a happier, more productive person.
The Odd One Out
“The exaggerated esteem in which my lifework is held makes me very ill at ease. I feel compelled to think of myself as an involuntary swindler.”
–Albert Einstien (newyorker.com/magazine/2005/02/28/time-bandits-2)
Sometimes even people who reach great heights of success don’t believe that they should be there. Constant doubts creep through their thoughts that they’re not worthy. Sometimes this can drive people to improve, but all too often impostor syndrome crushes people under its weight.
It doesn’t take huge success to feel like an impostor, even the lowliest of employees and freelancers may suffer from impostor syndrome. Even a small amount of success will make you feel like a fraud if you aren’t confident in the quality of your own work.
Do you ever question your achievements (no matter how small)? Do you sometimes imagine that at any moment someone is going to expose you as the hack you think you might be?
While it was first noted in women, up to 70 percent of both men and women have had impostor syndrome symptoms, found researchers Jaruwan Sakulku and James Alexander in a 2011 study published in The Journal of Behavioral Science. (tci-thaijo.org/index.php/IJBS/article/view/521)
For most people, impostor syndrome symptoms do not actually inhibit their ability to eventually get their work done but add stress and anxiety. Nevertheless, for some people impostor syndrome can be debilitating. Some people get trapped in a cycle of social anxiety, over-preparation and procrastination while avoiding their real work.
Stages of the Impostor Cycle
According to researchers, impostor syndrome often traps people in a four-action cycle, repeated over and over again:
- Goal: “achievement-related task” leads to anxiety and self-doubt over the result.
- Over preparation or procrastination: distraction from anxiety about the result.
- Goal achieved: but person discounts positive feedback as either overwork or luck.
- Self-doubt increased: because positive feedback is ignored, this leads to more anxiety when tackling the next goal or task.
When someone spends more time preparing for a task than doing the task, they might be over preparing to avoid failure. This can lead people to wonder whether they’re worthy of their success. They might wonder if they would have succeeded without the extra effort.
On the other hand, other people constantly procrastinate and then rush to get a task done at the last minute–a more obvious way to avoid the task. When procrastinators succeed anyway, they tend to pass it up to luck, once again throwing doubt on whether their success is deserved.
In a way, over preparation is a form of productive procrastination, but there’s a difference between productive preparation and avoidance caused by fear.
The Root Causes of Impostor Syndrome
Impostor syndrome is rooted in how people think about themselves. For example, it is often related to a fear of failure or a desire to be better than everyone else. Researchers Sakulku and Alexander suggest that the main root causes of impostor syndrome lie both in a person’s innate personality traits and the family and educational environment they grew up in.
In another 2014 study, published in the journal Procedia, (sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042814023179) researchers also found that people with impostor syndrome tend to need validation from others, are sensitive to criticism and fret about the possibility of less-than-perfect results.
How children learn to deal with success and failure growing up has a significant effect on impostor syndrome. Many people with impostor syndrome didn’t deal with failure much growing up, leaving them without the skills to pick themselves up when they fall. When someone finds school easy, this tends to lead to trouble when they encounter real failure in college or in adult work environments.
Additionally, when children grow up in an environment where talent is valued more than hard work, it implies that failure is a judgment on their character and not just their work. This can lead to, “Feelings of shame, humiliation, and inauthenticity,” according to Sakulku and Alexander.
How to Combat Impostor Syndrome by Breaking the Impostor Cycle
It isn’t possible to change your core personality or how you grew up, but if you’re worried about impostor syndrome, you can fight it with a little conscious effort.
Left to grow out of control, impostor syndrome often leads to other problems, such as poor work performance, work dissatisfaction, and even depression. At worst it could threaten the success that triggered feelings of being an impostor.
If you’re worried about falling into the impostor cycle, follow these tips to break over preparation and procrastination habits:
- Think of failure as an opportunity.
It’s better to try and fail than to do nothing at all. And it’s better to work at a reasonable pace and fail than working yourself to death at the last minute and failing anyway. Even if you do fail, you will learn things along the way. It’s not necessary to know everything before you start.
- Remind yourself that perfection is impossible.
Nothing is perfect, and nothing you produce will be perfect either. Forget about perfect and focus simply on working well.
- Focus on the process, not the goal.
Instead of thinking (and getting anxious) about the result you want to achieve, decide on a process that will get you to that result and stick to it. Once you have the process set up, forget about the goal itself and just focus on getting down to work one little bit at a time.
At the end of the day, the only real way to beat procrastination and over preparation is to start on the real task at hand. Instead of reading one more book before you tackle that master’s thesis or reading more article about the best cat pictures of 1897 to avoid thinking about work at all, at some point you just have to start. The more you make starting a habit, the easier it will become.
It takes hard work to break bad habits but stick with it and eventually working will become a stronger habit than over preparation or procrastination. You can break the impostor syndrome cycle with a little mental effort.