Imposter syndrome and self employment: A recipe for disaster
By Chloe Hall
If I tell you I am a high achiever does that make me more or less likely to suffer from imposter syndrome? Many of us high achievers share a dirty little secret: deep down we feel like complete frauds and would describe most, if not all, of our accomplishments as the result of serendipity or luck. We are imposters. We are not who you think we are.
If comparison is the thief of joy then I am a repeat offender on a life sentence. I compare myself to others in an unflattering light so often (and have done for so long) that it feels like second nature. I do it on autopilot and become oblivious at stopping myself in order to reassess the situation with a more balanced frame of mind. “Black and white thinking” is my speciality. Black and white thinking is the tendency to think in extremes. On Sunday evening I might be wracked with anxiety looking at the week ahead and frantically telling myself – “I can’t do this”, “there’s no possible chance on earth I’ll be able to make a decent job at this”, “everything is going to be terrible and I’ll be found out for being rubbish at my job”.
By Friday, with some positive feedback under my belt I will have completely forgotten what was eating away at my self-esteem and mental health at the start of the week. Instead, I allow myself a ride on a very fragile cloud nine. This way of thinking is called a cognitive distortion because it keeps us from seeing the world as it often is: complex, nuanced and full of all the shades in between. Why do I do it? Perhaps more importantly, why can’t I stop?
Expert on the subject of so-called Imposter Syndrome, Dr. Valerie Young, has categorised it into subgroups: the Perfectionist, the Superwoman/man, the Natural Genius, the Soloist, and the Expert. It takes me approximately 0.02 seconds to classify myself as the Perfectionist. We perfectionists set excessively – and often impossibly – high goals for ourselves. When we fail to reach a goal to the sky-high degree we wanted we experience debilitating self-doubt and intrusive thoughts. If we want something done right, the only feasible option is to do EVERYTHING ourselves.
When I inevitably miss the (insanely high) mark on something, I accuse myself of not being cut out for my job and ruminate on it for days. The trouble with being a high-achiever, a perfectionist and self-employed means unlike getting a “proper job”, nobody tells you you’re good enough to be hired. There’s no job interview. You just decide you’re good enough to start a business and get on with the doing. Deep down, being “good enough” lasts about 5 minutes before worries and anxiety creep in. My work must be 100% perfect, 100% of the time otherwise I am mortified and ashamed that I have let myself down. Of course there have been countless times I’ve made a mistake at work or gotten a piece of work back from a client with lots of changes needed. Not once has a client been rude or disrespectful or disappointed when doing so, but I tell myself they are just being polite. Learning to allow myself to make mistakes and then take them in my stride to learn from and grow is something I have to work on every single day. I have to force myself to start the project I’ve been planning for months because I wanted to be certain whatever I attempt will be 100% flawless. Accepting that is incredibly difficult for me, and it may be for you too.
Many factors contribute to how and why perfectionism and imposter syndrome develops. Serious, life-limiting mental health issues like anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) can stem from it. Research shows that high levels of perfectionism are linked to eating disorders, fibromyalgia, depression and even suicide. Outside of clinical disorders, perfectionism and imposter syndrome can lead to significant problems in daily life, impacting everything from our productivity and work performance to our relationships and physical health. For me, this manifests by driving me to constantly do more. I take on far more projects, challenges, and stressors than I can reasonably handle leading to chronic stress and burnout. I run my business full time, I volunteer for two charities, I’m on various boards and panels, I go to a weekly creative writing class, I am renovating a house, consider learning French…
Imposter syndrome makes it difficult to truly enjoy things in life and find genuine satisfaction. It’s hard to enjoy the present when we’re always looking ahead to new tasks or behind to old failures. Sound familiar?
Most perfectionism begins; you’ll not be surprised to hear, as a childhood response to some form of trauma. A difficult divorce, living in the shadow of a talented or chronically ill sibling or learning to obsessively plan for every possible contingency when you’re the child of an abusive parent are all relevant examples. In each case, the habit of striving for perfection was initially triggered by a disturbing situation and the need to ease a painful or scary situation. This habit of striving for perfection becomes strengthened because on some level it works. Even if just temporarily, we’ll take it. As the years roll by we gift ourselves a strongly ingrained habit of striving for perfection in order to feel good (or rather to feel less bad).
I know on a rational level that perfectionism is impossible and being self-employed is a catalyst for mine. The key to managing my perfectionism and keeping imposter syndrome in check is to repeatedly remind myself that it provides temporary relief from a painful feeling. I haven’t yet been able to ward off the black and white thinking completely. I can tell myself over and over that I tried my best, but working on my communication skills, setting boundaries for myself and others and practising assertiveness have proved helpful in putting me on the path that runs alongside perfectionism. In contrast, a “normal” path for me to follow doesn’t exist because that simply perpetuates the idea of black and white thinking. Instead, there are 50 shades of grey paths to follow and I try treading as many as I can to carry me further away from the black path of perfectionism and imposter syndrome.