When You Feel Like A Fraud & It’s Hard to Say Why: Imposter Syndrome, Perfectionism, and High-Functioning Anxiety

Achievement. Busyness. Perfection. That’s what high-functioning anxiety looks like. That’s what I look like. Because I’m trying to hide the crazy inside. 

But when it creeps to the surface —because it always does, it transforms into nervous habits. Nail biting. Foot tapping. Hair flipping. I’m trying to soothe myself from myself. And I hope no one notices.

But if you look close enough, you can see it. You can see it through unanswered text messages. Flakiness. Nervous laughter.

The panic that flashes through my eyes when a plan changes. When anything changes. Because I hate change. I think it goes back to childhood. Because when something changed back then, my entire life went up in smoke. Because change to me, at the time, meant divorce, foreclosure, and isolation. I suppose I fear that’s what will happen when or if things change. So I pretend I’m OK. I pretend so no one realizes I am, in fact, a fraud —at least that’s what it feels like a lot of the time. 

Because high-functioning anxiety is like a snake slithering up my back, clamping its jaws shut where my shoulders meet my neck. It’s a punch-in-the-gut stomach ache —like my body is confusing answering an email or picking up the phone with being attacked by a lion. Because I’m a bad friend. I’m a bad person. I’m a waste of time. I’m wasting time. Because I’m not good enough. I’m not good at my job. I’m not good at maintaining relationships. I’m not good at anything.What the fuck am I doing?

Why did I say that? What do they hate it? Why do I hate it?

Why couldn’t I finish that thing I was supposed to finish? Better yet, why couldn’t I start? Because if you don’t start then you don’t have to think about stopping. About failing.  Because I’m afraid to fail. And I know you can’t get something wrong if you don’t do that something, right? Because the imposter inside tells me what’s the point anyway? Because that same something also tells me I’m messing everything up. And so, I stay stuck. Because I really am a fraud. I’m only good at faking it. But no one sees that.

All the while, I appear perfectly calm. Because high-functioning anxiety is like an attack hidden by smiles, concealed by a mask of the girl I wish I really was. Because I’m also a perfectionist. So nothing is ever good enough. I’m constantly looking for my next outlet —something to channel the never-ending pressure of feeling less than. Writing. Running. List-making. Mindless tasks (whatever keeps me busy). Doing jumping jacks in the kitchen. Dancing in the living room, pretending it’s for fun. Really though, it’s a choreographed routine of desperation —trying to tire out the thoughts stuck on a loop inside my stupid head.

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And yeah, it’s not all day every day but it does, in fact, creep up. 

And when it creeps up, it’s me wanting to stay busy but also avoiding. Avoiding to the point that sometimes important things don’t always get done. Because that part of me would rather let things pile up than admit I’m overwhelmed. Because I have to be everything for everyone, right? Wrong. It’s just, I have these moments where this sharp pain engulfs me for saying or doing something stupid. It’s a type of pain that starts the cycle of thoughts I can’t seem to stop. Monkey brain. Because I said too much. Because I said nothing at all.

And that right there is a little something called imposter syndrome. 

I experience it. Many high achievers do too. In fact, approximately 70 percent of the American population will also experience it —at some point in their life. Feeling like a fraud is usually how it starts. Except, it’s rarely defined or clarified. Like what does it actually mean? Why do people deal with it? And what can you do if it happens to you? Well, that’s why I’m here —to tell you just that. According to Psychology Today, imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments with a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud.

It’s like all of your successes weren’t given to you out of merit but rather serendipitous luck. Not an actual disorder, the term was coined by clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes back in the late 1970s. They found that despite having adequate external evidence of accomplishments, people with imposter syndrome remain convinced that they don’t deserve the fortune they have. Beneath it is a sense of anxiety and perfectionism that causes the person to feel like a phony or a fraud.

Let’s say you’re in a social situation.

Maybe you fear that the other person will find out you’re awkward or inept. Perhaps you’re about to perform something and you feel as if you don’t belong because you aren’t talented or skilled enough. These feelings can lead to hopelessness, apprehension, and the desire to isolate. All of which may spiral into a series of depression because you feel like you can’t reach the level of competence you want to have. Expert on the subject, Dr. Valerie Young, has categorized imposter syndrome into five subgroups:

    • The Perfectionist: Perfectionists set excessively high goals for themselves, and when they fail to reach it, they experience major self-doubt. Because anything less than perfect is a failure. Whether they realize it or not, this group can also be control freaks —like if they want something done right, they have to do it themselves.
       
    • The Superhero: Since people who experience this phenomenon are convinced they’re phonies among real-deal colleagues, they often push themselves to work harder and harder to measure up. But this is just a false cover-up for their insecurities, and the work overload may harm not only their own mental health but also their relationships with others.
    • The Natural Genius: Young says people with this competence type believe they need to be a natural “genius.” As such, they judge their competence based ease and speed as opposed to their efforts. In other words, if they take a long time to master something, they feel ashamed. 
    • The Soloist: Soloists feel like they need to do everything themselves. If they need to ask for help, they feel incompetent and stupid.
    • The Expert: Experts measure their competence based on “what” and “how much” they know and can do. Believing they will never know enough, they fear being exposed as inexperienced or unknowledgeable. Because they believe if they don’t know everything, they are the worst person in the world.
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Each subgroup all share one dirty little secret, they don’t feel good enough.

That said, I think it’s easy to see how impostor syndrome and social anxiety would go hand in hand. Because as outgoing and friendly as I can be, sometimes, I can’t even answer the phone. Sometimes, I can’t make plans long enough to keep them. Because it takes so much effort to put a smile on my face and maintain it while actually enjoying myself. I want too but it’s hard to physically get there. Can you relate?

Experts say one of the reasons we avoid shit is because we’re quick to see our flaws over our achievements. Because our brains are hardwired to focus on the negative. And good things can’t hurt us. While this old survival technique is handy when you need to worry about lions on the horizon or snakes in the grass, it can make us miserable in the modern world.

So why do people experience impostor syndrome?

There’s no one answer. Some specialists believe it has to do with genetics and our DNA —while others focus on childhood and behavioral shit. For me, as I mentioned above, memories from my younger years have definitely affected my adult life in more ways than I originally thought. Maybe your sibling surpassed you in certain areas, and as a result, you feel (felt) inadequate. Like they’re better than you; therefore, everyone is. And in order to be loved, you need to achieve.

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It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. Like when you don’t achieve, you’re the worst and a failure.

Enter, imposter syndrome.

Mix that up with self-doubt, shame and depression and you’re left with a shit ton of sadness. In some cases, imposter syndrome can fuel feelings of motivation in order to achieve. But for others, like myself, it usually drives those feelings of despair. For example, you ever stalk someone’s Instagram and be envious of their seemingly perfect life? At least the life told by the bright, colorful pictures that present only a snippet of their reality. Well, the same goes for someone’s job or their LinkedIn profile.

The truth is, you only know as much as you see on the surface. I mean, look at me. I used to pretend to be this happy girl all the time. No one knew I wasn’t OK. And let me tell you, it was exhausting. TBH, sometimes I still do it. Like pretend I’m doing better than I actually am on a particular day. I’m too busy when really I’m bored and haven’t left the house. I’m sad and definitely not OK. But my online persona would tell you a different story. And that’s the danger with today’s modern world. We aren’t privy to all the details. We don’t know about the hard work it took so and so to get there.

We don’t see the 27 out-takes it took to get the perfect shot.

And we certainly don’t hear the tears hidden by pretty smiles. But right here, right now, that’s irrelevant. Because no two journeys are the same. As Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And there’s no such thing as perfection. Because the definition of success is, in fact, subjective. But before I knew better —like before I ignored the rules of comparison, I was unconsciously chasing the success I saw someone else achieve. One day I took a step back and asked myself what I was hoping to find. Turns out, I was chasing a dream that wasn’t even mine.

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I got so caught up with the idea of “succeeding” that I lost the idea of what success really meant to me.

And in that moment, I wasn’t sure if I actually belonged. Because I’ve always felt different. I just didn’t know why. I do now but sometimes it’s still confusing. Because I have a bunch of mental health shit all telling me different things. Because I can do 10 good things but I tend to concentrate on the one bad thing. Because I have good days where I feel proud of all that I’ve accomplished. But then there are others, where I think I’m crazy. And maybe that’s true. But I’m slowly learning that crazy doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

And Failing Doesn’t Mean You’re a Failure

But many of us equate failure with not being up to par —just quit while you’re ahead because I’m not good enough and I’ll never be. That right there is a major aspect of impostor syndrome —another driving force of anxiety and depression. The truth is, there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Because it’s a failure only if you don’t get something out of it. I mean, Thomas Edison said he knew 999 ways that the light bulb did not work; yet today, we have lights. And that’s because many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they really were to success before they gave up.

So don’t give up. Because failing will teach you far more than you imagined possible, including the value of hard work, resilience, and resolve. It may just lead you on the path you were truly meant to be on —and wouldn’t if you hadn’t started. So start. Because when it comes down to it, if you didn’t care, we wouldn’t feel fear or doubt. And not having them is just as scary. Because mediocrity has no place in your life, and that can be a little scary. Maybe you’re a work in progress. But aren’t we all? Because there’s always going to be something. Because we all have our shit.

At the same time, why not learn to turn that shit into something good.

Like make your weaknesses into strengths. And we can make our strengths even stronger. Like if you’re not good at something, maybe it’s because you haven’t learned it yet. And it’s OK to doubt yourself. Because it’s a totally normal part of the human experience. I’m trying to let fear be my fuel. Because if we can learn to harness and utilize that shit properly, fear can, in fact, motivate us to push us out of our comfort zones. And what do you know? Great things happen there. So this is me challenging you to use that energy in order to make positive changes in your life —one step at a time.

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Oh. And if you’re afraid to try something for fear of failure or rejection, try it anyway.

What’s the worst that can happen? Because if you fail or get rejected, you won’t be in any different position than if you hadn’t tried. And you can always try again. There truly is nothing holding you back but yourself. We all have our moments of uncertainty; the key is not letting that shit paralyze us. And yeah, it’s easy to forget how perfectly life works out when you’re down. It’s hard to believe things will go in your favor. But if you look back, you should see that in many cases, things happened exactly the way they needed too.

Above all, know who you are and know that’s enough.

xoxo,

macey bee

sources:

https://www.verywellmind.com/imposter-syndrome-and-social-anxiety-disorder-4156469https://themighty.com/2016/06/living-with-high-functioning-and-hidden-anxiety/

https://www.abc.net.au/life/what-is-impostor-syndrome-and-do-i-have-it/9824316

http://time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/

https://fairygodboss.com/articles/imposter-syndrome

https://www.apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud

https://www.fastcompany.com/40421352/the-five-types-of-impostor-syndrome-and-how-to-beat-them

https://theskillcollective.com/blog/imposter-syndrome-perfectionist-fraud

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