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The anxiety of exposure

April 09, 2019

Researchers from the Higher School of Economics (Perm), in collaboration with an American colleague, confirmed the theory that impostor syndrome fully mediates the link between perfectionism and psychological distress.

Perfectionism is a personality trait that makes a person strive for perfection. It can manifest itself in an adaptive or a maladaptive form. Adaptive perfectionism is the desire to meet high standards that are achievable with certain efforts. Maladaptive perfectionism is the tendency to place excessive, unattainable demands on yourself, which ultimately leads to worry and stress when you fail to meet them.

Perfectionism is associated with impostor syndrome or feelings of incompetence. It is characteristic of both men and women of different ages and fields of activity. Feelings of incompetence arise when a person believes that they do not deserve their success and are afraid of being exposed as frauds. Like maladaptive perfectionism, impostor syndrome leads to an increased sense of anxiety, depressive moods and other psychological disorders.

In their article, 'Imposter Syndrome Among Russian Students: The Link Between Perfectionism and Psychological Distress', the researchers investigated whether impostor syndrome affects the relationship between perfectionism and psychological well-being.

Over the course of their study, the researchers interviewed 169 respondents (50 men, 119 women) aged 18 to 23 who study at various degree programmes at a university in Perm.

Students were asked to complete three questionnaires. The first one ('The Clance Imposter Phenomenon Scale') was designed to determine if a person suffers from impostor syndrome. The second ('The Short Almost Perfect Scale') measured respondents' degree of perfectionism. The third questionnaire ('The Depression Anxiety Stress Scale-21') determined the level of anxiety, depression, and stress in respondents.

The respondents' answers allowed the researchers to trace the relationship between perfectionism and imposter syndrome with levels of anxiety. Their statistical analysis of mediation confirmed the hypothesis that impostor syndrome is a mediator between perfectionism and anxiety. A person who suffers from maladaptive perfectionism focuses on what they have not accomplished and fears exposure. In fact, these feelings lead to the development of impostor syndrome. The latter, in turn, causes psychological distress, whether it be anxiety, stress, or depression. Adaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, does not lead to impostor syndrome and its psychological consequences.

In their article, the researchers give several recommendations on how to deal with impostor syndrome.

Firstly, one should focus on confirming that they are indeed competent and that all of their achievements are deserved.

Secondly, it is necessary to understand whether it is beneficial for one to consider themselves inadequate. It is possible that it is a manifestation of self-defense if a person does not want to take on more responsibility--when one would rather take another exam for the same high grade, for example.

Thirdly, it is necessary not to succumb to the behavioral aspect of impostor syndrome, which manifests itself in procrastination. Researchers recommend not postponing things for later, but rather maintaining a proactive attitude.

The final recommendation concerns external factors. A person suffering from imposter syndrome can be helped by a supportive environment--this allows them to feel that their accomplishments are not accidental.

National Research University Higher School of Economics

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