Fear of positive evaluation and the imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome occurs when there is a discrepancy between your performance and your beliefs about your performance. I differentiate between two types of imposter syndrome: anxiety-driven imposter syndrome and developmental imposter syndrome. Anxiety-driven imposter syndrome occurs when you have the skills to perform at the level that is expected of you, but you feel anxious about your skills anyway. Developmental imposter syndrome occurs when you have the potential to perform at the level that is expected of you, and you feel anxious about the process of reaching that potential.

Both fear of positive evaluation and fear of negative evaluation can show up in both types of imposter syndromes. We’ll talk about anxiety-driven imposter syndrome and fear of positive evaluation this week and developmental imposter syndrome and fear of negative evaluation next week.

Assuming you have the appropriate skills, fear of positive evaluation can be maintained by the pressure to maintain high performance, by the belief that confidence is synonymous with arrogance and dissonance between your belief about your worthiness and the evidence of positive evaluation. Let’s get curious about these patterns!

Pressure to maintain high performance

As we’ve discussed, consistent high performance (in any area of life) is a paradox. If you fear a lapse in performance, or “failure,” you will likely do things that make it harder to perform consistently over time. If you don’t fear a lapse in performance and embrace wherever you are on any given day, your performance in the long-run will be more consistent and more effective.

If you demand of yourself that all of your chores are done perfectly — or your parenting, or your work, or your friendships — you might have some good days, but those days are likely sporadic and unpredictable. You are really vulnerable to procrastination and intense self-criticism to keep yourself motivated. Procrastination makes you feel far from your values; self-criticism makes you feel apathetic, burnt out, and depressed. You may feel confused about why activities that are consistent with your values stop bringing you meaning and fulfillment and feel like chores. This is likely because of the rigidity of your standards. Review the difference between adaptive and clinical perfectionism here.

Belief that accepting compliments and acting with confidence is synonymous with arrogance 

Sometimes fear of positive evaluation has a scrupulous flair to it. You might believe or be afraid that if you let yourself be confident, you’ll become too cocky or arrogant and that might make you a bad person. You probably believe that other people deserve positive evaluation and compliments, but that you don’t.

We talk in group a lot about the fear that compassion will make you lazy or arrogant, as if by treating yourself with compassion, you are letting yourself off the hook for mistakes. If you believe that you must self-criticize to stay motivated, you will probably also have trouble receiving positive feedback. Paradoxically, it might be hard for you to perform at your best if you avoid evaluation, either positive or negative. To break the vicious cycle, consider trying out compassion, relax into positive feedback, and see what happens to your performance.

It’s okay to feel guilty while you practice this new behavior and you don’t have to do it forever. It’s just an experiment! If you accept positive feedback and turn into a bad person, you can always go back to rejecting positive feedback and go back to being a good person.

Dissonance between feelings of worthlessness and evidence of worthiness

You may have persistent, pervasive beliefs that you are unworthy of care, love, and affection and that your actions in world don’t impact or matter to others. There are all kinds of painful reasons why you may have arrived at this belief. Your beliefs are worth exploring, so that you can come to understand the narrative that lead you to this belief and then work to shift it in every day life.

Positive evaluation will give you dissonance if you believe that you aren’t worthy of it. You have to act as though you are worthy in order to open yourself up to the possibility of positive evaluation. When positive evaluation occurs at first it will be uncomfortable and take work to accept it. Eventually, I hope you are able to enjoy it and then even use it to continue to grow.

Questions for reflection about anxiety-driven imposter syndrome and fear of positive evaluation

Do you struggle between procrastination and perfectionism? What is it like for you to consider beginning a task without demanding that you complete it and complete it perfectly?

Do you believe that accepting compliments and positive feedback will make you too cocky or arrogant? Are there areas of life where you can use positive feedback to become or maintain motivation?

Do you use criticism to stay motivated? What are your beliefs about compassion these days?

Are there ares of your life where you feel worthless? From where do you think the belief that you are worthless began?