Imposter Syndrome: How Might Therapy Help?

What is imposter syndrome

Not many people know about imposter syndrome. Yet, those who experience it, even if they lack knowledge about it, know all too well how devastating it can be. In these cases, therapy may provide a path to managing and overcoming the issue.

Imposter Syndrome: What It Is and How Prevalent Is It

If you feel like an imposter, therapy may be beneficial for coping with the feelings associated with the syndrome—but what is imposter syndrome, and how many people have it?

Imposter syndrome is also known as “perceived fraudulence.” Everyone is familiar with fraud, which is a criminal act deliberately perpetrated. Fraudulent feelings, however, are not physical acts but emotional and psychological. Another way to think of it is feeling like a fake. You don’t believe you’re proficient, no matter how much education or experience you have.

This is an internal feeling. Others don’t view you this way. Instead, they see you as the valued contributor you are. Only you feel like an imposter.

Imposter syndrome is surprisingly common, often affecting high-achieving individuals the most. 25-30 percent of high achievers reportedly suffer from it, and as many as 70 percent of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once in their lives.

Imposter Syndrome Definition

In brief, imposter syndrome means you are emotionally unable to cope with your success. Instead, you feel like a fraud and worry that you’ll be exposed as the fraudulent person you believe you are. Yet, how can someone highly accomplished, skilled in task abilities, with appropriate credentials and enough experience be a fraud or an imposter?

Researchers coined the term “imposter phenomenon” in 1978 to describe “an internal experience of intellectual phoniness that appears to be particularly prevalent and intense among a select sample of high-achieving women.” Despite their excellent professional and academic achievements, women experiencing imposter syndrome believe they’re not that intelligent and that they’ve been fooling everyone.

However, imposter syndrome is not recognized as a psychiatric disorder. It is not included in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or listed as a diagnosable condition in the tenth edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10).

Prevalence of Imposter Syndrome

It isn’t only high-achieving women who may experience the imposter phenomenon. Many highly successful leaders (men and women) can struggle with it and lack ways of coping with imposter feelings.

Research shows that imposter syndrome prevalence rates vary widely (9 to 82 percent) and depend primarily on the screening tool/cutoff for assessing symptoms. Researchers note that the syndrome is significantly high in ethnic minority groups. It is now common in men and women in age groups ranging from adolescents to senior professionals.

Compounding the challenge of identifying those experiencing imposter syndrome is the reluctance of high-achieving individuals to seek help in overcoming it. It is likely that many more individuals struggle with imposter syndrome than is currently known.

Understanding the Psychological Roots of Imposter Syndrome

Consider how challenging it can be to feel like your life is out of control. You know something is wrong but cannot pinpoint precisely what’s causing the distress. The fact that imposter syndrome is not a psychiatric disorder can make identifying it challenging. It often co-occurs with anxiety and depression.

Imposter Syndrome Signs

What are the signs someone is experiencing imposter syndrome? Since the imposter phenomenon has deep psychological roots, the signs may not be immediately detected. In general, someone who experiences imposter syndrome:

  • Feels like a fraud.
  • Constantly experiences self-doubt.
  • Worries about being found out and their fraudulence discovered.
  • They must work harder and longer to prove themselves and their abilities to compensate.
  • Burnout is common.

If you look at a company’s high achievers, they’re likely to be the ones who arrive before anyone else and leave long after others have gone home. They take on extra work even if they’re already overwhelmed. Nothing is too much to accept. Instead, they’ll say they’ve got time and are eager to take on more.

Yet, this only exacerbates the problem. They work to exhaustion yet don’t dare complain or ask for help. Perfectionists, inherently high achievers, are at risk for developing imposter syndrome. With perfectionism, you’re only as good as your last success. Others may find out you lack credentials, gloss over important details, cover up mistakes, or outright fail. This isn’t true, but that doesn’t mitigate the feelings of being a fraud.

Consequences of Imposter Syndrome

For someone convinced they’re a fraud, even contemplating asking for a promotion or seeking advancement is out of the question.

  • Women and minorities are especially prone to reluctance to pursue higher positions themselves due to self-perceptions of fraud.
  • They’re also hesitant to negotiate for a pay raise.
  • Feeling like a fraud can lead to remaining in a job rather than seeking a better job elsewhere.

Another consequence of imposter syndrome is how it can sabotage relationships. How can someone who feels inadequate and fraudulent genuinely connect with colleagues? They fear they may be more likely to be discovered as frauds if they reveal themselves.

Therapy for Imposter Phenomenon: How It Can Address Imposter Syndrome

Therapeutic techniques for building self-esteem and overcoming self-doubt are crucial during therapy for imposter phenomenon.

Coping with imposter feelings can be confusing. When you can’t readily identify the causes and don’t know what can help alleviate them, imposter feelings can also be overwhelming. Effective imposter syndrome therapy may provide the best way to address and cope with them before they do more damage.

What Therapy for Imposter Phenomenon Might Include

Literature reviews do not present an evaluation of specific treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to manage imposter symptoms. Yet, many private practice therapists highly recommend the following:

  • Validating the individual’s fears and doubts.
  • Addressing fear of failure directly.
  • Providing group therapy to help the individual who feels isolated and alone in their experience.

Other treatment recommendations include the advice to:

  • Embrace authenticity.
  • Compare notes with others (mentors and peers) about their shared imposter syndrome feelings.
  • Reframe thought patterns and processes that affirm fraudulent feelings.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome: How Therapy Can Help

What exactly can therapy do to help in overcoming imposter syndrome? For one, therapy helps empower individuals. While counseling may be targeted primarily at another mental health disorder, like depression, anxiety, or even substance and alcohol use disorder, overcoming and coping with imposter feelings can also be substantially helped.

Psychotherapy for Imposter Syndrome

Individuals who feel inadequate, anxious, depressed, and burned out can find relief through psychotherapy for their imposter syndrome. The trained professionals can help the individual work through their perceived inadequacies using cognitive behavioral therapy and other approaches.

Therapy can help individuals:

  • Learn how to gather information before making decisions. This helps dispel cognitive distortions contributing to imposter syndrome feelings.
  • Talk about what they’re feeling. Sharing such experiences can mitigate loneliness. It can also help them address their insecurities in a safe environment.
  • Celebrate their accomplishments instead of dismissing them as unimportant.
  • Learn to be comfortable being good enough instead of striving to be perfect.
  • Use mindfulness to become more self-aware. This technique can also help people recognize their fears and reassure themselves that they are okay as they are.
  • Find the learning moments in sharing failures. If the same things happen to others, there’s commonality. Healing can be sparked.
  • Accept that imposter feelings may return — but you can effectively cope.

Group Therapy for Imposter Phenomenon

Group therapy permits individuals to discuss their feelings of self-doubt and failure with their peers or coworkers. Why is this Important? When someone feels overwhelmed from feeling like a fraud, they perceive that they’re the only one going through this experience. While feeling alone contributes to further isolation, talking through shared experiences can destigmatize and normalize them.

Other Ways Therapy Can Contribute to Healing

Another way therapy can help is by offering resilience training. Such training is believed to potentially reduce the prevalence of imposter syndrome in employee populations.

Overcoming imposter syndrome takes time, just as overcoming any mental health disorder (anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, PTSD) requires sufficient time, learning effective coping mechanisms, and practicing good self-care. Imposter syndrome therapy can help individuals understand and process what they’re going through and assist them in creating healthier behaviors.

How to Get Help

Professional counseling may provide the necessary turning point if you struggle with perceptions of being a fraud and feel burned out in your career. Contact our experts at Restore-Mental Health to learn more about our programs to treat anxiety, depression, PTSD, and other mental health conditions. Call us today.