Have you ever felt like a fraud or imposter at work, in school, or at college? Have you felt as though you weren’t doing enough, weren’t smart enough, or weren’t deserving of the accolades and awards you had been given? Do you tend to doubt your abilities even though others speak highly of you and your achievements?

If you answered yes to any or all of the above questions, you may be suffering from a condition called “imposter syndrome.” This is a term used to describe the psychological phenomenon that occurs in some high-achieving individuals, where the person tends to doubt their abilities and achievements despite their objective success. In addition, individuals who suffer from this condition often have an underlying fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter, hence the name “imposter syndrome.” The term was first used in the late 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, and has become increasingly popular over the years – making its presence felt in more and more conversations surrounding mental health today. 

In this blogpost, we take a deeper look at the diagnosis and treatment options available to people who have imposter syndrome, and how its co-morbidity with other mental health disorders can have implications for these processes. 

Diagnosis: Finding out whether you have imposter syndrome

People who have imposter syndrome generally feel as though they are the only ones experiencing the self-deprecating thoughts and feelings typical of the syndrome. They are therefore unlikely to tell others about it, especially if they have never heard about the condition before. This makes it extremely difficult not only to get a diagnosis for imposter syndrome, but also to gage what percentage of the general population suffers from it. To make things even more complicated, imposter syndrome is not yet recognised as an official mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V), nor is it listed in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10). 

Without official classification or select criteria for the diagnosis of imposter syndrome, clinicians and mental health workers may have difficulty giving clients an official diagnosis for it. Some may even overlook the possibility of imposter syndrome altogether and diagnose clients with other mental health conditions that present with similar symptoms. Some of the most common mental health conditions with which imposter syndrome tends to be co-morbid include depression, anxiety, and burnout*. To ensure that clients receive the correct diagnosis, clinicians should be encouraged to screen for these conditions too when they are approached by individuals who suspect that they might have imposter syndrome. In much the same way, clinicians should also screen for imposter syndrome among clients who have anxiety, burnout, or depression – especially if their symptoms appear to be aggravated in professional or occupational settings. 

So, what are the signs to look out for if you suspect that you may have imposter syndrome? Here are some of the most notable symptoms:

  • Difficulty internalising your accomplishments 
  • Experiencing feelings of self-doubt often or all the time
  • Continuously questioning your professional legitimacy (i.e., feeling like a fraud or imposter at your institution or organisation)
  • Aggressively pursuing achievement but hesitating to accept recognition when success is achieved
  • Viewing setbacks as proof of inadequacy
  • Attributing your success to external factors like luck or help from others
  • Feeling like you’re not performing enough despite your objective success and praise from others
  • Having feelings of guilt when receiving acclaim, status, or promotion above peers
  • Feeling alone or like you’re the only one who thinks and feels this way

Although the symptoms listed above for imposter syndrome can be clearly distinguished from those which would typically be identified in anxiety and/or depression, the overlap typically lies in the additional symptoms (i.e., that of either of depression and/or anxiety) that result from the imposter syndrome. If you suspect that you may have imposter syndrome, it’s important to mention this to your mental health practitioner so that they can develop the most suitable treatment plan for you and your specific symptomology.  

Treatment

Because individuals with imposter syndrome tend to think they are alone in what they are facing, they may delay any attempts to seek out support or professional advice. In some cases, those who struggle with the condition may become increasingly isolated or lonely over time as they grapple with their symptoms on their own. An ideal intervention for someone with imposter syndrome would, therefore, be group therapy sessions or focus groups. Attending sessions with others that are having similar thoughts, feelings, and experiences can be a great source of comfort, and is recommended for anyone struggling with imposter syndrome. 

Apart from group therapy, one-on-one therapy is also a great tool for addressing the negative thought patterns that are characteristic of imposter syndrome. There are many different psychotherapy techniques used in practice today, but because imposter syndrome tends to be comorbid with depression and anxiety, clinicians should aim to deliver evidence-based therapies for these particular disorders. This will, in turn, help to alleviate some of the symptoms of their imposter syndrome too.  

Existing literature lacks consensus over evidence-based treatments for patients with imposter syndrome. It is therefore important, in the interim, that mental health professionals, educators, and employers educate themselves about the condition so that they can take active steps towards minimising the psychological impact of this condition on the general population.   

Reflections

Imposter syndrome may be more common than we think, but whether or not that’s true, the most impactful thing we can do as a society is to create awareness of it within our organisations and communities. It may not yet be regarded with the same level of seriousness or urgency as the other mental health disorders with which it is co-morbid, but it should be recognised as a condition that significantly impacts mental health. By starting conversations around the topic, we can spread awareness about imposter syndrome and allow those suffering from it the opportunity not only to explore and understand it, but also to reach out and get the support they need. 

*Unlike anxiety and depression, burnout is not listed as a mental health disorder in the current classification systems/manuals (i.e., the DSM-V and ICD-10)