Where’s the Research on Treating Imposter Syndrome?

Where’s the Research on Treating Imposter Syndrome?


When choosing imposter syndrome (also referred to as imposter phenomenon) for an article topic, our intent was to report on common treatments and management tactics as per the medical community. In the investigative process, however, we discovered a disturbing lack of data on treatments, and the efficacy of said treatments. This finding was echoed by a 2019 study (‘Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review’).


Before we start, though-- ‘what’s imposter syndrome’? 


Imposter syndrome was coined in a 1978 peer reviewed medical journal as the anxious belief that one is not as competent, intelligent, or capable as co-workers and peers perceive one to be; to think oneself a fraud, a phony, an imposter. It was initially believed to most affect women in a professional setting, but research has since determined that it’s gender nonspecific, though more common among women, minorities, and students. 


Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review’ does a thorough breakdown of affected populations- if that’s of interest to you, I strongly recommend taking a look at the ‘Participant Characteristics’ section of the study findings. 


OK, back to how there’s next to no hard research on treating imposter syndrome.


Is this lack of treatment research because imposter syndrome is under-diagnosed? Misdiagnosed? That it’s under-reported by sufferers? That its impact on well being is underestimated? (The collated data found that imposter syndrome is likely to cause burn out-- a scary thought for retention in essential fields such as medical care).


The exact ‘why’ on this absence of treatment research is a tricky question to answer, and here’s a huge contributing factor: take a look at this list below. 


  • Self-doubt
  • Self-sabotage
  • Fear of being 'caught out' as disingenuous
  • Distrust of one's intuition
  • Inability to realistically self assess

Is this a list of imposter syndrome symptoms, or common complaints for sufferers of mental illness?


The answer is ‘both’. The overlap between symptoms of imposter syndrome and other mental illness is significant. Not only that, but imposter syndrome often coexists with other psychological issues (such as depression and anxiety), making it very difficult to isolate for the purposes of rigorous study.


Despite the absence of academic data, there’s still hope in tackling imposter syndrome. Thanks to the accessibility of the internet, there are tips and tricks abound on managing and addressing imposter syndrome in widely read publications such as Forbes and NPR


Most of these suggestions revolve around vetted techniques for individual or group cognitive behavioral therapy. Here’s our top three:


  • Own it. Put a name to your imposter syndrome symptoms. Take the time to understand it. Knowledge is power, and knowledge will go a long way in lessening its impact. You’re not alone.
  • Share it. Lean on your support network when you’re feeling fragile. Ask co-workers to validate decision making on topics you’re feeling uncertain about-- they will appreciate that you value their input!
  • Counter it. The benefits of cognitive restructuring is well proven. Our favorite method is journaling, be it hand-written or digital.  Write down your negative thoughts, then actively counter them with a positive reality check. I.E., ‘I have done nothing with my life’ countered with personal and career accomplishments. When those thoughts crop up again, revisit your list. 

While these techniques may not have been researched in treating imposter syndrome specifically, rest assured that the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy on mental health is on rock solid data-driven ground.


Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash.