Is Imposter Syndrome Real? What is it?

Imposter Syndrome

How to Know if you Have Imposter Syndrome

According to the researchers who originally identified it, impostor syndrome involves: 

  • Feeling like a fraud
  • Fear of being exposed as a fraud
  • Thinking you’ve somehow fooled other people into thinking you are more competent than you are

Even though there’s evidence that you are competent (e.g., awards, promotions). This is the most common way to understand the phenomenon, but it’s also common to characterize impostor syndrome as an inability to internalize your accomplishments because of a tendency to attribute your successes to external factors (like luck) and your failures to internal factors (like incompetence).

Funnily enough, impostor syndrome is not actually classified as a syndrome in the world of clinical psychology, because it does not appear in the DSM-5-TR (a comprehensive classification system used by mental health professionals to diagnose and categorize mental disorders). Given its absence from this authoritative manual, it’s technically more accurate to refer to this experience as ‘impostor phenomenon‘, which is the term preferred by academic researchers. However, since this article is for a general audience who are likely to know it as ‘impostor syndrome’, that’s the phrase we’ll use.

There are tons and tons of pop articles claiming to tell you how to overcome impostor syndrome (for instance, see here or here). But, if you look for sources and citations in articles like those, you will find that their advice does not come from robust studies published in academic journals. It’s often just guesswork. That’s how this article is different: we’re providing you only the evidence from peer-reviewed academic articles to help you understand what’s known about imposter syndrome. 

Of course, this was done with the help of Consensus.

Disclaimer: We are not mental health professionals but enthusiasts dedicated to exploring psychological phenomena through research.

Impostor Syndrome Interventions That Aren’t Bulls–t

Impostor Syndrome Interventions with Strong Evidence:

Unfortunately, there are currently no interventions with strong evidence in their favor. This is because, despite the fact that impostor syndrome has been known about since the 1970s and people have been suggesting interventions to treat it since then, no interventions had actually been tested as late as 2019. Since then, there have been many studies published, investigating various interventions, but almost all of those studies contain at least one of the following limitations (most contain several):

  • They only test the size of the effect of the intervention directly after the intervention, or (in a small number of cases) mere weeks later. This means we cannot be confident that these studies are finding long-lasting effects.
  • They contain only very small sample sizes.
  • Some contain no control group, so it is difficult to know whether the observed effects are due to the intervention itself or other unrelated factors, such as natural fluctuations in the condition, placebo effects, or external influences not accounted for in the study design.

Meta-analyses are papers that combine the results of multiple studies to identify patterns, discrepancies, or the overall effectiveness of interventions. At the time of writing, there are no meta-analyses published on the topic of imposter syndrome interventions. Similarly, systematic reviews are papers that methodically gather and critically evaluate all relevant research on a particular topic to synthesize findings and draw conclusions. While systematic reviews for impostor syndrome interventions exist, they were conducted too early to include any of the vast majority of intervention studies that have now taken place. 

Fortunately, there are two notable scoping reviews: this one (which has been published) and this one (which has not yet been published). Scoping reviews are often undertaken when a topic is complex or has not been comprehensively reviewed before. Unlike systematic reviews, which typically address narrowly defined research questions with strict methodological criteria, scoping reviews have broader questions and a more exploratory approach.

Impostor Syndrome Interventions with Emerging Evidence:

Evidence for the following interventions looks promising, but we can’t yet have a great deal of confidence in their effectiveness.

Imposter Syndrome Interactive Workshops

This is the most-studied intervention in the published literature and it is the subject of the only published scoping review (at time of writing). However, no two workshops that have been studied are exactly alike – they are very diverse in their content, audience, and delivery. For instance, one involves cognitive processing therapy worksheets, while another involves a TED talk, and another involves improvisational theater techniques.

However, despite their varied nature, most of the different workshops appear to have positive effects (either on impostor syndrome scores, or in the subjective evaluations of participants). This might be because there are a bunch of different good ways to run a workshop, but it might also be due to some things they all have in common: they all commit time to conveying information about the concept of impostor syndrome and time for small group discussion with peers (many of whom are also experiencing impostor syndrome). We cannot be confident about the effects of the diverse elements of these workshops, some of which are mentioned above, that are not shared in common.

Key paper: “Educational interventions for imposter phenomenon in healthcare: a scoping review”

Imposter Syndrome Recovery Coaching

There is some evidence that, in general (beyond impostor syndrome), educational programs are not as effective as facilitative/coaching programs. This means we have some theoretical reason to think that there could be more effective programs than simple educational workshops with small group discussions (like the ones discussed above). However, in the case of imposter syndrome, such coaching programs have not been as well-studied as workshops. Only one study has put this to the test, but it did have good results. 

Coaching involves two roles (coach and client) and involves collaborative effort between them, to set goals that meet the client’s needs. Coaching typically also involves monitoring and evaluating whatever action is needed to achieve those goals. For imposter syndrome, coaches focus on reducing negative

aspects, like the tendency to hide errors and the fear of negative evaluation, as well as improving things like growth mindset (the belief that abilities and intelligence are not fixed and can be developed).

This study found that coaching and training were both better at reducing impostor syndrome scores than no intervention at all, but coaching was better than training (though, training produced more knowledge of the phenomenon). This effect persisted at least until the follow-up evaluations, 5 weeks after the intervention. Interestingly, this study found that training produced all of its effect during the intervention period, whereas the impostor syndrome scores of people who were in the coaching group kept falling after the intervention was over; even after they had completed their coaching, their scores kept going down in the 5 weeks that followed.

Key paper: ”’Overcoming the Fear That Haunts Your Success’ – The Effectiveness of Interventions for Reducing the Impostor Phenomenon”

Imposter Syndrome Self-Compassion Exercises:

A couple of studies have investigated the effects of self-compassion exercises such as self-compassionate letter writing on impostor syndrome and found them to be effective interventions. The best of these studies is this one, which found a significant treatment effect of a 45-minute online self-compassion tool once a week, for 4 weeks. This effect persisted until at least the one-week follow up.

Key paper: ”Effects of a Brief Self-Compassion Intervention for College Students With Impostor Phenomenon”

Imposter Syndrome Interventions with weak evidence:

When we say that the evidence for these is ‘weak’, we’re not saying that there is reason to doubt them or that there is evidence against them. We mean that there is evidence in favor of these interventions but that evidence is not especially strong.

We mostly have theoretical reasons to think that these might work, but current studies either (i) do not test these theories, or (ii) test these theories but not robustly enough to consider this ‘emerging evidence’.

  • Institutional interventions such as diversity and inclusion initiatives, educating supervisors, support networks, access to therapy, and resilience training
  • Treatments (such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)) for comorbidities such as anxiety, depression, perfectionism, and procrastination.

Imposter Syndrome Institutional interventions

An orthodox view in the literature is that facts about the institution one works in are likely to affect the amount of impostor syndrome one experiences. So, for instance, an institution with a culture of acknowledging impostor syndrome, where supervisors are trained to deal with it, and employees have access to peer-support networks and things like therapy or resilience training, is more likely to be an institution with a lower rate of impostor syndrome in its workers than an otherwise-identical institution that does not have those things. This view is derived from a few things:

  1. Analysis of the concept of impostor syndrome (see also here)
  2. Literature that shows correlation between impostor syndrome and institutional features such as organizational support, role ambiguity, and receipt of mentoring
  3. Literature that shows correlation between impostor feelings and poor job performance, lower job satisfaction, and burnout

Key paper: “What Is Impostor Syndrome?”

Imposter Syndrome Treatments for comorbidities

The fact that no interventions for impostor syndrome had been tested until 2019 means that we have very limited data about what works. In 2020, Bravata et al. noticed this and recommended that mental health professionals attempt to treat impostor syndrome by using “evidence-based treatments for comorbid conditions such as cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and anxiety”. The fact that these conditions are comorbid with impostor syndrome is some evidence that treating them will have an effect on impostor syndrome.

Why is it evidence of that? Well, conditions like depression and anxiety often share some common symptoms (and perhaps some underlying mechanisms) with impostor syndrome, such as negative thought patterns, low self-esteem, and excessive worry. Treating these overlapping symptoms in depression and anxiety might, therefore, indirectly address some aspects of impostor syndrome. 

However, some caution is needed: While treating comorbid conditions might alleviate some symptoms related to impostor syndrome, it may not address the core beliefs and experiences specific to impostor syndrome, such as feelings of being a fraud or fearing being exposed as incompetent. These feelings might require more targeted interventions.

Ultimately, the effectiveness of treating comorbid conditions as a way to alleviate impostor syndrome needs more empirical investigation. While the comorbidity provides a plausible basis for the approach, without direct evidence of effectiveness in treating impostor syndrome, this remains just a hypothesis.

Key paper:  ”Prevalence, Predictors, and Treatment of Impostor Syndrome: a Systematic Review”This piece was written in collaboration with, a not-for-profit project that aims to improve people’s lives through research-backed tools, such as The Ultimate Personality Test, the Rationality Test, and many others.


This piece was written in collaboration with, a not-for-profit project that aims to improve people’s lives through research-backed tools, such as The Ultimate Personality Test, the Rationality Test, and many others

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