Seven Top Tips for Working with Imposter Syndrome

Imposter Syndrome is not really a syndrome at all because it’s not recognised by the medical profession as a psychiatric disorder, but it is a term in fairly common use, and can be associated with stress, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem, so it’s relevant to us as therapists if we’re seeing clients with those issues.

So if Imposter Syndrome doesn’t exist, what is it?

Imposter Syndrome is frequently found in ‘high flyers’ and high achievers – those who have done really well in life and shouldn’t, at least on the face of things, have cause to doubt themselves.

Despite very real evidence that they are successful, those with imposter syndrome will feel inadequate and insecure. These feelings lead them to worry that, somehow, their success is not real, but the result of luck or coincidence, and that therefore the credit given to them by others is undeserved. Some people feel that, through this luck or coincidence, they have inadvertently deceived others into thinking that they are better at life than they are. All live in constant dread that one day ‘the truth will out’ and they’ll be discovered and shunned by friends, relatives or colleagues who will realise that the whole fa├žade was a fraud.

Who suffers from Imposter Syndrome?

It’s thought that 70% of us will experience Imposter Syndrome at some point in our lives. Valerie Young [1], basing her ideas on the work of psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, PhD, and Suzanne Imes, PhD, says that there are five main ‘competence patterns’ which can lead to this feeling:

  1. The Perfectionist, who sets excessively high goals for themselves, then worry if they don’t achieve them – they are rarely happy with success because they always believe they could have done better.
  2. The Superwoman/man, who overloads themselves in an effort to match up to friends and colleagues, who they see as much more effective and skilled than themselves
  3. The Natural Genius, a talented or intelligent person who often excels without much effort and therefore believes that if you have to work at something, you can’t be very good at it. Since they expect to get things right the first time, every time, they constantly feel like a failure if they can’t 
  4. The Rugged Individualist, who feels that asking for help indicates weakness, so they have to achieve everything alone.
  5. The Expert, who feels that because they are recognized as having some knowledge in an area, they should know everything about it. The expert will constantly attempt to shore up their knowledge base and is particularly vulnerable to the fear of ‘being found out’.

Many writers see Imposter Syndrome as mostly based on work and career issues but it can also be about being a good parent, partner, sibling, son or daughter, or even a good person generally.

Have you got imposter syndrome?

Do you recognize yourself in Young’s list? You can complete a questionnaire HERE 

You could also ask clients to complete it or, with a bit of research, construct your own questionnaire to give them.

Effective steps to defeating Imposter Syndrome

Whether you see Imposter Syndrome in yourself or your clients there are ways to combat it. Exactly how you work with this issue will depend on what type of therapies you offer – hypnotherapy, counselling, psychotherapy, or coaching for example. But I’ve included some ideas.

  1. What patterns do the doubts have – are they there all of the time, some of the time, only in specific circumstances? Do they get more or less intrusive at times? Use diaries, notebooks, or SUD scales with your clients to pin this down.
  2. What thoughts come with the doubts – be as specific as possible. Diaries or notebooks can be useful, and I like to ask ‘when you ‘hear’ those doubts in your head, do you recognize the voice that says them?’ If they do, it can give you ideas about where to take the therapy. And even if they don’t you can try asking the client to imagine it as another voice – one they couldn’t take seriously, like Donald Duck on helium gas. 
  3. What feelings come with the doubts? Where are they in your body? What name would you put to those feelings – fear, doubt, sadness, anxiety, depression or something else? (I’ve suggested a few ideas here, as examples only. Use clean language with your clients to find out what it is for them.) You will have techniques of your own to deal with whatever feelings the client identifies.
  4. Identify what the cause of the doubts is. Be as specific as possible. Is it a comment someone made, a new job title – what thoughts are involved? Any therapy techniques you know for identifying the source of negative thinking will help here, including parts work or regression.
  5. Challenge the doubts using any techniques you would use with other types of anxiety or negative thinking. 
  6. Help to identify and reduce whatever unreasonable demands the client is making on themselves, (it’s fine to shoot for excellence but perfect is rarely achievable), boost confidence and self-esteem, alleviate depression and anxiety.
  7. Help the client to focus on more positive thinking, and to recognize their own accomplishments. Point out that Imposter Syndrome is a sign of success – otherwise, they would have nothing to feel they have deceived people about. Ask them to make a list of five things they do well, or that they like about themselves, and start there.

[1] Young, Valerie. (2011). The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It Crown Business: United States.


Author: is an experienced hypnotherapist and hypnotherapy trainer. She is the author of Their Worlds, Your Words and has co-written the Hypnotherapy Handbook, both of which are available from Amazon.
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