Say ‘good-bye’ to “imposter syndrome”

By: Robyn Thompson

The term “imposter syndrome” was coined in 1978 and, since then, it’s been used to explain, at least in part, why fewer women than men reach the highest levels of corporate success. 

“If only women had more self-confidence and believed in themselves more, they could become top leaders,” goes the refrain. The subtext is, if women don’t make to the top, that’s on them. 

College professor Pauline Clance developed the concept of “imposter syndrome” based on her own experience of feeling like she had tricked the faculty into granting her a PhD in psychology. Once she started teaching, she recognized the same feelings in her female students, who explained their high marks by saying there must have been an error in grading or they must have fooled the examiner. These comments were so prevalent that Clance and her colleague Suzanne Imes began referring to it as “imposter syndrome”. 

They interviewed more than 150 successful professional women in medicine, law, and academia, many of whom reported feeling like frauds and experiencing chronic anxiety from the fear of being discovered. The research paper and the subsequent book, The Imposter Phenomenon, launched a self-help cottage industry focused on helping women build self-confidence. The concept of “imposter syndrome” has even embedded itself in performance reviews where negative ratings might include comments like “appears to lack confidence” which become barriers to promotions and pay increases.

More recently, research studies have shown “imposter syndrome” is common among both men and women across all ages and professions. People who are susceptible to this feeling also have higher-than-average rates of depression, anxiety, and burnout and lower rates of job satisfaction and job performance. Among employees, “imposter” feelings are associated with fear of failure and fear of success, a tricky combo which hurts career planning. 

Estimates of the prevalence of “imposter syndrome” in the workplace vary widely by research study. However, it’s fair to say that at least some employees in every workplace and at every job level experience it. Employers need to create healthier workplace cultures that do not shame employees for making mistakes—and publicly acknowledge their achievements. This should have a positive effect on reducing workplace anxiety and burnout which is all too common.

Five easy ways to tame your saboteur

  1. Document your achievements—Feeling like an imposter who worries about getting found out often makes us work harder to achieve. Sometimes this can lead to burnout but also to great accomplishments! Take time to acknowledge your successes—big and small. It’s easy to forget how many goals we’ve already reached.
  1. Adopt a growth mindset—Instead of worrying about not having the right skills in a rapidly changing workplace, see it as an opportunity to learn, grow, and be curious. Don’t be afraid to ask for training or coaching or to say, “I don’t understand; please explain it to me.” 
  1. Join the team—Everyone feels like an imposter some of the time. You’re in good company. 
  1. Stop comparing yourself to others—Focus less on others and more on how you can leverage your unique talents. 
  1. Breathe—Make time each day to calm your mind to take a break from overthinking. 

Remember, feeling like an imposter is a normal part of the human experience. It’s not a pathology or a syndrome. To quote RuPaul, “We’re all born naked, and the rest is drag.”

Notes and Disclaimer

The foregoing is for general information purposes only and is the opinion of the writer. Securities mentioned are illustrative only and carry risk of loss. No guarantee of investment performance is made or implied. It is not intended to provide specific personalized advice including, without limitation, investment, financial, legal, accounting or tax advice. Please contact the author to discuss your particular circumstances.

Content copyright © 2023 by Robyn K. Thompson. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint articles by Robyn K. Thompson, is hereby given to all print, broadcast and electronic media provided that the contact information at the end of each article is included in your publication. Organizations publishing articles electronically, a live, clickable link to must also be included with the body of the article.

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Robyn Thompson, CFP, CIM, FCSI, is the founder of Castlemark Wealth Management Inc. and wealth consultant.

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