What is impostor syndrome?

‘Impostor Syndrome’. You have heard about it – but what is it?

Impostor Syndrome words

You have seen it in social media posts, newspaper articles, event announcements. You have heard a group of colleagues casually drop it into conversation. You have heard jokes about it. But actually - what is impostor syndrome?

Good question! What the heck do these 2 words mean?

The problem is you feel you should know now everyone else seems to! Asking might make you look stupid.

Oh – guess what – that is a symptom of impostor syndrome!

Let’s scrap the ‘in the know’ elitism – let’s make this a thing we can ask about, question, disagree with, give new perspectives on.

Sol let’s get back to basics.

  • Who came up with the term?
  • Is there a simple definition?
  • Do certain types of people get it?
  • Is it a curable condition?

Who came up with the term?

The term ‘impostor syndrome’ morphed from the original term ‘impostor phenomenon’ (easier to say?) ‘impostor phenomenon’ was first used as a term in and article written in 1978 - "The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. You can download a PDF of this research here.

Pauline Clance has since said that she would rather use the word ‘experience’ – and I always underline the word ‘feeling’.  In other words – don’t get too invested in the words! If you hear someone chucking the term out lazily – you will not look stupid if you want to dig a little deeper.

Is there a simple definition?

I am going to offer you 2 – one is more ‘rambling and poetic’ (that is mine).

My definition

A nagging feeling of self-doubt that feels real but does not stand up to scrutiny. A feeling that you are on the outside looking in but ‘they’ all have the right to be there. A feeling that if you do not work very hard at being loved, clever and perfect – you will be thrown out into the wilderness by a jeering crowd of haters who have discovered just how useless, bad (or both) you ‘really’ are. A feeling that when people do praise you they are going to regret it as soon as you leave the room or put the phone down - they will feel conned. A pervasive feeling of surviving rather than thriving.

A more ‘formal’ definition

Clance and Imes described it as ‘an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness.’ They argued that it stemmed from factors such as: ‘gender stereotypes, early family dynamics, culture, and attribution style.’  Their research pointed to the following symptoms (in women): ‘depression, generalized anxiety, and low self-confidence.’

However – since this research, impostor syndrome has been recognised as a human thing – not just a ‘woman thing’.

It is possible that the way men and women respond and share has led to a sense that it is a more female issue.

Trust me, I have had plenty of men with light bulbs going off when I have been giving talks or running workshops!

Do certain types of people get it?

Yes – human people.

Perhaps the most indispensable thing we can do as human beings, every day of our lives, is remind ourselves, and others, of our complexity, fragility, finiteness, and uniqueness.  

Antonio Damasio. Descartes' Error. 

Seriously – I am not being flippant. It is a human condition. It is not all bad either. The self-doubt can be a driver in a good way. The self-doubt can be part of a healthy level of self-awareness and questioning.

There might be factors that increase the level of impostor syndrome feelings of course. Factors such as:

  • Childhood, growing up baggage
  • Fixed ideas /assumptions – culture, background, defaults.
  • Being in a ‘misaligned’ job – values clash
  • Being in a minority – gender, nationality, ethnicity, demographic, appearance…..
  • Perfectionism traits

Is it a curable condition?



The thing is – it is not an illness, disease… it can’t be removed surgically or treated with anti-biotics.

Elements of impostor syndrome shouldn’t be cured! Like I said – it is a human condition. You want to remain human.

However, there is something proactive you can you do if it becomes a joy-sapping part of your world.

You can learn how to manage it.


Getting to know more about the various symptoms, consequences, triggers… sharing with others… using the ‘pause’ button in your feeling/doing process.

I just wanted to help with the the knowledge bit in this article – stick with me and you will get plenty of sharing and tactics.

I help individuals communicate with confidence, clarity, engagement and purpose. Bespoke coaching for business owners and Individuals within organisations.

Working 1:2:1 over a period of time for embedded learning with tangible results.

Connect on LinkedIn - I look forward to getting to know you.

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Trisha Lewis

I help people become more effective communicators through the kind of coaching that offers a safe space to explore and rehearse and better understand the impact they have. My blog is full of insights and tactics that will help you break down the barriers that prevent you from being a truly effective communicator. These insights are based on my own experience as well as the issues raised during coaching sessions and workshops.