Illustration by Anjali Kamat for 1 Finance Magazine

Call it a bias, a pattern or a habit, but at its most basic level, imposter syndrome is the feeling of being undeserving of your accomplishments and achievements. It’s something that can affect you at any point in your life — especially in your career. 

It doesn’t just affect how you see yourself, but also your wallet. Financial imposter syndrome often comes up when a person begins earning well and becomes financially successful, and yet, feels unworthy of it.

“Imposter syndrome erodes your confidence. As an employee, this can affect the role you are willing to take up, or your negotiation skills and your pay and benefits. Those who have had a financially tough upbringing will be unable to spend money even when they finally have enough of it — they will believe it is too expensive or that they may fall short of money again,” says Anand Doctor, a financial advisor who is part of the 1 Finance Advisory Committee for Qualified Financial Advisors — Mumbai Chapter. “It is easier to tell someone to save money than to spend it.”

There are other ways in which imposter syndrome could cost you financially. If someone wants to start their own business or a side hustle but is constantly second-guessing themself and doubting their abilities, they may not work as hard, or give up easily. Beyond careers, people may hesitate to be proactive about investing their money because it may feel too complicated, or due to the regret of past mistakes. They may not set ambitious financial goals, or might downplay their success to themselves and others. Some may believe money is bad or that they don’t deserve to be financially successful because many others are still struggling with money. “These people are not comfortable spending and don’t believe they have adequate financial resources or earning abilities,” says Doctor. 

Imposter syndrome can also keep people from fulfilling their financial potential. “If they’ve been unsuccessful at applying for jobs, they won’t apply at all. If they get a job, they will underquote and won’t negotiate for salaries, undersell themselves or accept mediocre appraisals. If they don’t value their work, they will get thrown around by clients or bosses and waste hours doing revisions,” says Paras Sharma, a counsellor and Director — Programmes and Services at mental health services organisation, The Alternative Story. “All these can lead to some financial loss.” 

The first step to dealing with imposter syndrome is understanding that it is quite common. Michelle Obama, Sheryl Sandberg, Tom Hanks and Serena Williams have all spoken about it. A Harvard Business Review article in 2015 asked CEOs their most deep-seated fears, and the top one was “being found to be incompetent”. In the Indian context, a study by LinkedIn in 2022 found that 63% of Indian employees suffer from imposter syndrome, with at least 71% of the employees surveyed saying they question their capabilities — as reported by Mint. A KPMG study from 2020 found that as many as 75% of 700 women executives experienced imposter syndrome at some point in their careers. 

Interestingly, Doctor says there are certain positives to having imposter syndrome, but they are short term. “Because you are afraid of losing money, you won’t overspend. If you’ve taken a loan, you will ensure that you pay it sooner so that you do not have that liability over your head, which is a better financial decision,” he says. “You’re living the same lifestyle you are used to, so you don’t end up making drastic [monetary] changes or deal with the stress of learning new things.”

The cost of imposter syndrome, however, is long term. Sharma says to look for tell-tale signs like the inability to set boundaries at work or home. “If you feel like an imposter in most areas in your life, then understand it is not a personality quirk, but is usually closely correlated to having anxiety or depression, or is a mental block,” he says, adding that it would be advisable to seek out your company’s employee assistance programme (if it exists), or seek professional help. In the workspace, finding a mentor who can guide your career growth and offer a new perspective would be helpful.  

If you know you have imposter syndrome, what can you do about it? 

“Everyone faces insecurity at some point in their life, so just talk about it,” says Doctor. “When it comes to finances, idle talk is not enough. What you need is data, and to build some financial skills, for which you could take the help of a professional like a financial planner. They will help you make the right decisions, and once you know your money is being taken care of, that clarity will give you mental security.” Building healthy financial habits also helps: creating a monthly budget, setting up an emergency fund, creating a safety net with adequate insurance policies, investing surplus money, and more. 

The goal is to ensure that imposter syndrome doesn’t control your future, or your finances. 

Joanna Lobo is a freelance writer from Goa who specialises in writing about travel, food, culture, lifestyle, and all things Goan.

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