The term “imposter syndrome,” coined in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, is when a person believes that he or she is not as smart or talented as others believe, even though he or she has the accomplishments to prove it. People with imposter syndrome suffer from anxiety and a constant feeling of being found out or exposed. This way of thinking usually affects high-achievers, especially lawyers.
Consider this young lawyer’s story:
I am a female lawyer who has won more cases than I have lost. My caseload has consisted of helping people get their homes back, saving victims from domestic violence, and assisting single mothers get the support they need for their children. My superiors tell me that I have accomplished much more than others at this point in my life. Yet, I often feel like I am not the right person for the job. I feel as if I’m not qualified and I wonder when the others in my office are going to find out that I am not that exceptional at my job. My co-workers tell me that they admire my drive and passion for the law, but I find it difficult to celebrate my victories. I don’t believe I am as successful as others think I am. There’s a voice inside of my head that tells me that people are just being nice. I’m not really that successful; I am lucky. Anyone can do this.
We all have self-doubt at times, but if you find imposter syndrome is leading you to high anxiety, depression or other unhealthy feelings, it is important to combat these thoughts. If you don’t learn how to manage your thoughts, you might hold yourself back in your career. Court personnel, clients, superiors and opposing counsel might also sense your self-doubt.
Try some of the following tips that will get your mind moving in the right direction.
Celebrate your achievements
You are a lawyer: You graduated from law school. This is an achievement in itself. The lawyer in the story above helped several clients from despair. She potentially saved lives and helped people get their homes back! This is no small feat: She is doing amazing things for her clients. Make a list of all of your accomplishments and celebrate them. Check with your supervisor or ask your clients what you do well and why they chose you for the job. This will help you see that you are successful.
Talk about it
It is healthy to talk about negative feelings. Perhaps you worked on a successful case with a co-worker, and you see that your co-worker is feeling great because of the victory. If you feel comfortable speaking with this particular co-worker, ask him or her to grab a cup of coffee and have a conversation about your feelings of self-doubt. This does not make you look weak. You are trying to improve yourself and celebrate your victory with him or her. This helps build camaraderie and also helps others in your situation. When lawyers talk about it with each other, it helps other lawyers feel as if they are not alone.
Learn from your mistakes
We all make mistakes…even that one lawyer who you think would never make a mistake. People with imposter syndrome believe that their mistakes define them as frauds, that they will get fired, or that they always make mistakes. This is irrational thinking. If we did not make mistakes, then we wouldn’t learn from them. Maybe you missed a lunch appointment or called your client the wrong name. These are just little reminders to better manage your calendar and to think before you speak.
Challenge your thoughts
We all need a challenge, so try challenging your thoughts. When you find your inner voice telling you that you are not that great at making a presentation, giving a closing argument, writing a brief, etc., think of all the other times when you felt insecure about something but persevered. How about that time you graduated from law school, the time you nailed that deposition, or the time that client hired you? Insecurity defeated!
You are successful
Think about the person who hired you. This person is not irrational. He or she hired you because you are the best person for the job. Try not to doubt those who have hired you, promoted you, praised you, or recommended you. If you were a fraud, then these people would be frauds, too, and you don’t think that’s the case, right?
Believe it or not, successful people are more likely to have imposter syndrome. Think about that! The fact alone that you are having these irrational thoughts most likely means that you are successful.
Also, mull this over. If no one has “found you out” in the past 5 months, 5 years, or 5 decades, why would they now?
By Scott R. Mote, Esq., Executive Director of the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program.
If you are unhappy, depressed, suffering from substance abuse, burnout, or stress, and you believe it is affecting your life, the Ohio Lawyers Assistance Program can provide CONFIDENTIAL help. For more information, go to ohiolap.org or call (800) 348-4343 or (614) 586-0621.