Tuesday, 22 September 2015
Surviving imposter syndrome as a junior lawyer
You have spent 5 years at law school, another year at College of Law and 2 years on your probational practising certificate. You are a competent and successful junior lawyer and often receive praise for your work. Yet, you can’t quite shake that feeling that you are faking it, you got there by luck, and soon someone will find out that are not as capable/talented/smart as they think. This pattern of thinking is known as “imposter syndrome”.
I am not a psychologist and I am not providing medical advice in this blog post. The purpose of this blog post is to share my experiences to help other junior lawyers identify and overcome imposter syndrome thoughts.
What is Imposter syndrome?
In a nutshell, a person with Imposter syndrome feels inadequate despite significant evidence to the contrary. Others might see you as a successful, competent and smart law student, but you think you are inadequate and are just posing as a successful, competent and smart law student.
Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes were the first to describe the imposter phenomenon in the 1970s. Imposter syndrome is not a diagnosis on the DSM, but has been identified as a very specific form of self-doubt that can be accompanied by other feelings such as anxiety and depression. Imposter syndrome is not an “all or nothing” condition, and junior lawyers can suffer from imposter syndrome in some aspects of their thinking or behaviour and not others.
Examples of thoughts and behaviour common to imposter syndrome:
1. Feeling like a fake
You might feel like you got your graduate job because you managed to fool your interviewer into selecting you, despite the fact that you got the job because you performed well in two rounds of interviews and a written exam. You might also fear that you will be “found out” and kicked out or believe that you give the impression you are more competent than you are. You might question whether you are prepared for your graduate job and worry about the work you might be given.
2. Attributing success to luck or external factors
You might believe it was luck that got you into law school. When you get a D or HD in an exam, you say you “got lucky” or point to something external like the assistance your friend in 5th year gave you. People who find themselves with these thoughts might have significant fear they will not be able to succeed next time they have to complete a similar task.
3. Discounting success
This category includes discounting achievement. For example, if you won a subject prize for Contracts and you say “it wasn’t that important” or “my tutor was an easy marker”.
What causes Imposter syndrome?
The research is mixed on the causes of Imposter syndrome. Clance and Imnes original research identified family dynamics as the main cause. To me, this seems quite Freudian, but I will very briefly outline the Clance and Imnes causes regardless:
1. Family labels
For example, where children within a family are labelled differently, i.e. as “intelligent”, or “sensitive”. The child labelled “sensitive” can be lead to doubt her intelligence, even in the light of evidence to the contrary.
2. Family messages of superiority
For example, where a child is over supported and is led to believe she is superior. Challenges arise which the child may find difficult, leading her to feel deceived by her family and leading to the development of the belief she is average or below average.
3. Focus on achievement
Imes’ original research stated that a focus on achievement can confuse love, approval and self-worth, with self-worth becoming contingent on achievement. A familial focus on achievement can see mixed messages of over-praise and criticism, leading to imposter thoughts developing.
Additionally, being female can increase your chances of imposter syndrome thoughts. Originally in the 1970s, imposter syndrome was considered a female only phenomenon. Subsequent research has shown men also experience imposter syndrome, though “gifted” females are the group most likely to experience imposter syndrome. Other research has shown people from minority groups are also more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome.
Why junior lawyers are particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome
There are several reasons why junior lawyers commonly experience imposter syndrome:
1. Imposter syndrome is commonly associated with high achievers
Undergraduate law courses at top universities tend to attract high achievers.
2. Junior lawyers are embarking on new endeavours
Imes research showed that graduates are particularly susceptible to imposter syndrome as they are often asked to undertake tasks they may believe they are not ready to handle. Practising law is very different from studying law at University, and the challenging nature of the transition can cause imposter thoughts to develop.
3. Imposter syndrome is commonly associated with perfectionist personalities
Perfectionist personalities are abound at law school and in the legal profession. The impostor phenomenon and perfectionism often go hand in hand, leading to the person either procrastinating, as they believe they will never be able to complete the task to high standards or over preparing and spending much more time on the task than is necessary.
4. Female young professionals tend to attribute success to external factors
Attributing success to external factors can be a sign of imposter syndrome. Female professionals are more likely to attribute success to external factors than male colleagues. In Lean In, Women, Work and the Will to Lead (a book everyone should read), Sheryl Sandberg describes how women consistently underestimate themselves and how this pattern has serious long-term consequences. The following quotes were taken from the chapter “Sit at the Table”:
“For women, feeling like a fraud is a symptom of a greater problem. We consistently underestimate ourselves. Multiple studies in multiple industries show that women often judge their own performance as worse than it actually is, while men judge their own performance as better than it actually is.”
“Ask a man to explain his success and he will typically credit his own innate qualities and skills. Ask a woman the same question and she will attribute her success to external factors, insisting she did well because she “worked really hard” or “got lucky” or “had help from others”.
“In situations where a man and a woman each receive negative feedback, the woman’s self confidence and self-esteem drop to a much greater degree. The internalisation of failure and the insecurity it breeds hurt future performance, so this pattern has serious long-term consequences”
How to survive
There are several steps you can take to try and alleviate imposter syndrome thoughts:
1. Identify feelings and automatic thoughts
A first steps is to identify thoughts that are tainted by imposter syndrome. Many of these thoughts are automatic and occur instantly without much thinking. For example, when your boss compliments you on a piece of work, in your head you might be thinking “phew, that was lucky”. This is an automatic thought. If a boss identifies a small error in your work, you might automatically think “I am not smart enough”. Identifying these automatic thoughts can help you gradually change thought patterns.
2. Do your own reality check
Identify whether your thought accords with the objective facts. If you can, try and balance your thoughts. This may not be as easy as you think due to tendency of 20-something brains to retain negative memories more easily than positive memories.
In her thesis “30 is not the new 20: Why your 20s Matter”, Dr Meg Jay describes how the 20-something mind retains negative memories and experiences more strongly than positive experiences. This can be good for learning, as the 20-something mind remembers the negative experience and rarely makes the same mistake twice. However, it can be bad for self-confidence, as if your brain is focusing on the mistakes you have made at work, rather than the numerous times your boss told you they were very happy with your work, you can quickly come to doubt yourself and your ability. This is compounded by the fact junior lawyers make mistakes all the time, so your 20-something brain focuses on these negative experiences.
Acknowledge that you will remember negative feedback from your boss more vividly than positive feedback and then understand the difference between your feelings and reality. While this may sound ridiculous, it can help to keep a list of compliments and positive feedback on your work. When you get a negative piece of feedback you can then look at the objective evidence on your list and see that you are not doing so badly after all. Acknowledge that just because you think you are not smart, does not mean this is the reality.
3. Talk about it
Do not be fooled, that law graduate in the team next door to you who seems to be oozing confidence might suffer from imposter syndrome thoughts too. Often people suffering from imposter syndrome do not talk about it, as they fear being found out. You don’t have to talk to that graduate, but finding someone who has similar thoughts or who has gone through the same process before to talk to may assist. For people experiencing strong imposter feelings of being found out or who are also experiencing anxiety may wish to talk to a psychologist. Being a neutral third party, the person with imposter feelings does not have to fear being found out when talking to a psychologist.
4. Identify your expertise
Identifying your strengths can really help. Even if you are the most junior lawyer at work, you will still have strengths compared to other lawyers. For example, most junior lawyers are the best in their team at legal research and the most up to date in certain areas of law due to the fact they are fresh from law school. If there are more junior staff members, taking on an unofficial mentoring role could also help you, as you can see how far you have come from when you first started in the workforce.
5. Manage your perfectionism
For those with perfectionist traits, acknowledging that perfect is not the goal but “well enough” will do most of the time can help.
Life as a junior lawyer is hard enough without imposter syndrome thoughts. On a day to day basis you will be dealing with new law, new problems and new colleagues. With a bit of effort you can come to enjoy your accomplishments. Enjoying your achievements is important as a junior lawyer, where you will be making mistakes on a daily basis. You need to enjoy whatever small successes you achieve along the way. Feeling fearful and anxious all the time does not have to be normal. For those with mild imposter syndrome, large changes can be seen merely by identifying thoughts and conducting a reality check. You are capable, smart and intelligent. Start believing it.