Getting Over Imposter Syndrome

Since graduating from law school, I’ve occasionally (okay, frequently) found myself suffering bouts of imposter syndrome. Episodes are usually triggered by starting a new position and finding myself surrounded by a new set of inspiring and awesome colleagues. Primary symptoms? An overwhelming fear that others will discover I have no idea what I’m doing and that I don’t fit in. When these feelings strike, it’s time to smash them with your internal whac-a-mole hammer.

You’re only concerned because you’re competent

If you suffer from imposter syndrome, take heart. Imposter syndrome is primarily associated with high achieving, successful people. Indeed, new cognitive research indicates that it’s competent people who worry about their performance. Incompetent people don’t believe they are incompetent. As Bertrand Russell said, “[o]ne of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”  Assure yourself that your feelings of incompetence stem from your keen sense of self-awareness. 

Distinguish lack of experience from lack of ability

As a new lawyer it’s expected that you won’t know how to do things. This doesn’t mean that you’re incompetent, it means you’re a newer lawyer. The trick is to be the most competent newer lawyer possible. During my 1L summer, I worked for the ACLU in Baltimore. During an assignment meeting, I dutifully took notes and wrote that I was to write a “motion in lemonade.” When I got back to my computer, however, I Googled “motion in lemonade,” found examples, figured out what the heck I was supposed to do, and knocked out a decent first draft. Instead of viewing this story as indicative of my failure to learn about motions in limine during my first year, I choose to view this story as an ode to my Google skills and ingenuity. (Of course a truly competent person may have just asked the assigning lawyer for sample motions in limine instead of first turning to google. What can I say? Google never judges me.)

Women more likely to suffer

Research indicates that women are more likely to suffer imposter syndrome than men. Usually, once I hear something like this, I feel it is my duty as a woman to kick my insecurities to the curb. Men are less likely to suffer imposter syndrome? Well then I can’t let it get me down. If you’re similarly motivated by a little gender competition, this factoid might give you some peace as well.

Make Friends

Whenever I start a new job, I initially feel a tremendous sense of loneliness. I’ve found myself thinking, “if I got meningitis and died today, nobody would really care, I’d just be the new girl that didn’t make it.” Loneliness and imposter syndrome feed off each other. If you’re alone, your feelings of incompetence can burgeon without a friend to call you on your navel gazing.

This is only one of the many reasons why it’s imperative to connect with people at your office. I always think that you’ll know you’re on the right track the first time someone shares office gossip with you (not mean gossip, of course, fun and harmless gossip). That’s a sure sign that you’re no longer alone in the world and someone might care if you caught meningitis. 

Your friends can distract you from your imposter syndrome, assure you that you’re crazy, and even share their own stories of self-doubt. Solo practitioners that I know call fellow solos to chat for this very reason. 

The bottom line is that a little self-doubt can be helpful and even motivating.  When I wake up in the morning thinking about items that I need to tackle, I sometimes feel anxious, but also energized and determined. The problem, of course, is when the anxious feelings start to torture you or undermine your happiness. Then it’s time to conquer your inner vampires.             

(photo: Young businessman taking off a mask from Shutterstock)

  • David Rakowski

    “Motion in lemonade”…..classic.

    Great article Sybil.

    Dave

  • Modred189

    Glad I’m not the only one!

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jennerelucio Jenne Relucio

    I remember imposter syndrome hitting me during my first and second year of grad school and it was not pretty. It started getting better when I became more comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to not have all the answers all the time, as long as you at least know where or how to find the answer… Thanks for this great article here, Sybil.

  • Shawn Vogt Sween

    Great article. I’ve been told by more experienced lawyers that the feelings only begin to abate after 7 years and that they continue right up until retirement. My goodness! I concur with “google doesn’t judge me,” by the way. Sometimes even experienced lawyers have to google to learn the words to ask the right questions and find the answers!

  • http://www.royginsburg.com Roy Ginsburg

    Very good article. Lawyers who are on top of their game inevitably feel the syndrome to some degree no matter how experienced they may be. I’ve always thought there is no such thing as a completely competent lawyer; some just fake it better than others.

  • http://jrwilliamslaw.com/ Josh Williams

    I feel compelled to note that I have been adverse to Sybil and she is an incredibly competent lawyer.

    • Sybil Dunlop

      Thanks for the comments! I should add that it is always nice to know that you’re not a lone sufferer of the syndrome.

  • Dan DiGangi

    You have no idea how much better this is making me feel about a new job I just got.

    Best,
    DD

  • Arun Jutur

    Well i belive we all do have this syndrome, at some time of our personal/professional life.
    all those who have agreed ,that they have this syndrome are on their way of improvement like me :)

  • https://twitter.com/nazareene Nazareen Ebrahim

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. I have been suffering with this for a while, thinking all the while that I really don’t know what I’m doing..I felt so overwhelmed and even suffered with panic attacks – always thinking that I’m going to get ‘found out’. It came to the extent where I decided to resign from my job…I am currently serving my 3 months notice to the company. Yet I know that my knowledge base and skill set is very competent and on par with current learnings. Thank you once again . I need to deal with the inner vampires right now to move in the right direction!

    Take care and good luck with all.
    Nazareen

  • http://www.gm-rms-cnestu310.com Me

    “Distinguish lack of experience from lack of ability.”

    Tragically there are too many companies who are seeking only experience with “x” rather than demonstrated ability in general. This is especially prevalent in the tech area.

  • https://twitter.com/nazareene Nazareen Ebrahim

    Thank you so much for writing this piece. I have been suffering with this for a while, thinking all the while that I really don’t know what I’m doing..I felt so overwhelmed and even suffered with panic attacks – always thinking that I’m going to get ‘found out’. It came to the extent where I decided to resign from my job…I am currently serving my 3 months notice to the company. Yet I know that my knowledge base and skill set is very competent and on par with current learnings. Thank you once again . I need to deal with the inner vampires right now to move in the right direction!

    Take care and good luck with all.
    Nazareen

  • Lawyer Hater

    So why should anyone care whether a lawyer new or otherwise feels isolated, alone and incompetent, they most certainly dont care how they make other people feel. My opinion which is generally shared by most non lawyer types is that they should all be ground up into mulch and used as an alternative fuel source, in this way they would at least serve a useful albeit temporary purpose for the common good.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      Thank you for your knowledgeable and thoughtful contribution.

      • Andy Mergendahl

        The furnace with all that lawyer-mulch inside would no doubt exhibit a distinctly and maddeningly sarcastic glow.

        • Longtimer

          A lot of lawyers would also like to use lawyers for mulch – the ones who give the profession a bad name, and most big law partners (my ego! my profits!). With so many thousands to choose from, we’d be warm for years.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/jmfoss John Fosss

    This is very true. Thanks Sybil! Let me tell you, it is not just in the law field that people find the imposter syndrome. I am a college educated Engineer with a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from a very well known school and over 7 years of experience in product development and design in the automotive industry. I still find myself doubting once in a while about if I really know my job or if I am just good at faking it and that someone might find out. I often find out through more experience with the tasks I am working on, that it is not a lack of capability of doing the task but it is only a lack of information and experience with it that often causes this insecurity. I am easily adaptable and pick things up fast but sometimes it is easy to confuse lack of experience with incompetence as the hang-up for achievement. Take heart my friends, the major difference between inexperience and incompetence, is that experience has a learning curve and can be overcome, there is no hope for incompetence.

  • http://coatmanycolours.blogspot.ca Hadass Eviatar

    Thanks for a great article! I was sent here by a friend because I’m very interested in the Imposter Police, as we called them back when I was in grad school. Love the conversation and the sarcastic glow.

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    Important corollary: The more confident you are in your own competence, whether as a result of this blog post or something else, the more you should be concerned about whether you are as competent as you believe.

  • http://www.nick-wright.com Nick Wright

    Hi Sybil. Loved your honesty and your distinction between lack of experience and lack of ability. Could definitely identify with what you have experienced and expressed. With best wishes. Nick

  • Uzo Akpele

    Thanks for this. I have been suffering from this (off and on) for a long time. I could have sworn that I was the worst lawyer in the world and a big fraud for letting people think I knew what I was doing.

  • A.

    I’m dealing with that too and the only thing that comforts me sometimes is to hear from the very experienced older lawyer the words “I don’t know, I ‘ll have to think about it” when asked about some legal problems. That’s when I realise that doubt is an usual element that appears in this profession and the secret is to use it as a motive to read more, learn more or ask for advice from someone more experienced. And also accept that sometimes there is no one good answer and you have to take the risk and choose one possible option….It can be harder than it sounds sometimes, but it’s good to know more people deal with that stuff (gosh, I cannot imagine how hard it must be for the doctors)

    It’s a very important issue, in my opinion and I think it is not discussed enough, so thanks for writing about it…

  • Kevin J. Tagliaferri

    “True experts are not afraid to say “I don’t know.” “- Dr. Jeffery Bernhard