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Recognizing the reality of imposter syndrome

Whether you are a law student, articling student or a junior associate, it is easy to be trapped in the mindset that you don’t measure up. Recently, I came across a number of TED Talks on imposter syndrome.

Whether you are a law student, articling student or a junior associate, it is easy to be trapped in the mindset that you don’t measure up. Recently, I came across a number of TED Talks on imposter syndrome. They were interesting, informative and, above all, the concepts were applicable to any student that is gearing up for September or any young lawyer starting out in their career.

This month I’d like to address what imposter syndrome is, why law students or legal professionals are more susceptible to it and how to manage this mentality. I also figured it would tie in to last month’s column.

What is imposter syndrome?

The well-known imposter syndrome refers to feelings of inadequacy — feelings that you are not good enough or you do not belong with a particular group, according to Rose O. Sherman in the article “Imposter syndrome: when you feel like you’re faking it.” This term was coined in the late '70s by two psychologists, Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes. According to Mike Pedler’s “Leadership, risk and the imposter syndrome,” which appeared in The journal Action Learning: Research and Practice, it is a “condition where people find it hard to believe that they deserve any credit for what they may have achieved and, whatever their outward appearances, remain internally convinced they are frauds.” Those internalized thoughts prevent any sense of success and cripple one’s self-esteem. A “common sentiment is that everyone in the room knows more than you do, or is better educated than you, or is more capable than you,” according to “When Fear Knocks: The Myths and Realities of Law School” written by Peter Lake. It is important to recognize the signs of imposter syndrome as it can spawn performance anxiety, unrealistic levels of perfectionism, burnout and depression, Sherman writes.

Why are law students and lawyers particularly susceptible?

The prevalence of legal professionals suffering from imposter syndrome is no secret. Prior to law school, students are high achievers, constantly striving to outdo themselves (and others).

The burden that can come with meeting self-imposed and high expectations does not end with law school. Throughout their careers, lawyers are meant to know the answer. They are meant to enter a situation and immediately have the best and most logical solution in mind, “when in fact they see themselves as teetering dangerously close to the edges of their own competence,” writes Sherman.

Among law students, and this pertains to all years, it is easy to be caught by imposter syndrome. Law students are constantly comparing themselves to one another. They are ranked against one another. Often, they feel like the other students are smarter, can grasp each concept effortlessly, have more experience and know more people, says Sherman. It is easy to be trapped in this downward-spiralling thought pattern.

How can imposter syndrome be managed?

The first step is recognizing that nearly everyone is feeling the same. It also helps to retrain your thoughts. Pay particular attention to your self-talk: Is it motivating? Is it empowering? If in listening to your inner dialogue you catch an all too familiar negative pattern, try to switch the script, suggests Sherman. Instead of telling yourself you don’t belong, start thinking of what you can contribute to the role (as law student, as legal professional, etc.), according to Sherman.

In order to feel confident in your contributions, know your strengths. Write them down and refer to them in times of self-doubt, says Sherman. A list of strengths that you can see also helps to identify certain limitations and demonstrate room for growth. Peter Lake writes:

"Intriguingly, if you step back from Imposter Syndrome, you begin to recognize that it is nothing other than a healthy recognition of one’s own limitations and it is a natural and common feature of being a professional."

Lastly, talk about it with people you trust — colleagues, friends and/or mentors. It is far more likely that the feelings of inadequacy and utter confusion are shared. This common denominator can help foster relationships and, ultimately, contribute to better self-awareness and mental strength.

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