When I got the email my 1L year that first semester grades were posted, my hands were quite literally shaking, and my pulse was beating so rapidly that I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to get it over with more, or if I was perfectly happy knowing my grades were as good as Schrodinger’s cat was alive. I finally did manage to check my grades and — unbelievably— I had done alright. I had told myself repeatedly that law school is chock full of top students, and there was absolutely no way I was going to be a good student compared to them. Honestly, half of me was still convinced I didn’t belong in law school and they had just admitted me by accident. So it was a shock, to say the least, to consider for the first time that I might actually do ok with this whole law school thing. And for several euphoric moments, I was so darn proud of myself. The past semester had seen me struggle so much that I had genuinely questioned if I should drop out… and now I had done well. Victory never tasted so sweet.
But then this sense of— fraudulence came over me. I hadn’t done anything more than other students. Plenty of my peers had worked much harder than I had. They were much smarter than I was. I didn’t deserve to have done well. It didn’t make sense. I just didn’t deserve it. I was half-convinced the registrar had made a mistake, and I spent the next several days practically waiting for the other shoe to drop— for someone to realize that these grades weren’t actually mine and issue a retraction on behalf of the student who actually did deserve to have done well. Because I certainly didn’t deserve it.
And it all came back to that one word “deserve.” It was a word that would continue to taunt me through the next semester. And it’s a word that even today always tries its best to convince me every finals season and during each round of interviews that all my successes to date are mere flukes, not anything I earned. But it’s a word I’ve learned to manage now that I have another word to understand it: impostor syndrome.
What is Impostor Syndrome?
Impostor syndrome, first identified in the 1970s, is the recurrent sense that you’ve only succeeded by chance and not by your talent or qualifications. This lingering doubt makes it difficult to internalize your own success. It can lead to a fear that others will unmask you as a fraud, and it is not infrequently accompanied by depression and anxiety.
If reading this is resonating with you (potentially in an eerie, disconcerting sort of way), ask yourself:
- Do you feel like your successes have been just by luck or chance, rather than your intelligence, hard work, and talent?
- No matter how well you’re doing, do you worry you’re going to be exposed as a fraud?
- When you look around you, do you feel like everyone else is smarter and works harder than you?
- Do you question your competence or your right to be in your position when you make even small mistakes, struggle to learn something new, or have to ask for help?
That’s impostor syndrome. (This TED Talk can offer further elaboration.)
While anyone can have impostor syndrome, it is especially common in high-stress environments (and, oh boy, does law school qualify). And it can be particularly potent among women, racial minorities, and other underrepresented groups who struggle to find role models in their field.
Cool, so there’s a word for it. But is there a cure for it?
Well, yes and no. Impostor syndrome twists your thinking and distorts your feelings, so the only “cure” is really intentionally untwisting them. (Yeah, I wish there was a magic pill for it, too.)
1. Change How You Think About Yourself
The first step is recognizing your thoughts. Awareness of the problem is necessary to change it.
Then be very intentional about reframing those thoughts. This is more than just positive thinking or demanding you just think nicer thoughts about yourself. It means taking what you’re using to tear yourself down and using it to build yourself up instead, slowly and step-by-step. For instance, Above The Law offers:
- Current thought: I only got this far because I work hard, and now that’s not enough.
- Goal thought: I’m a brilliant lawyer.
- Incremental thought to practice now: Being a lawyer requires analytical thinking; it would be hard to do well being a hard worker who wasn’t actually smart.
These incremental intentional counter-thoughts are literally meant to rewire the neural pathways in your brain so that “confidence-boosting thoughts become natural to you and your old anxiety- producing thoughts wither away along with the neural circuits that created them.” Be the Little Engine That Could: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can” quickly becomes “I did.”
In fact, it might be helpful to actually keep a thought log, whether as a nice journal or just as a memo on your phone. It makes your thoughts— and intentional counter-thoughts— more concrete, and it makes a record of what’s happening so that you can catch recurrent thought patterns and see how your thoughts have changed over time. It’ll help you know if you’re doing better over time.
Moreover, remember all the things you do well. Write them down if you need to. I actually posted a list on my desk so that my motivations and the things I felt proudest of were right there at eye level when I needed a reminder. I also have an album on my phone of screenshots of nice texts and emails I’ve received that validated me, said kind things of me, or that just make me happy; I labelled it “Encouragements,” and when I feel lost, I pull it up and remind myself of who I am and what I’m capable of. Other people find journaling or daily affirmations/mantras useful to center themselves when they’re feeling adrift. And if you’re having trouble coming up with a list, ask your friends and loved ones what they admire most about you, and keep their answers handy. Find the things that make you indisputably you, and remind yourself of them when an assignment threatens to wear you down. This TED Talk well explains it.
2. Talk About It
Remember also that everyone else around you probably feels the same. You’re not alone in feeling isolated (ironic, isn’t it?). And when I say everyone feels the same, I mean everyone feels the same. Albert Einstein called himself an “involuntary swindler,” and thought his work deserved less credit than it received; Maya Angelou said of herself: “I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.” Some stats say up to seventy percent of people suffer from impostor syndrome. (Check out this TED Talk or this one if you don’t believe me.)
The point is: talk to someone about it. Seriously. There’s no one in particular you have to talk to, so long as you feel comfortable talking to them; it can be your favorite professor, a friend, an upperclassmen or attorney mentor, whoever— the important part is that you feel safe having that conversation. The first time I realized other people were experiencing that same sense of being adrift, unworthy and undeserving, was a huge relief off my chest; because at least that feeling wasn’t itself then a sign that I was in fact unworthy and undeserving.
3. Find Your Community
For minorities and folks from underrepresented backgrounds in their field, environmental and institutionalised discrimination can compound and amplify the “undeserving” feelings from impostor syndrome with a sense of a un-belongingness. Finding a community of people who look and talk like you in your profession can help build your confidence. Ethnic and religious bar associations like Hispanic or Black bars or Muslim bar associations are incredible for this. In addition to a professional network, they give you role models in whom you can see yourself and help you feel less alone in your field. It’s easy to think you don’t deserve your success but a lot harder to look someone else in the eyes and think they don’t deserve it either; let your belief in their worthiness rub off on you.
4. Seek Help When You Need It
If informal conversations can’t offer you the help you need, seek out a professional psychologist. If things aren’t getting better over time— even after you’ve talked to people informally or tried countering your thoughts or made a thought log— it might be time to see a professional. There’s nothing wrong or shameful about it. Lawyers Assistance Programs provide judges, attorneys, and law students with confidential (often free) support for mental health or substance abuse issues. Mental health concerns are rampant in the legal community, and getting professional help when needed can be the difference between a successful attorney and an attorney who caves to his demons.
5. Let Yourself Be Human
Finally, remember that nobody is perfect, and you shouldn’t expect yourself to be either. But imperfectly flawed makes you human, it doesn’t make you undeserving. Impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young told TIME Magazine: “Most people experience moments of doubt, and that’s normal. The important part is not to let that doubt control your actions. . . .’The goal is not to never feel like an impostor. The goal for me is to give [people] the tools and the insight and information to talk themselves down faster. . . . They can still have an impostor moment, but not an impostor life.’”
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