Is Imposter Syndrome Interfering With Your Potential?

As you may recall, at the beginning of a cohort, we ask participants to share what they want to get out of the experience. So many participants say they want more confidence and less imposter syndrome. It seems like an epidemic!

As you know, the women who participate in WLF (you) are all rock stars – so competent, accomplished and successful by all measures. Yet, many still find it difficult to shake the underlying feeling of not being good enough. This is the classic definition of imposter syndrome. To make matters worse, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that you are the only person feeling this way. “Everyone else seems to have it together but me.” It is important to note that experiencing imposter syndrome is not limited to women. In fact, according to Amy Cuddy, 80% of men and women have felt like an imposter at times. 

The research also shows that women and minorities experience imposter syndrome more acutely and pervasively than their white male counterparts. This is NOT a failure or weakness on the part of women and minority groups. Rather, it is the failure of the systems that have not yet adapted to allow women and minority groups to feel as though they belong. Read our blog on why women lawyers feel like a fraud here.

While some people think a healthy dose of insecurity keeps them on their toes, the feeling of being an imposter really does not serve anyone. In fact, it often holds us back – from speaking up, taking on new projects, advocating for ourselves, and from moving into action. Imposter syndrome also drains our energy by making us feel anxious and stressed. Some women have become so accustomed to feeling like a fraud that they have come to accept it as a fact of life in BigLaw. But, at what expense? Remember Tim Gallwey’s model: 

Performance = Potential – Interference 

If your interference is the imposter syndrome, what potential do you have that could be freed up? 

The truth is, you categorically are not an imposter. We know that for certain because you are in WLF. The women whose firms sponsor them for WLF have all been identified as high achievers. You have not fooled anyone. You haven’t fooled your teachers, your college and law professors, interviewers, the lawyers with whom you work nor your clients. You belong at the table.

But words are just words. We know it is one thing to know something intellectually and an entirely different thing to believe and embody the knowledge. And it is particularly hard to embody this knowledge when there are systemic issues working against you. If you struggle with imposter syndrome, we offer some practices below to help you embody and own the idea that you belong.

Here Are Some Practices To Combat Imposter Syndrome.

Name It. Research shows that the simple act of acknowledging that you feel like an imposter will lessen its grip on you. You can say “There I go again feeling like a fraud” or, “I notice I am feeling afraid that I am not as smart as everyone else”. Do not judge yourself – simply observe.

Normalize It. Remember you are not at all alone in feeling like an imposter. Look around you and think about the fact that 80% of men and women suffer from imposter syndrome. The odds are that the lawyers you are working with (yes, even the senior partners) have felt or do feel like a fraud.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think. Feeling like a fraud doesn’t mean you are a fraud. It might mean you are new to something or you are stretching yourself. Look for data to ground your feelings in facts. What is your overall track record of solving challenging problems? Keep a file on your computer of emails with positive feedback. Read those emails when you are feeling less than. Consider reframing the thought “I am a fraud” to something like “this is hard for me right now”.

Use Your Body To Change Your Mind. When we are feeling like an imposter, our bodies often become collapsed-in, tense, and small. When you notice any of these shifts happening, take a deep breath and unclench what is clenched. Relax your muscles, stand or sit up straight, spread your arms and take a wider stance. You should get an immediate boost of confidence.

Develop A Growth Mindset. A growth mindset is believing your talents can be developed through hard work, good strategies, and feedback. Alternatively, a fixed mindset is believing your talents are innate gifts that need to be protected. When people with a growth mindset make a mistake, they do not think they are a fraud. Instead, they get curious and ask “what can I learn from that experience”? Growth mindset individuals worry less about looking smart or perfect and they put more energy into learning.

Find A Supportive Community (WLF). Don’t go it alone. Hiding and feeling shame amplifies the imposter syndrome experience. Tell a friend or a group of friends. They can share their experience with imposter syndrome. This will diminish the feeling for each of you.

Practice Self-Compassion. If you make a mistake, practice self-compassion not self-criticism. Then, ask what can I learn from that experience? (Growth mindset again!)