It is easy to blame chronic stress on deadlines, long hours, and the high-stakes nature of lawyers’ work. But for many, the most intolerable stress is due to imposter syndrome — the belief that you are not competent enough in the work you do (or want to do), combined with a fear of being discovered as a fraud.
Lawyers are trained skeptics, masters of issue-spotting, and paragons of perfectionism. Unsurprisingly, they often direct these traits inward, distrusting their abilities and seeing gaps in their experience or expertise as liabilities, instead of opportunities to grow.
I often hear this expressed in comments like these:
“I feel intimidated by others in my field and believe they are better lawyers than me.”
“When I get calls from prospective clients with questions in certain substantive areas, I feel so nervous that I quickly refer them to other attorneys at my firm.”
“I keep applying to target jobs, but I never get them, so I must not be qualified.”
Does This Constant Questioning of Qualification Feel Familiar?
Imposter syndrome is as sneaky as it sounds, masquerading in your mind as a “crisis of competence” when it is really a crisis of confidence. In fact, the narrative of incompetence can be so deeply rooted that it is hard to contemplate a perspective that takes into fair account your true strengths and experience.
You’re not alone if you’re thinking, “Yeah, I know imposter syndrome is real, but in this area, it’s not just that I don’t feel confident. I’m really not good enough.”
You might hesitate to dig deep here for fear you will discover more proof of incompetence and feel even crappier about yourself.
But in trying to outrun imposter syndrome, not only do you keep living with the stress it causes, you may be putting yourself at greater risk of actual poor performance. (So a confidence issue masquerading as a competence issue actually can become a competence issue!)
Imposter Syndrome Can Lead to Chronic Stress and Self-Sabotaging Behavior
In some cases, the imposter syndrome-fueled anxiety leads to self-sabotage, providing support for your belief that you are not good enough. For example, a man who concluded that lack of qualification was keeping him from landing target jobs reported that the longer his job search dragged on, the more nervous he became in interviews, and the poorer he performed. This poor performance reinforced the false narrative that he was not qualified for his target jobs, which, of course, made him feel and appear even more nervous and incapable.
And so the cycle persists.
Unchecked, imposter syndrome can also obstruct your competence by keeping you from learning and improving. Like the lawyer who passed cases on to others, the stress caused by imposter syndrome keeps you from taking opportunities that would let you prove to yourself that you are or can become strong in that area.
How the Stories We Tell Can Break the Cycle
Luckily, there are many ways to break this cycle and thereby reduce your stress. One way is the exercise of sharing stories of self-doubt. Most lawyers I’ve worked with report feeling great relief once they realize they are not alone in battling imposter syndrome. (In fact, they are far from alone: Recent studies estimate around 70 percent of people experience imposter syndrome, and many of the traits that lead to it are particularly common among lawyers.)
When you learn that many other lawyers, including ones you view as superstars, have struggled with self-doubt, you can appreciate that lack of competence is not the issue — confidence is!
That lawyer who felt intimidated by others in her field eventually shared her self-doubt and was surprised to learn that those she talked to believed themselves to be the less-qualified lawyer! This mutual intimidation not only made her realize that, quite possibly, she was more competent than she had thought, but also that she was not alone in experiencing self-doubt.
Imposter syndrome breeds and feeds on isolation; vulnerable story-sharing defangs it.
Connecting over the shared experience of imposter syndrome can happen in the engineered safe space of a workshop or one-on-one with an admired colleague, friend or mentor/mentee. At first, you may feel more comfortable thinking about a positive outcome that followed feelings of self-doubt and sharing that story with one person. (“Phew, I know we won that case, but I gotta’ tell you, I was really sweating it out.”)
You also could spur a conversation by bringing up this post or any other article on imposter syndrome and talking about what struck you most.
Starting with someone who doesn’t directly manage you might make the conversation feel less risky and more comfortable.
Often, when you talk about your imposter syndrome, the other person feels less alone and will share back. This mutual story-sharing builds courage and provides another perspective on your abilities. It will help disrupt your narrative of incompetence and replace it with one of confidence, capability, and comfort.