Solo/Small Firm

Do You Suffer From Impostor Syndrome?

If you do, you are not alone

By Martha McIntire Newman

What is it?
Impostor syndrome is a state of chronic self-doubt that causes lawyers to fear they will be exposed as incompetent even though the evidence of their success is obvious to their colleagues and clients. The syndrome links unrealistic standards of achievement with hyper self-criticism. The resulting anxiety often strikes successful lawyers who second-guess themselves no matter how well they perform.

Ask yourself:

  • Are you frequently worried about making mistakes and frustrated because your work is not perfect?

  • Do you suspect you will never be smart enough or good enough no matter how successful you already are?

  • Do you often attribute your success to luck, chance, or anything else except your own talent and hard work?

  • Do you worry that everyone is going to find out you are not a good lawyer?

If you answered yes to one of those questions, you have a case of impostor syndrome. If you answered yes to more than one, your condition is grave!

Poser feelings typify high achievers.
Impostor syndrome afflicts a wide range of successful people. Being “found out” is a significant fear of executives worldwide. According to the International Journal of Behavioral Sciences, approximately 70 per-cent of the population will undergo at least one occurrence of impostor syndrome during their lifetimes. Consider this admission by Howard Schultz, former CEO and now chairman emeritus of Starbucks: “Very few people, whether you’ve been in that job before or not, get into the seat and believe today that they are now qualified to be the CEO. They’re not going to tell you that, but it’s true.”

Why stop your self-doubt?
Because it makes you miserable. Feeling anxious and insecure sucks up mental energy and damages your well-being. Your choice to minimize your success robs you of the joy you could feel from your accomplishments and often prevents you from taking smart risks and making necessary changes that will help you achieve your ambitions.

Rewire your brain.
You cannot will away your self-doubt. Impostor syndrome does not go away on its own. You can only silence your inner critic by rewiring your brain with evidence-based thoughts that allow you to evaluate yourself realistically rather than emotionally. You literally can talk your way out of negative perspectives. Examples of thoughts based upon negative emotion and those based upon evidence:

  • Negative thought: I’m not as good a lawyer as people think I am. Evidence-based thought: I’m a great lawyer. My track record proves it!

  • Negative thought: I only got this far because I work hard. I’m really not all that smart. Evidence-based thought: Of course, I’m smart. My brains, talent, and hard work got me here!

  • Negative thought: I won this time, but next time I may not.
    Evidence-based thought: I’ve proven I’m a winner, and I will win again!

“That’s pointless,” you say, “I can’t lie to myself.”

The truth is your new thoughts are not false. The falsities are your old thoughts. You can replace negative thinking with truthful statements based on solid evidence of your successes. When you voice those accurate, positive thoughts to yourself, even if you have reservations and doubts, your brain believes you.

As you practice positive self-talk over and over, day after day, expressing yourself out loud with enthusiasm, the positive thoughts will gradually become automatic. And since thoughts determine feelings, your new thinking will produce positive feelings about your competence as an attorney and the excellent work you produce for your clients.

Here are additional ways to conquer impostor syndrome:

  • Accept the evidence of your successes. Take a moment to write down a list of your most meaningful achievements and read them when negative thoughts are roiling in your mind.

  • Keep a file of compliments you receive from clients and stories of the people you have helped. Read it often.

  • Tame your perfectionist impulses. Remember that absolute perfection is impossible.

  • Recognize the strengths you bring to the table instead of dwelling on the small mistakes you make.

  • Acknowledge the fact that making mistakes does not make you a fraud.

  • Realize that just because a legal solution seems easy to you, it probably is not easy to other lawyers with less experience and less knowledge, or even to other lawyers you believe are equal or better than you.

  • Allow yourself to be proud. You deserve to feel honest pride without the fear of being haughty.

  • Remember—it is OK if you do not know something. You can study and learn it.

  • Move outside your comfort zone and think bigger despite your self-doubt.

Overcoming impostor syndrome is not easy—it starts with awareness. The syndrome diminishes as you alter your mistaken self-perceptions and unhealthy perfectionism. Recognize impostor thoughts when they arise and make it your goal this year to evaluate yourself realistically based on your history of successes. What a difference that change will make in your life! TBJ

Martha McIntire NewmanMARTHA MCINTIRE NEWMAN is a former oil and gas litigator and owner of Top Lawyer Coach. Newman has been awarded the Professional Certified Coach, or PCC, credential by the International Coach Federation in recognition of her coaching excellence. She specializes in lawyer coaching, consulting, and facilitating in the areas of business development, time management, presentation skills, career advancement, leadership, law firm management, and job interviewing. For more information, go to toplawyercoach.com.

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