Impostor syndrome

Impostor Syndrome: How to Overcome Feeling like a Fraud

I finished my training contract on a Friday, and on Monday morning I started a new role as a qualified solicitor. I was excited about my future career and I felt like I had ‘made it’.

Very quickly I began to feel out of my depth, doubts started to creep into my mind – who was I to be a solicitor? I had expected that once I qualified, I would know everything that I needed to best help my clients. The expectation and pressure that I placed on myself, on top of an already pressurised environment meant that I began to experience huge levels of anxiety about making mistakes, waking up in a sweat in the middle of the night fearing that my career and reputation would come crashing down around me. Every morning I woke up to a deep sense of dread and fear about the day ahead and felt physically sick.

Some clients commented on how young I seemed, making me feel even more inexperienced. I felt like a fraud and I feared that I would be ‘found out’ by making some horrendous mistake at any movement.

I didn’t feel like I could talk to about how I was feeling in case I was seen as unable to cut it. I internalised the stress and as a result developed physical symptoms needing doctors’ appointments on top of long hours and fears of meeting my billing targets, all of which created even further stress. Just 15 months after I qualified, I quit private practice and my career in law. I felt like a failure but relieved to have escaped the crippling fears and anxiety. I now recognise that I was experiencing impostor syndrome.

Does this sounds familiar?

In a 2019 Law Society poll, 83% of junior lawyers said that they were currently or had in the past experienced impostor syndrome. The term ‘impostor syndrome’ was first coined by Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes in the 1970’s and Clance describes it as “occurring with great frequency amongst successful, high-achieving people” and is more common in women than men. Impostor syndrome often arises in people with perfectionist tendencies, and usually where the sufferer places huge amounts of pressure on themselves not to fail, or feels like they are only in their current position because they have been lucky or because someone made a mistake in their abilities, which increases the fraudulent feelings.

Impostor Syndrome often develops into a cycle and is related to periods of change, which is why junior lawyers often experience it, but can also be experienced at significant career milestones such as promotions or role changes. Many high-profile women including Michelle Obama, Arianna Huffington and Sheryl Sandberg have admitted experiencing it.

When left unmanaged, impostor syndrome can create stress and mental health which may explain why approximately half of the respondents to the Law Society’s Junior Lawyers Division Resilience and well being survey 2019 reported experiencing mental ill-health. Research at the University of Salzburg has indicated that that Impostor Syndrome can also be detrimental to career progression finding that those experiencing it were likely to be less well paid, less likely to be promoted and were less committed and satisfied at work.

How to overcome Impostor Syndrome

If you find that you are experiencing feelings of being a fraud, worrying that you only got to your current position because someone made an error, like you don’t belong in your role, fearing that you will be ‘found out’ and experiencing anxiety about making a mistake or failing, the first step is recognising that this is completely normal. An article published by the International Journal of Behavioural Science showed that an estimated 70% of people will experience imposter feelings at some point in their life.

What can you do if you find that you are experiencing impostor syndrome?

  1. Review the evidence – are you getting good feedback but focusing one minor piece of negative feedback?
  2. Celebrate your successes, achievements and accomplishments – keep a log of all successes and positive feedback to remind yourself in times of doubt
  3. Talk about what you are experiencing – your peers and co-workers may have been through the same thing and will be able to support you in overcoming these feelings
  4. Reframe ‘failure’ as ‘a learning opportunity’ – everyone makes mistakes, instead of criticising and mentally admonishing yourself recognise that this is an opportunity to learn
  5. Reach out for professional help – there are a number of ways that you can retrain the mind to overcome feels of being an impostor and anxiety including Rapid Transformational Therapy©, hypnotherapy, neuro-linguistic programming and cognitive behavioural therapy. If you are experiencing mental health issues speak to your doctor.

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