April 30, 2020

A Closer Look at Imposter Syndrome

I’ll just work a few more hours until it’s perfect.

Why does this come easily to everyone but me?

I know they are impressed now, but what if I don’t measure up next time?

I feel like such a fraud.

If you have ever had thoughts like these, you have experienced imposter syndrome. These thoughts may feel isolating, but they are by no means unique. According to a 2011 study in the International Journal of Behavioural Science, 70% of people will experience imposter syndrome at least once. The statistics for lawyers are thought to be even higher.

What is impostor syndrome?

Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first described imposter syndrome in 1978 as a feeling “of phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” The term illustrates the disconnect between the way someone is perceived from the outside—through their skills, abilities, achievements—and their internal sense that they are on the verge of  “being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

For lawyers, this is often felt as pressure and “feelings of not measuring up in spite of tremendous effort and ability.” Imposter syndrome can manifest itself in a variety of ways:

  • perfectionism and intense fear of failure
  • unhealthy work–life balance
  • willingness to accept only negative feedback
  • preoccupation with the achievements of others
  • feelings of inadequacy or lack of belonging

What makes lawyers more susceptible to imposter syndrome?

Lawyer and consultant Neha Sampat suggests that this pressure comes “not from the substance of the work but from the lifestyle, structure and culture of the profession and the unreasonable standards they nurture.” Women and minority groups are affected even more. Research has found that “feeling like an imposter can exacerbate the impact of discrimination.”

What is it about the profession that lends itself to the experience of imposter syndrome?

  • The burden of expectations: In an article in Canadian Lawyer, Courtney March reminds us that “lawyers are meant to know the answer.” These expectations can feel like they are coming from all sides: from clients to team members to senior colleagues. Perhaps most importantly, these expectations also come from within. Lawyers may feel a self-imposed burden to perform and succeed at the highest level, and with that comes the fear of failure.
  • A culture of ranking: From law school to hiring and promotion practices, lawyers experience a culture of competition in which they are always being compared with others and ranked accordingly. In her TED Talk, educator Elizabeth Cox points out that because “it’s tough to really know how hard our peers work, how difficult they find certain tasks, or how much they doubt themselves,” we question our own ability to measure up. This pressure is heightened when ranking directly affects career success.
  • Feelings of dissatisfaction: In a profession that values achievement and performance, psychologist Jenai Wu Steinkeller suggests that there often appears to be “only one way of succeeding and many outcomes which are felt to be failures.” Maintaining a single-minded focus on the goal (and then the next goal and the next) can be isolating and ultimately unfulfilling. This constant striving for career success can prevent people from figuring out what really makes them happy.

Clearly, working in the law can contribute to imposter syndrome. The next post will discuss ways this issue can be addressed, both on an individual and systemic level.