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After the Bar

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The Impostor in Your Office

Tyler Holmes

The Impostor in Your Office
Klaus Vedfelt via GettyImages

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You got the undergraduate degree, the JD, a nice job, and yet, you still think someone is going to find out you’re a fraud, that you do not belong. My manager called me invaluable, and I still wonder if she or my organization’s board would agree if they saw what I do day-to-day. First described in a 1978 paper about 150 high-achieving women by Drs. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes, the impostor phenomenon or impostor syndrome are “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” “Impostors” include Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and roughly 70 percent of the population, men and women alike. Below, experts Dr. Andy Molinsky and Jaime McNalley share with TYL advice on how to handle impostor syndrome.

Both experts note there may be acute moments when impostor syndrome occurs (e.g., in transitions from student to professional or changing practices), but learning to live with, and gradually decrease, these feelings of inadequacy is possible.

To start, acknowledge how you feel. According to Dr. Molinsky, awareness “can help you understand that your experiences are variable and that you may have some control over them.” After accepting your feelings, you can: (1) recognize how many and how often people feel this way; (2) “mention that you’re feeling a bit awkward or nervous as a newcomer [which] can sometimes take the pressure off” in appropriate situations; and, (3) work to reduce anxiety to a tolerable level.

Reframe your thoughts in positive (and more realistic) ways. McNally’s advice: “My brain is telling me that I am incompetent, but what I know to be true is that I have studied and put in a lot of effort to learn . . . and gain skills [to] allow me to navigate this situation. I am in a new experience and feel a lot of pressure to perform and succeed. I feel uncomfortable because that is my brain and body’s normal reaction to fear and discomfort. This feeling is not a reflection of my worth or competence.”

In addition to reframing, the experts gave a few other tips:

  •  Reflect on where you’ve been: “When we can refocus on what we have accomplished and celebrate small victories, not just the end goal, this has tremendously beneficial results,” McNally said.
  • Document the range of your experiences over time, rather than falling prey to recency bias, “fixating only on the most recent feelings and experiences,” Molinsky said.
  • Set realistic goals and expectations of yourself.
  • Work with a mentor, coach, or mental health professional. “With the right tools and support, people can surprise themselves in terms of their ability to overcome the impostor syndrome,” Molinsky said.

Surprisingly, there may be advantages to feeling like an impostor. If you can strike the right balance, some level of self-doubt or discomfort can “actually increase your motivation and efforts for continued learning and dedication to complete a task successfully,” McNally said. She added that the key is to allow yourself “to feel what [you] are experiencing, rather than avoiding it . . . to stay in a healthy place with these emotions.” Molinsky noted there are benefits to being a novice, and despite feeling inadequate, “you may see things from a fresh and original perspective” worthy of a voice.

Creating a comfortable setting where you can express your emotions is important. Find people to whom you can open up and then allow others to come to you. “If a person hears that peers also feel this way, it lessens the struggle and allows young professionals to know they are not alone, nor are they inadequate,” McNally said. Finding a space “where mistakes are forgiven and you’re encouraged to experiment” will probably create less impostor syndrome, Molinsky argued. This experience can help you pay it forward to the next generation of lawyers.