October 2018 | Around the ABA

Imposter Syndrome? 8 tactics to combat the anxiety

What do Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, Serena Williams and Tom Hanks have in common? They have all admitted to struggling at one point with Impostor Syndrome — that feeling of not being smart enough, being terrified of making mistakes and worried about being exposed as a fraud, despite career attainments or expertise.

Impostor syndrome doesn’t discriminate, and can happen regardless of the level of success a person has achieved in their field. The phenomenon was the subject of a recent ABA webinar, “The Solo/Small Firm Challenge: Conquering Adversity and the Impostor Syndrome. Lacy L. Durham, tax manager of compensation and benefits at Deloitte Tax, LLP in Dallas, moderates the program, which features Amy M. Gardner and Keith R. Sbiral, both certified professional coaches and principals at Chicago-based Apochromatik.

“Impostor syndrome” was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” It’s generally accompanied (and exacerbated) by perfectionism, black-and-white thinking and intense fear of rejection and failure. These thought patterns create a perfect storm of insecurity, anxiety and stress. Lawyers, especially those in solo practices or small firms, can become paralyzed by these thoughts, and women and minorities can be even more affected by this negative thinking.

Durham guides Sbiral and Gardner through a Q&A on the syndrome:

Why is impostor syndrome often associated with women and attorneys of color? And, what should they know in particular?

Gardner says recent research indicates impostor syndrome has a deep impact on minority groups. “This in due in part because a lack of representation can make minorities feel like outsiders,” she says. She notes that a University of Texas study found there was a connection between discrimination some minority groups already feel and the impostor syndrome. “The combination of discrimination and impostor syndrome can result in higher stress level and more negative mental health outcomes,” Gardner says. “For example, research found that African-American college students had higher levels of anxiety and discrimination-related depression when they also had significant levels of impostor syndrome. Feeling like an impostor can exacerbate the impact of discrimination.”

Why is impostor syndrome of particular importance to attorneys and other high achievers?

Gardner says attorneys who fail to deal with their feelings will not only hold back their careers but also negatively impact their clients. If you are struggling with impostor syndrome, no matter how successful you are in growing and building your business, clients, opposing counsel and even courts may be able to sense your lack of confidence. This may make them question hiring you (in the case of clients), question your representation (in the case of courts) or sense an opening they can exploit (in the case of opposing counsel). “We want attorneys to be able to enjoy their successes,” Gardner says. “Without dealing with your impostorism, you won’t be able to fully enjoy the fruits of your labors because you will be so focused on worrying that the other shoe is about to drop and that it’s just been a façade.”

Why should solos and small firms in particular care about impostor syndrome?

It is critical for those in solo or small firms to be able to identify and address impostor syndrome, says Sbiral, adding that the issue is just as pervasive in a large firm or organization. But there he says it’s far easier to compensate for it or camouflage the effects of it. “It is not uncommon for people who struggle with impostor syndrome to select an employer whose name they can, in effect, hide behind to give themselves confidence and credibility, both in terms of how they personally feel and how they present themselves to the world. If that helps them ultimately get to the place where they can feel comfortable and confidence without the firm’s name, then that can be one way of faking it until you make it.”

Sbiral says the problems come when people who have not addressed their impostor syndrome and have essentially been riding on their firm’s name to feel good about their work or themselves go out on their own or join a small firm and no longer have a hiding place. “It’s completely natural to have a sense of impostor syndrome when you go out on your own or join a small firm because you’re exposing yourself professionally in a major way,” he says. “You can’t hide behind a name, firm or the success of a group in a solo or small practice. Confidence in your ability is a necessity because your clients count on your confidence to serve them.”

How can the syndrome be normalized so that lawyers can understand they’re not alone?

More lawyers talking about impostor syndrome is the only way to normalize it within the legal profession, Sbiral says. “Use information like this that is being shared in this webinar to start a discussion on a wider scope with people you work with,” he says. “Another thing you can do is encourage other bar groups to hold a discussion on the topic. The key is to have more folks in the legal profession talking about the impostor syndrome. Every time someone talks about their own struggles, it makes it easier for others to feel like they’re not alone. The feelings of impostor syndrome are normal and they can be overcome.”  

What are the tools to counter impostor syndrome?

  • Use logic … or a time machine. “Think back to other times when you feared you couldn’t do something but stayed with it and did a good job anyway,” says Gardner. “Looking back on those anxious moments that you overcame helps build your confidence. And use logic. Ask yourself how true are your thoughts that are you really a fraud?”
  • Remember all the incredibly successful people who have publicly said they’ve experienced impostor syndrome. “Remind yourself that the feelings they were feeling were just that, they were not impostors or frauds or people who didn’t deserve their own successes,” she says.
  • Fake it until you make it. “Tell yourself you are confident and you are smart. By telling yourself you have these qualities and acting as if you are, soon you won’t be telling yourself or acting anymore,” Gardner says.
  • Remember three little letters: YET. “Whenever you feel inadequate or intimated, add yet on the end,” Gardner says. “For example, ‘I don’t know how to take a deposition, yet.’ Doing so puts the emphasis back on your development and growth and allows you to focus on the future.”
  • Reduce your reactivity. “Learn to pause between the stimulus and the response,” Sbiral explains. “You want to get to a point where you don’t dwell on a mistake but how can I avoid this and grow from it rather than immediately leaping to the worst-case scenario.”
  • Build a strong support system. This includes getting professional help such as a coach. “They can help you where you have excelled and assist you by providing support where you’ve fallen short,” Sbiral says.
  • Find a mentor. Mentors can serve as reality checks and share how they overcame their own insecurities.
  • Remind yourself of your achievements. Keep complimentary letters, emails or awards. “Keeping notes on achievements will give you a reference next time you feel those inadequacies cropping up,” Sbiral says.

“Conquering Adversity and the Impostor Syndrome” was sponsored by ABCLE, ABA Center for Professional Responsibility and the Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs.