Confronting Imposter Syndrome

February 19, 2017


I have a tremendous amount of respect for every professional who possesses a healthy understanding of what they do and do not know, especially when that understanding is based on facts. Increasingly, however, I encounter both new and established professionals who walk away from or stumble when presented with an opportunity simply because they don’t feel that they’re good enough.

People who fear that they lack the talents others assume they possess often suffer from imposter feelings. These feelings tend to burble to the surface when extremely intelligent and successful people prepare for interviews, start work, or accept promotions. When these emotions start to run rampant, they can develop into imposter syndrome and inhibit work performance.

1. What causes imposter syndrome?

Since members of every generation suffer from imposter syndrome, I won’t blame the “everyone gets a prize” theory of building children’s self-esteem that took hold at the end of the last Century. There’s little doubt, however, that excessive childhood praise may contribute to it. Psychological studies have found that when a child consistently hears, “That’s the best (finger painting, Lego construction project, soccer field goal) that I’ve ever seen,” the child becomes uncomfortable with his or her ability to exceed previous performance. Rather than progress to the next level, the child simply stops performing. Alternatively, when a child is told, “That’s great; it’s clear that you worked hard (on your painting, on this Lego project, during your soccer practice),” the child is encouraged to continue to put in his or her maximum effort.

Among my law firm clients, the profession’s tendency toward perfectionism may further contribute to the prevalence of this syndrome. While finding the one “right” answer and avoiding unnecessary mistakes helps law students progress through three years of study and the bar exam, perfectionism can be disastrous in the real world. It keeps too many junior lawyers from taking on challenging assignments and often impacts their management of time and projects. Some even blame perfectionism for the high levels of depression and substance abuse that have been registered within the profession.

Professionals who are afraid of failure (If I try something and it doesn’t work, I will be so embarrassed …. So, I better not even try.) or afraid of success (If I try something and succeed, some people may not like me anymore … So, I better not try.) are more likely to suffer from imposter syndrome.

2. What’s the impact of imposter syndrome?

Professionals who suffer from imposter syndrome often sabotage their own careers.

Some lawyers start to procrastinate. They put off assignments or business development activities until the very last minute. That way, if an error is discovered in a brief or a scheduled speech doesn’t come off well, the lawyer can blame the fact that he or she didn’t have adequate time to make the final product perfect. Firm and practice group leadership may become frustrated by the outcome and avoid directing future opportunities to the procrastinating lawyer.

Other lawyers suddenly start to overcommit. I cannot begin to tell you the number of times that I’ve worked with lawyers who know that they need to prepare for a major business development presentation. Instead of setting aside blocs of time in which to focus on the development of content and rehearsing the presentation, the lawyer says “yes” to every assignment that comes his or her way. Oftentimes the lawyer even takes on work that can and should be delegated to others. Then he or she blames a poor pitch performance on his or her workload. Once this recurs habitually, decision makers look elsewhere to find the firm’s next star presenter.

And of course, everyone knows of an example of the person who mysteriously becomes ill (or a family member always come up sick) right before a key deadline.

In all cases, the professional builds in a handicap—some impediment that keeps him or her from turning in an optimum performance. In doing so, they undermine their own careers, and in some cases, they impact the future of their firms.

3. What are some practical strategies that you can use to address imposter syndrome?

I am a huge believer in helping professionals understand their natural talents, create goals that allow them to use those talents, and then hold their proverbial feet to the fire. I have no problem calling out someone who is procrastinating or overpromising. And I’m a strong believer in creating a supportive environment where professionals are allowed and encouraged to learn from their mistakes.

If you suffer from imposter syndrome, know the following:

Imposter syndrome is perfectly normal. Anyone who tries something new periodically thinks that he or she is in over his or her head. (Want an example? Ask any new parent who has needed to give a wiggling infant its first bath. Bath time is terrifying … until you’ve bathed your infant a half dozen times.) Track what you know, keep a running list of what you need to learn, and seek outside assistance when necessary.

Set realistic standards. We are human, and as humans, we will never achieve perfection. Prepare to make mistakes, expect to feel annoyed when you do, and then decide how you will react when they occur.

Recognize that you are dealing with feelings not facts. I have told more than one law firm partner, “You may not feel like an expert in this area, but clearly your colleagues feel that you’re smart enough to be invited into the partnership.” Learn to trust but verify your feelings.

Create a brag file or electronic folder. Keep a record of your achievements and refer to that record each time you feel like an imposter.

Thing You Need to Know:

While every professional feels like an imposter now and then, the most successful do not allow imposter syndrome to derail their careers.



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