Imposter Syndrome: Fighting the feelings of being a fraud
This article forms part of the “Comfort Over Coffee” series – a range of articles seeking to tackle the trickier issues faced in the legal world
Have you ever been invited to a meeting and looked at the other participants and thought: “Gulp! What on earth am I doing up here? I do not deserve to be in this room!”?
Have you ever passed an exam, having studied hard, and just put it down to sheer luck?
Have you ever received a promotion and credited it to “just being in the right place at the right time”?
If you’ve answered “yes” to any of the above, then you may well have experienced a bout of imposter syndrome. Approximately 70% of people will suffer from imposter syndrome at least once in their lives. So, as much as it may feel like it, you are not in this alone.
This article seeks to explain the imposter phenomenon, to consider some of its roots, to highlight its potential impact and to identify possible strategies to overcome it.
What is imposter syndrome?
The concept of “imposter syndrome” (UK spelling) / “impostor syndrome” (US spelling) (also known as imposter phenomenon) was first introduced in 1978 by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. They defined the imposter phenomenon as an “internal experience of intellectual phoniness”.
The women studied by Clance and Imes maintained a strong belief that, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, they were “not intelligent and were convinced that they had managed to fool their way to success”. They lived with the view that, at some point, someone would see through the veneer and they would be exposed as the “frauds” that they were.
In 2011, Dr. Valerie Young, a leading expert in imposter syndrome, further developed the theory stating that:
“Impostor Syndrome refers to people who have a persistent belief in their lack of intelligence, skills or competence. They are convinced that other people’s praise and recognition of their accomplishments is undeserved, chalking up their achievements to chance, charm, connections and other external factors.”
We are not talking about “false humility” here. We are talking about hard-working, talented and capable people – men and women alike who have achieved great things – who genuinely believe that they do not deserve their success.
Imposter Syndrome and the law
I’d like to say that there is very little luck in becoming a lawyer. Yes, your parents may have been lawyers or business owners and had connections. Yes, you may have fluked the accountancy exam of your Legal Practice Course. Yes, you may be incredibly funny and personable and people just like you. But, don’t write off:
- the hard work you put in to achieve your A-levels (or equivalent) and law degree;
- the extra-curricular activities you participated in;
- the connections you made which made you a more rounded person; and
- the interview that you nailed to get your training contract because you’d researched your desired law firm
It’s certainly not all about luck.
Having researched the imposter syndrome and struggled with it myself throughout my career, what fascinates me most is that the feeling of being a fraud arises at varying stages of your career. You would think that the more successes you have, the more that feeling of fraudulence would dissipate. But, it doesn’t. Instead, imposter syndrome becomes a self-perpetuating cycle … the more you succeed, the more people will expect of you, the more you need to perform and, quite frankly, you have no idea how you did it in the first place!.
My first encounter with imposter syndrome
I HATE sitting exams. I always have and, having just taken my ICF exam, I am quite certain I always will. For some unjustifiable reason, I have always entered an exam room thinking that there was a high chance that I would fail.
At law school, we were a group of six. All of us perfectly intelligent and all of us becoming successful lawyers in our respective fields. We bonded through humour, kindness and capability – each of us supporting the other when we were struggling. But, despite any evidence to the contrary – I always felt that they were naturally gifted and success would come to them with ease.
When it came to exam time, they all used to tease me for studying too hard. My belief was that I wasn’t “naturally clever” and, to do well, I had to work hard. And so I did. I vividly remember highlighting my Companies Act 1985 from front to back. I can still remember the steps of the whitewash procedure (section 155-158) which, given their abolition in the 2006 Act, is pretty useless today!
By the time exam day arrived, I knew my stuff and, funnily enough, the exam went off without a hitch. I remember chatting to my friend afterwards and saying: “Yeh, it went ok I think … [I would never have said “well” in case I jinxed it] … I was just really lucky the right questions came up”! The reality is that any question on the Companies Act could have come up and I would have been fine. I’d studied hard and I knew my stuff. But, despite all that, I still genuinely believed that my success was a result of luck rather than competence or capability.
So, with little or no proof to the contrary, what is it that drives the imposter thinking?
What causes imposter syndrome?
There are varying theories as to the root cause of imposter syndrome. In the paper: “The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women”, Clance and Imes observed two scenarios which related to early family history:
- The labeling of siblings or close relatives as the “intelligent one”, the “sensitive one”, the “funny one” etc. The implication is that the child which isn’t labelled as the “intelligent one” can never prove that she is as bright as her sibling regardless of what she actually accomplishes intellectually. Her successes are conflicted: she continually seeks validation for her competence, and yet secretly doubts her intellect believing she may have achieved success for other reasons e.g. social skills, feminine charm.
- The notion of being the perfect child. When children are brought up with the family rhetoric that: “there is nothing you cannot do if you want to and you can do it with ease”, imposter syndrome can creep in when they start experiencing difficulty in achieving certain things. They don’t want to let the family down, and, in turn, start to distrust the family’s perception of their capability. Although the child does well, it comes from working hard (not a natural ability), which is contrary to the notion of “perfection with ease”. The child no longer thinks she is clever and therefore starts feeling like an imposter.
Dr. Valerie Young went on to develop the family and childhood experience theory adding various examples of adult/child relationship dynamics to the mix. She also highlighted other good reasons why people may feel like imposters. These include the following:
- Being a student – the transition from school, where you may have been top of your class, into university, where you may feel decidedly average compared to your peers, can certainly cause you to question your capability and competence. I certainly resonated with this theory.
- Being a stranger in a strange land – If you are the first in your family to go to university or become a lawyer; or the first woman to reach the position of CEO in your company, or you are working abroad in a new country, the unfamiliar territory may allow the feelings of impostorism to creep in. Aside from the expectations and pressure to perform, you are also struggling with the need to fit in to your new surroundings.
- Working for yourself – In a world where you have no job description, no peer/management feedback and no annual reviews, you make up your own. As high achievers at the best of times, the levels of expectation you place on yourself are always higher than you would expect from others. Is it any wonder that you start feeling like an imposter when those unattainable goals are not reached?
- Working in an organisational culture that feeds self-doubt – certain industries are highly competitive. Success is rewarded by promotion and through salaries and bonuses. Egos, one-upping and infighting are part and parcel of a competitive business industry and can cause people to doubt their competence and ability to play in this field. Self-confidence can take a battering.
- Representing your entire social group – Being in a minority can also trigger anxiety. If there is an additional belief that your position was achieved only as a result of affirmative action (rather than your competence and capability), this can undermine your confidence and increase the pressure to prove yourself – all of which may result in feeling like an imposter.
What is so damaging about imposter syndrome?
Research has identified a number of emotional, mental, and physical consequences which imposter syndrome can have on our lives if it remains unaddressed:
- It can increase levels of stress, anxiety, lack of self-confidence and frustration which, in turn, can cause a physical effect: insomnia, exhaustion and poor physical health.
- At the more extreme levels, it can lead to depression.
- It can hold you back in your career. Imposter syndrome can act as an internal barrier to career progression and seeking positions of leadership.
- It can trigger self-sabotaging behaviour. The disconnect between proof of success and the self-held belief that your success is not deserved, may lead to distorted views of what you are capable of accomplishing.
- It may lead to overwork or worse, burnout. If your belief is that your successes are only a result of hard work, then this may lead to you taking on too much work to continually justify your position and previous successes, which in turn, may lead to burnout.
Learning to quieten the imposter monster!
My imposter syndrome has flared up at varying times and to varying degrees during my career – usually at a period of transition. Some examples include when I was seconded to a client for a work placement, writing articles for distribution to clients, public speaking, attending indabas/conferences, pitching for partnership etc. Over time though, I’ve found a number of ways to stem the onset of the imposter feelings.
Acknowledge it and know you are not alone – Recognising that you are suffering with imposter syndrome and not just low self-esteem or a lack of confidence is the starting point. I only realised what imposter syndrome was in my early thirties after a discussion with my mother, a well-respected and highly-successful General Practitioner and Fellow – who struggled with imposter syndrome throughout her career! I had no idea!
Talk to your trusted peers and mentors about it – Gaining a clearer understanding as to whether or not your capability concerns are warranted should enable you to gain a clearer perspective around the situation. Ask for honest and respectful feedback.
Self-reflection – Spend some time looking at your accomplishments and successes to date. Try to see the factual path as to how you have reached your current position whether in work, a relationship, a sport or other aspect in your life. What work have you put in? What sacrifices have you made? What qualities have supported your successes?
Start acting like you are not an imposter – As Dr. Valerie Young mentions in her TedTalk: “To stop feeling like an impostor, you’ve got to stop thinking like an impostor.” You don’t have to feel confident to act confident. Over time, repeated actions will start to feel more comfortable and more natural, allowing you to step away from the internalisation of phoniness.
Understand where your imposter syndrome may be rooted – Acknowledging the roots of our imposter feelings and recognising the distortion in our own narrative, may help to dispel the myth that our successes are without merit.
Get informed – There are some wonderful books and articles about imposter syndrome available online and in hard copy. Learn about imposter syndrome – the more informed you are, the less scary it feels.
Speak to a coach or therapist – If you are looking for external support, consider speaking to a coach or a therapist to help you tackle the feelings with which you are struggling.
Luck, time, connection, charm, personality and other external factors may have played a role in your successes, but they are not the sole reason for your success.
By owning your successes, you stop diminishing your value and start operating in alignment with your capability and competence. You start truly believing in yourself, which paves the way for new opportunities and further successes which you deserve.
Please don’t struggle alone.
For further reading on Imposter Syndrome, please refer to: “The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It” by Dr. Valerie Young.
Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A. (1978). The imposter phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 15(3), 241–247. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0086006
Gail Matthews and Pauline Clance, “Treatment of the Impostor Phenomenon in Psychotherapy Clients,” Psychotherapy in Private Practice 3, no. 1 (1985): 71–81.
Clance, P. R., & Langford, J (1993). The imposter phenomenon: Recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 30(3), Fal 1993, 495-501
“The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It” by Dr. Valerie Young, (2011)
Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries : “The dangers of feeling like a fake”, September 2005 issue of Harvard Business Review
Neureiter M., Traut-Mattausch E. (2016). Inspecting the dangers of feeling like a fake: an empirical investigation of the impostor phenomenon in the world of work. Front. Psychol. 7:1445 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01445