9 Ways to Go Beyond the Imposter Syndrome

We recently taught a webinar on the imposter syndrome for the American Bar Association.  (ABA members can access the webinar and earn CLE free of charge here.  Non-ABA members can access the webinar with a 15% discount by using the discount code FACMARK at checkout.)  

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In conversation with the ABA and program moderator Lacy Durham in advance of the webinar, one of the issues identified was that many people who feel they are a fraud or imposter think they’re unusual or alone, which adds to their shame and difficulty understanding that these feelings are common and not related to qualifications or skill.  We’re prepared this blog post as part of an effort to normalize the feelings of imposterism and help lawyers and other professionals build awareness.  It’s based on the remarks we and Lacy made during the webinar and is intended, in a more cursory way, to provide some brief background and resources.  We encourage you to share it with colleagues and your network to spur more discussion of the imposter syndrome and, in so doing, help remove the stigma around it.  

What is the imposter syndrome?  

Two American psychologists, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, first coined the term “imposter syndrome” 40 years ago, in 1978.  They described it as a feeling of “phoniness in people who believe that they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” While these people “are highly motivated to achieve,” they also “live in fear of being ‘found out’ or exposed as frauds.”

The imposter syndrome is still highly relevant today.  In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg described the imposter syndrome as the "phenomenon of capable people being plagued by self-doubt.”   

In short, the imposter syndrome goes beyond feeling insecure about your qualifications or experience and causes people to make illogical leaps.  For example, a person dealing with the imposter syndrome, rather thinking “I need to improve my writing – I really wish I was better at it” might think “I need to improve my writing, because I’m the worst writer in the office.  Someone is going to figure it out, and I’m going to get fired.” As another example, when a person not dealing with the imposter syndrome makes a mistake, we would expect their reaction to be “I made a mistake.”  They might feel frustration with themselves, but we would expect that their attention would shift quickly to learning from the mistake and avoiding it next time.

But when a person dealing with imposter syndrome makes a mistake, they might make the significant leap from “I made a mistake” to “All I do is make mistakes.  My colleagues are going to finally figure out that I’m a fraud.  I’m going to get fired.”

If you’ve ever found yourself making that type of leap, or found yourself with an objectively irrational fear that you’re a fake or a fraud, you may be dealing with the imposter syndrome. 

As we discussed in more depth during the webinar, the imposter syndrome afflicts people of all ages, races, backgrounds, and gender identities, but research shows that its effects can be particularly harmful for those who have or are also experiencing some form of discrimination.  That said, while many of the most prominent people who have come forward and discussed their own feelings of imposterism have been women or people of color, research shows that the imposter syndrome can be just as or more negative for men.

While the ABA webinar was of course geared to attorneys, the imposter syndrome can hold anyone back from achieving their goals. If, for example, you spend time worrying that you will be found out as a fraud because you aren’t really good enough to have been hired for your role, you are likely to refrain from seeking out bigger challenges.  And when you are successful, you are likely to be unable take pleasure in your achievements because you’re so afraid that the other shoe is about to drop and the façade is about to come crashing down. 

It can be helpful for people struggling with the imposter syndrome to know they’re not alone and that people they respect and admire have also experienced these feelings as well.  Because every time an accomplished, senior person talks about their own struggles with the imposter syndrome, it makes it easier for others to feel they’re not alone, they’re normal, and they can overcome it.  

Something as simple as saying to a junior person in your office, “I remember when I was at your stage and I was constantly worried someone would figure out I had no idea what I was doing” can help them see that their thoughts are not their reality. You can also help others by sharing posts like this one or any of the wealth of research on the imposter syndrome.  

Beyond talking about it, there are actionable steps that can help people struggling with these feelings acknowledge and move beyond them.  Here are nine actionable steps:  

(1)  Use logic. 

The prominent psychologist (and co-author, with Sheryl Sandberg, of Option B), Professor Adam Grant has been quoted as saying he has imposter syndrome but manages it with “the help of a wonderful time machine called [his] brain.” He says that when he is anxious about giving one of the many big lectures he gives each year, he thinks back to other times when he “wanted to run screaming off the stage” but did not and did a good job anyway.  Dr. Grant says that looking back on those other times when he was anxious and it all worked out helps him remember that most likely, he’ll be fine now too.  He said he also remembers that even if he would for some reason suddenly fail, he knows that down the road he will rather have tried and failed than to have failed to try.

As you use logic to evaluate your feelings, you may also ask yourself, if no one has “found you out” in the last X years of your career, what are the odds first that there’s something to find out, and second that it’s going to happen with today or this week?

Another way you can use logic to confront your own imposter syndrome is to ask yourself, “how true are my thoughts?” When you’re thinking “I am an idiot and going to blow this assignment,” asking “how true is that?” can stop your brain’s cycle of catastrophizing and help you focus on facts.    

Now, all this said, if when you objectively examine your thoughts, you realize that they actually are true, then you should take action.  If you are convinced you’re a horrible deposition taker, and ask yourself how true that is, you may realize that you’ve gotten constructive feedback on the last three depositions you took.  Thinking clearly and rationally about how to improve might yield ideas such as taking a deposition skills training, or sitting in on more depositions as an observer, or reading your own transcripts out loud.  If that’s the case, then of course you should follow up and work on improving your skills, at the same time as you continue to remind yourself that being a work in progress as you move through your career is perfectly normal, and not a sign of incompetence or that you aren’t meant to be in your role.

(2)  Remember all of the successful people who have publicly said they’ve experienced imposter syndrome.  

Perhaps the easiest way to remind yourself that the imposter syndrome isn’t an accurate reflection of your accomplishments or potential is to reflect on all of the successful people who have publicly said they, too have struggled with feelings of being an imposter.  From Sheryl Sandberg to David Bowie, Serena Williams, Maya Angelou, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, John Steinbeck, Tom Hanks, and Emma Watson, the people we look up to as having reached the pinnacle of their respective careers are just as likely to have experienced the imposter syndrome as any of us.  

If a Supreme Court Justice or even Hermione can struggle with feelings of being an imposter or fraud, then of course you as an individual professional might struggle with it.  Take that a step farther and remind yourself that the feelings they experienced were just feelings – they weren’t actually frauds or imposters who didn’t deserve their own successes.  Just as their feelings of imposterism weren’t accurate reflections of fact for them, your feelings of imposterism aren’t accurate reflections of fact for you, either.  Recognizing that can help you begin to move past those feelings.   

(3)  Fake it until you make it.  

Tell yourself you are confident, smart, qualified, bold — whatever characteristic you feel like you aren’t.  For some people, they may go so far as to tell themselves they aren’t going into court and making the big oral argument, their alter ego is.  

It’s like telling yourself “I’m not scared, I’m excited” — there is science behind why this works, but the takeaway to remember is simply that by telling yourself you are these qualities and acting as if you are, soon you won’t be telling yourself or acting anymore — you really will be the qualities you are trying to foster in yourself. 

Along the same lines, you may want to consider focusing on your body language as a way to tell both your brain and those you’re interacting with that you are confident.  Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on body languageand her book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challengesare both good resources on this.  

Another technique to help you fake it til you make it is to practice out loud, in front of a mirror, introducing yourself with confidence. Standing in front of a mirror saying your elevator pitch over and over again can help you internalize your role and approach interactions with confidence.  

(4)  Remember the power of yet.

As you work to confront and move beyond your own feelings of imposterism, Remember three little letters: YET.

Angela Duckworth recommends this technique in Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance for parents trying to teach their kids resilience, but I’ve found it helps me in working with coaching clients — and in working with myself.  Basically, whenever you feel intimidated — "I don’t know how to take a deposition,” for example, add yet on the end.  "I don’t know how to take a deposition YET.”  Adding those three little letters to the end of your sentence puts the emphasis back on your development and growth as a person and gets you both out of a fixed growth mindset and allows you to focus on the future.

You can use that same technique with people you’re supervising.  When you ask someone to do something and they say they don’t know how, reframe it in your head and think of it as though they told you they don’t know how yet.  Then offer guidance and suggestions to them for how they can learn, rather than viewing it as the end of the conversation.  

(5)  Reduce your reactivity.

Another way to move beyond the imposter syndrome is to reduce your reactivity.  

Part of the problem with imposter syndrome is that it can be a comfortable resting place for you to jump to immediately in moments of stress or self-doubt.  

One way to reduce your reactivity, and give yourself a moment to stop and think before you move to the worst case scenario thought of “making a mistake proves I’m incompetent and shouldn’t even be a XYZ” is to introduce mindfulness, a way of being more deeply present to your body, your thoughts, and your emotions. 

Whether you practice mindful movement, such as yoga or walking meditation, or meditation, anything that helps you rewire your brain and give yourself a moment to think logically between the stimulus (realizing you made a mistake) and response (the thing you are going to tell yourself about what that mistake means) will help you both be a better professional — because you’ll be less likely to jump to illogical and unhelpful conclusions — and help you kick the imposter syndrome.  

There are lots of ways to do this, through apps like Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer, which provide simple mindfulness and breathing exercises you can do in your office or just walking down the street. 

For ABA members, the webinar Overcoming Chronic Stress by Improving Attorney Mental Health & Wellness (On-Demand CLE)has some helpful tips that can apply to the imposter syndrome context, as well as many mindfulness-related resources.  

And beyond the imposter syndrome, learning to pause before reacting to aggravating coworkers, or anyone else, can make a big difference in your career.    

(6)  Build a strong support system.  

As referenced during the webinar, there are differences between friends, mentors, work colleagues, sponsors, and coaches.  We’ll address those more in depth in a future post, but in short, you need a strong support system of people who cheer you up and give you pep talks (friends), give you thoughtful and honest advice (mentors), are fun to grab lunch or coffee with and talk through work issues (work colleagues), speak up for you and support you internally and externally (sponsors), and are unbiased observers and participants solely interested in your success (coaches).  A strong support system should include all of these, but we’ll particularly address friends, mentors, and coaches here.  

It’s critical to build a strong support system, particularly of people who can relate to your struggles, because it can be a huge help to have friends and colleagues to call on who can restore your perspective.  There are lots of different ways to do that, from calling your grandma to be reminded of your other achievements to joining an affinity group and getting to know others who may have experienced the same issues.  

For lawyers in particular, several participants in the ABA webinar suggested utilizing the services of Lawyers Assistance Programs, as well as the network of ABA lawyers across the country.

Having a close circle of friends who work in different environments and can share their own experiences and remind you of your strengths can be helpful as you learn to move beyond feelings of imposterism.

(7)  Consider coaching.

Working with a professional coach can help you overcome issues you may be having with the imposter syndrome, or any other career-based hurdle or goal.

You probably pay a professional to change the oil in your car, cut your hair, redo your roof, or tell you what exercises to do.  You probably have someone who does your taxes, services your copier, and manages your IT.  We have professional help for so many aspects of our lives, but when it comes to goal achievement, career setbacks, imposter syndrome, and general issues with our career we often don’t consider getting qualified help.

Often employers will pay for a professional, career, or executive coach.  But even if your employer doesn’t have that type of program, the investment you make can easily make a significant difference in your income, personal career achievements, and ability to set and achieve more significant goals than you thought possible.

Specific to the imposter syndrome, working with a coach can provide the perspective you need on your own accomplishments, where you have exceled, and assist you by providing support where you have actually fallen short.  Having a coach can be an easy way to have a “check in” person who provides a perspective focused on one thing only: your success.

(8)  Find a mentor.  

You hopefully already know the value of a mentor in providing advice and counsel for many aspects of your life and career.  But mentors are also an important tool for people wanting to overcome the imposter syndrome, because a mentor can serve as a reality check and hopefully be willing to share their own experiences with feeling inadequate or like a fraud, and how they overcame them.

A mentor does not have to know that you are dealing with imposter syndrome.  In fact they a mentor can help you without even knowing.  On the flip side, depending on the relationship you have with your mentor, you may want to directly address the issue with them.  For a mentor to be helpful in addressing the imposter syndrome, he or she needs to be willing to be honest about times when they experienced these feelings and how they overcame them, as well as giving advice on how you can strengthen your skills and work.  

Some of the webinar participants noted that it can be difficult to find a mentor, particularly in smaller towns or organizations.  If that is the case for you, consider utilizing a professional association or alumni association to find a mentor.  

Don’t forget to pay it forward and serve as a mentor for a younger colleague in your profession as well.

 (9) Remind yourself of your achievements.

Reminding yourself of your achievements is two pronged: First, work to stop the negative remarks you make to yourself about yourself.  Making remarks you may think are self-deprecating and making yourself seem more approachable can backfire; giving air to those comments – even seemingly innocuous comments like “I pulled that one off” or “that came to me out of thin air” – gives them power.  Instead, replace those comments with positive reminders of your accomplishments.  Something as simple as saying “Yes, we won the business” or “I felt great in that negotiation today” can be a subtle way of reminding yourself of your achievements and allowing yourself to enjoy them.

Changing the messages you give at work about your own and team accomplishments can help others you work with who may also struggle with the imposter syndrome.  Just taking some time as a team to bask in an accomplishment – whether a team huddle over cupcakes or regaling others in the office with the story of how well a team member handled a stressful situation – can lift up others and help them enjoy their own accomplishment. That in turn can help them see themselves as competent professionals and add to their own armor for deflecting feelings of imposterism. 

Along those lines, several webinar participants noted that repeating a positive affirmation each day has been helpful for them in replacing negative self-talk with positive.  

In addition to changing from negative to positive comments, you can create a resource that you can draw on when you are struggling to feel competent and confident.  Here are some ideas: keep a drawer of complimentary letters and emails from clients, awards, and other things that help you put things back in perspective when your imposter syndrome kicks in; keep a journal and log three wins every Friday you’ve had from the week before; frame documentation of your notable achievements; or, at the end of each month, take a few minutes to update a log of your accomplishments.  

The goal with any of these ideas is to do something that helps you remember that you’re human, and a work in progress.  (Plus, these will be helpful the next time you need to update your bio or resume, in addition to giving you a reference for the next time you feel those feelings of inadequacy popping up.)    

There’s of course much more than could be said about the imposter syndrome, but we encourage you to share your own experiences.  Have you found yourself fearing you would be found out as “less than” your colleagues?  Have you ever worried you only got to where you are through a mistake?  How have you overcome feelings of imposterism?  Please share your experiences in the comments below, and please take a moment to raise the issue with a friend or colleague.  As we’ve already heard from the webinar feedback this week, hearing how someone else has struggled with the imposter syndrome can make a big difference to someone who may be feeling alone.  And please let us know if we can help you or a colleague working on this or other career issues.     

Thanks to the American Bar Association, ABACLE, Center for Professional Responsibility, and Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs for inviting us to speak on the imposter syndrome, and to moderator Lacy Durham for her expertise and leadership on this and other issues facing the legal profession.