Understanding imposter syndrome in law

01 November 2020 By Dr Rina Daluz
Understanding imposter syndrome in law

Even and especially for lawyers, there are ways to tame the critical voice within you, writes Dr Rina Daluz.

Everyone has a voice within them that tells them what they think of themselves. It is an internal dialogue that can be loud or soft and sometimes we may catch it and sometimes we don’t notice it. For some people, there is a voice within them that makes them doubt themselves, perpetuating feelings of not being good enough and frequent feelings of dread that one day they will find out that they are not as capable or deserving of their success – this voice is what is known as impostor syndrome, and it can happen to anyone even someone as capable and skilled professionals such as lawyers.

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The term impostor syndrome was coined by psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, defining the phenomenon as pervasive feelings of self-doubt or fraudulence, unable to attribute their achievements to their own ability and competence with a strong belief that they will not be able to keep up and be caught out – that someone will figure out that you are not deserving of your success and you should not be where you are in your studies or career. Hence the feeling of being an impostor.

In 2018, a national study in the UK conducted by Access Commercial Finance found that lawyers are one of the top four professionals who have experienced impostor syndrome. Law is a competitive industry and attracts high achievers. In 2017, the ATAR cut-off to study law for top NSW universities was between 95 to 99.50 which means you must be in the top 5 per cent of your cohort to get into a law degree. Given the popularity of the degree, it has led to oversupply of law graduates which leads to remarkable competition.

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The background context for one to become a lawyer at times is susceptible to experiencing impostor syndrome given the extraordinary expectations and competitiveness starting from entry into university and landing a career as a lawyer. Gender-wise, some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women, while others indicate that men and women are equally affected.

In my work as a psychologist, impostor syndrome is a common presentation, I have come across individuals crippled by anxiety unable to complete assessments or to take the exam, passing up promotion opportunities with fears that one might not be up to the task, rigid thinking about mistakes and at times obsessional thoughts of making everything perfect. Sometimes this critical voice leads to self-sabotage that results in the materialisation of negative self-prophecy which may lead to depression. The impact of impostor syndrome cannot be underestimated. While it’s a prevalent feeling in career or studies, it can also creep into people’s personal lives.

Atlassian chief executive Mike Cannon-Brookes talks honestly about his experience of impostor syndrome in a 2019 TED Talk. In 2009, Michelle Obama spoke about her experiences of impostor syndrome in her speaking and public engagements. Even Albert Einstein may have suffered from impostor syndrome, reportedly considered himself as an “involuntary swindler” feeling uneasy with the attention given to his work. Hence, you are not alone and there are ways to tame this critical voice within you.

Here are some suggestions to overcome impostor syndrome:

  •                     Acknowledge your experience – if you have self-doubt, it likely a colleague or even a boss feels or felt the same way;
  •                     Normalise how you feel – you are not alone;
  •                     Notice if you are comparing yourself to peers – each one has their unique strengths and areas of development;
  •                     Be aware of your self-talk – challenge unhelpful thinking;
  •                     Practice self-compassion – talk to yourself the same way you talk to someone you most care about;
  •                     Set realistic expectations;
  •                     Reward your progress not just the outcomes; and
  •                     Celebrate your success – you deserve it!

If feelings and thoughts associated with impostor syndrome are starting to be of concern or taking a toll on you, talk to a trusted friend or family member and seek psychological support.

Dr Rina Daluz is a psychologist working both at UNSW and in private practice.

Understanding imposter syndrome in law
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