How Imposter Syndrome Made Me Miserable in Law School, and How I Got Over It

Shortly after I started law school, an internal monologue began to creep into my every day thoughts, “what am doing here? I don’t know what I need to know. I am not cut out for this. My professors and classmates will find out that I am not really that smart. I am the only one who feels this way.” On and on it went until it started to affect my sense of well-being and my ability to feel good about my contributions.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a strong case of Imposter Syndrome. Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes, two American psychologists, coined the term in the late 1970’s. They defined Imposter Syndrome, aka Imposter Phenomenon, as a sense of “phoniness in people who believe they are not intelligent, capable or creative despite evidence of high achievement.” Many of those who suffer from Imposter Syndrome are not only smart but “motivated to achieve,” However, they live in fear of being found out or exposed as a fraud. Anxiety and depression is often experienced by people who have imposter syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome tends to impact those who were raised in families who had a high expectation for success. People growing up in households where parents would praise their success and criticize their short comings, tend to grow up with higher sense of insecurity and feel like a fraud. A higher number of minorities have Imposter Syndrome because there is a belief that we are the underdogs of society that have to work harder, faster and better then the majority. 

Imposter Syndrome can show up in at least two ways: either as procrastination or over preparing. The root cause is the desire to be perfect. Those who procrastinate may be putting off a project because they feel they won’t be able to complete it to their elevated standards. Those who over prepare are always trying to make it better and tend to spend more time than is necessary on a task which results in burn out.

Imposter Syndrome tends to show up when people start something new, like a new job, a new project at work, or graduate school where people are learning new things that they have not yet had time to apply in the real world. Hence, my miserable law school experience. 

Can you get rid of Imposter Syndrome? It’s possible but for many of us it gets triggered and rears its ugly head right when we need to move forward. What can we do to get rid of Imposter Syndrome?

1.    Recognize it. Once you know what it is you can see when it starts to come up in your thoughts and you can call it out by saying: ok you’re here, and you are telling me things that are not real. You can have your fun but I won’t let you get in my way.

2.    Get off the hamster wheel. The thoughts that Imposter Syndrome bring up like to ruminate in your brain. Most people who suffer from it do not talk about it. They keep their thoughts locked up because they are afraid of being found out. Find someone you trust who you can share these thoughts with, a trusted friend, colleague, or therapist. Once you start to talk about it, you start to see how disconnected it is from reality. You can learn to identify as a saboteur and park it on a bench somewhere outside of your thoughts.

3.    Change your dialogue. How do you talk about yourself or your work with others? Are you using disparaging language? At a meeting you might be saying, “Um, it might just be me, but I have a question…” instead of “I have a question and I am sure others can benefit from some clarity.” Your tone in the way you speak about yourself make a difference in how you are heard in the world, and when you hear yourself be more assertive it changes your inner monologue.

4.    Share your Expertise. You have knowledge and sharing it can help you remind you of your contributions, skills and expertise. Teach a class or become a mentor.

5.    Develop your crew. You’re the captain of your own life purpose. Recruit friends or colleagues you can check in with who can remind you of all the amazing things you bring to the table.

Jump in! It's never too late

Learning Something New

Our sixty-year old colleague Louise joined a rowing team over a year ago. She wakes up at 4:30 in the morning, regardless of weather, and makes her way down to the cold waters of the bay each week to row. She had to learn a number of skills when she began and also how to complement the skills her team brought to the table. Learning new skills has improved her focus, concentration and memory. In addition to having the sexiest arms of anyone we know, she has also made new friends and found camaraderie among like-minded people.

Tons of studies support learning a new skill as the best way to keep your brain sharp and prevent cognitive aging. Learning a mentally complex skill or picking up a challenging new hobby can improve your memory. Taking a class, learning a musical instrument or a new game all help to stimulate the brain because you are challenging your mind to develop a new roadmap on how to bring a new experience or learning opportunity into your world. Being open to something difficult that takes time to learn or requires commitment from you may seem a little daunting.  A new opportunity allows you to take a leap of faith and challenge yourself and your brain to learn, grow and make room for a pastime that gives you energy and excitement. Maybe now is the time to dust off that old Rubix cube. 

Chunk it Down!

File this under "everything I need to know I learned in kindergarten (or should have)". My kid's teachers always tell him to break things down into small, manageable steps. "Chunk it down!" I hear him whispering to himself sometimes, and I've picked up the habit too. Not the most elegant of self-help phrases, but wise anyway.

To state the obvious: we live in a world obsessed with prestige, wealth, and appearances, and it can be really hard to stay out of the comparison trap! It can be equally hard to figure out what we really want for ourselves, and what goals are realistic for us (vs. what we think we "should" want or do or have). But doing that hard work of figuring out what's right for you as an individual will pay off enormously: you can focus on the small steps that will get you to your own goals and make you happy. Let others shame-spiral as they binge-watch ostensibly perfect lives on Facebook—you are going to be confident and happy knowing you’re working your own plan!

Dreaming big is awesome- and encouraged- but expecting to make huge accomplishments instantly or without doing the work required is a sure route to disillusion and sadness. Success requires work. (Again, it sounds obvious, but a frequent complaint we hear from employers is that younger employees don’t demonstrate that awareness. This leaves everyone frustrated: the boss or client not getting their needs met, and the newer employee/associate who feels unappreciated.) When it’s our own lives we’re trying to figure out and plan, it can be easy to feel all: “Hey, I’m willing to do the work, I just don’t know WHAT TO DO!”

I was thinking about breaking big tasks into manageable steps today as I went to yoga class. And lo, our amazing teacher started the class by talking about how each time we honor a commitment to ourselves, no matter how big or small, we build self-trust. Every time we show up for ourselves in this way- be it going to yoga, or meeting a deadline, or eating well- we build trust. And that trust, that faith in ourselves, is what fuels us on the journey of small, manageable steps towards the big dream goals.

These are good reasons to explore coaching (and yoga!): to reveal what YOUR heart of hearts wants, and to plot out the work it’s going to require and each little step it will take to get there. You can do it- we can help!

Not Just For Kids

I read this great post over at ideapod about ten essential truths to teach one's children, and a few of them resonated with me as important not just for children, but for law students, job seekers, and really anyone who is trying to figure out what to do with their life. And isn't that everyone, at some point or other? Here's one such tip:

Rituals Matter, More Than Goals

My favorite tool of this year has been the Vision Book from the Dragontree Apothecary. It's a pretty half journal-half daily planner, and its layout practically requires you to create a ritual around planning. It encourages you to have one, five, ten-year and lifetime goals. I do believe that being honest about what you really want in different areas of your life- and saying those things OUT LOUD and WRITING THEM DOWN- are critical first steps towards accomplishing those goals. But what's going to get you there?

Call them habits, call it ritual: what's going to help you accomplish your goals are the daily small steps forward. If you're a list-maker, it's taking that quiet ten minutes each morning and reviewing what was left undone from yesterday, deciding what should be done today, prioritizing those things and creating a plan to accomplish those tasks. If you're not a list-maker, are you a visualizer? Can you build a daily ritual around envisioning what your day might hold? How else can you build in a daily practice that builds towards your larger goals?

When I first sat down with the Vision Book and saw the page that asked me to write down my lifetime goals, I almost gave up on the spot (and I'm 44 years old, so well on my way). But over the next few days I shyly started doodling some big dreams on that page. Some of those goals are far in the future, but they will only be accomplished by making small steps every day. The big goals can seem overwhelming, but the daily steps to get there shouldn't be. Create a ritual you love, and stick with it!



Personality, the Crackerjacks prize

Assessment tools are everywhere in the world of law school professional development. Professors are using them, career offices are using them and so are clinical programs. Everyone wants to help law students make well informed career choices so they can be fulfilled lawyers who are not only satisfied but happy with their career decisions.

As a career development professional team, we are always thinking of ways we can introduce self-assessment tools in a way that appeals to our students, and doesn’t sound condescending or woo-woo. Over the past few years we’ve introduced assessments that explored the 26 factors of good lawyering and other skills; interests; core values; and personality. The feedback we received from students who participated in the assessment workshops showed that the personality assessments were far and away the most popular and compelling. Many mentioned the assessments were the most useful non law exercises they engaged in during in in first year of law school.

So what’s so earth-shattering about personality? We all have one, right? If anything, we’re probably more aware of our own personality traits than we are of our core values. Personality can be easier to talk about than skills and interests. So why are people so excited about this discussion?

Because it’s PRACTICAL information that helps people relate better to the people around them. Realizing that we all have different preferred ways of taking in, processing, and acting on information takes the sting out of a lot of our differences. Knowing that your study group partner is a “P” (in MBTI-speak) can help you keep calm when it’s the week before the exam and she has yet to share an outline with you. She’s not taking advantage of you; she probably hasn’t started the process yet herself. Or you may have sensed that your roommate is introverted, but realizing that alone time is essential for him to be able to recharge at the end of a stressful day can keep you from being offended when he walks in and closes his door on your each afternoon. We all have our different ways of dealing with the world. Sometimes a tool like the MBTI personality assessment can feel like a welcome decoder key when we enter a new situation: law school, a new job, a new relationship.

How to tame a bad case of MONKEY BRAIN

Over the past year working full time-plus, and running a busy household as a mother to three year old twins, have made it virtually impossible for me to find five minutes for myself. My brain bounces from one thing to the next as I try to keep all the balls I have in the air going. This became particularly worrisome for me when I started to wake up at 2:30 in the morning and the stress of all I had to do the next day was keeping me from going back to sleep. Having been a sound sleeper for most of my life, this was the universe’s way to telling me to find a way to calm my monkey brain and be more “present.”

When I started to pay attention to these signs, amazing things started to happen.

Lawyers deal with conflict on a daily basis. We have heavy workloads, pressing timelines and intense competition from peers. Most of our work is solitary even when we work on teams. The focus on linear thinking and analysis makes us disconnect from our internal compass which regulates our feelings, values and sense of self. This disconnect can lead to substance abuse, depression, and difficulty in our interpersonal relationships.

What can we do to calm our mind? How can we change the impact of stress on our well-being? We can become more mindful of what is happening to us in the moment, and choose how we want to experience it. There are a number of things that come up when we do this and I want to highlight a few. When we are present we learn how to self-regulate how we handle our stress and our emotions. We develop an enhanced capacity for perspective taking. We become self-aware and the knowledge that comes from better knowing ourselves give us the ability to focus. Where does all this good stuff come from? A practice known as mindfulness. I know what you’re thinking because I felt the same way when I heard about mindfulness! It sounded hokey, weird and a little too Oprah meets Deepak Chopra for me. I felt this way until I found myself lying in bed at 2:30 AM unable to get rid of my unproductive thoughts and started to incorporate the few odds and ends of mindfulness practices I had picked up, but more on that later.

Mindfulness covers an amalgam of breathing exercises, meditation and focus techniques which are all the rage in corporate America. However, the legal profession has been a slow adopter of this concept. This is starting to change. Mindfulness practices are starting to pop up in law firms and law schools around the country because the profession is recognizing that our job as an attorney is to produce thoughts and solutions, not get caught up in them. When attorneys start using mindfulness practices they are better able to deal with the unexpected, can focus with more clarity on work issues and deadlines, and are better able tune into the needs of their clients. Focusing on your physical, emotional, and psychological radar keeps you from burning out, and that is worth paying attention to.

A few ways you can start your mindfulness practice:

(1) Develop a gratefulness practice. Each day write down something you are grateful for and keep it somewhere you can see it throughout the day. Allow yourself to reflect on the feeling you have when you think about it. Allow your thoughts, emotions and memory of this to expand your thoughts and awareness. Allow yourself to feel it in your body.

(2) Make time to recharge your batteries. Find five to ten minutes a day to disconnect from what you are doing and calm your mind. Close your eyes, take a deep breath and focus on it going in and out of your lungs. As thoughts come into your mind, allow them to drift away. A popular analogy is to think of your thoughts like clouds floating through the sky. They key is to allow these thoughts to leave your mind, and free yourself to think about nothing. The best times to do this is in the morning before you start your day and also at the midpoint in the day.

(3) Repeat a mantra. The word means “that which protects the mind” in Sanskrit. Focusing your attention on the sound and repetition of a mantra as you chant it out loud or internally allows the mind to pay attention to the sound and breathe as a form of mindfulness. The mantra, as an object of concentration, can help still the mind. This helps you become attentive and present. To find a mantra, start with two syllable word or a two word phrase. Having fewer words to keep track of will keep the practice simple.

Can you guess which one I used to help curb my 2:30 AM monkey brain? I chose a mantra from my spiritual practice. Repeating a short mantra helped me to quiet my mind, clear my thoughts and allow the introduction of one form of mindfulness practice that worked for me. I am still at the beginning of my journey but my skepticism is waning as I become more drawn to the positive effects the practice is having in my work and relationships.

What Matters Most to YOU?

Whenever you hear the term “values” come up in a work context, you usually hear it coming up in relation to “corporate values.” What is the bottom line for the company? Who are we? How do we want to be perceived in our market?

Who are we kidding? Corporations do not have values like people do.  Your core values help you identify what is important to you in your life and guide you to make choices at work and in your personal relationships. Having clarity on what your core values are will help you to make focused, clear decisions that open up opportunities for you to do impactful work in your current place of employment or find another path.

What are core values? They are what make you true to yourself. The code that you live by. You may or may not be conscious of the core values that exist in your everyday life. But once you start identifying and naming your core values they can be a powerful tool. They provide insight and help you understand why you make the decisions that you do, and how you can seek out opportunities in life that align with them.  

Core values are personal to you.  You may not have the same core values as your coworkers, significant others, or your clients.  However, we all use them to seek work options, develop relationships and build our social world regardless of whether we are aware of them or not. Let’s take an example of how this may come up.  You are in the job market looking for your next move.  You receive an offer from two different firms.  One has enviable financial incentives, higher than average billable hour requirements, opportunity for growth and profit sharing but is not as prestigious a firm.  One has average billable hour requirements, flexible work schedule, great benefits package, excellent reputation in the legal community, but low employee retention. You have two choices on how to decide which job is right for you. Most people will look at the external factors like, what do others think? What will each opportunity provide to you, or how you will you be perceived by others in one job vs. the other? A more nuanced approach would be to see which job aligns with your core values. What is important to you in the workplace? Maybe it’s the opportunity to be creative or inquisitive, leadership opportunities, learning and personal development, consistency for your day to day tasks or time with family.  Find some quiet place to think and write down core values that you have.  Answer the following questions to prompt you.

  1. What must you have in your life to feel fulfilled?

  2. Think about your ideal work situation. What core values are being venerated?

  3. Think of an important moment in your life that was moving or sentimental. What was happening? Who was there? What core values were celebrated in that moment?

  4. What do your friends and family say about you? What are things that you do or habits that you have that drive them up the wall? What core values come up for you in these situations?

  5. Think about a time when you have been frustrated or angry. Was there a value that was not being honored in that situation?

Now that you have your list of core values in writing, take time to reflect and refine your list over time.  Developing an awareness of when your life choices align with your core values help you to make informed decisions that lead to fulfilling life moments.  

First, Know Thyself...

I like maps. I like plans. When I’m tackling a problem, I find I start to draw it out-- here’s where I am, here’s where I want to go-- and then the steps in between start to make themselves more clear. Or when they don’t, I can more easily see what steps are missing. I see self-assessment as the Here’s Where I Am part of the map. The You Are Here sticker on the map. We can get all excited about making a change and reaching a new goal, but if we don’t have a strong sense of where we’re starting from, we might be aiming for the wrong thing. Or taking the long way there.

There are lots of ways to assess ourselves- and I don’t mean assess like giving ourselves a grade. I mean taking honest stock of our skills, our strengths, our personality, as well as what’s working and what’s not working about the situation we’re in now. Let’s talk about careers, to keep it simpler, but of course it’s a good idea to assess all areas of our life. That’s where the wheel of life tool comes in handy- use that tool to see what areas of your life could use some attention. Assuming, since you’re reading this, that you’ve decided your career/professional life could use some care and attention, here are some tools for you to drill down on what you want from your work, and what you don’t. These are geared towards law students and lawyers, but could easily be adapted for other types of careers. The values worksheet helps you get a handle on what’s important to you. Be careful not to answer these in the way that you think you should answer them, but in the way that feels most true to you.


The skills worksheet helps you identify what you like to do, and what you don’t. Take a look at what you have there- are you in a job that’s letting you use and further develop skills you enjoy? Or are you in a role that’s expecting you to do things that you’re neither good at nor enjoy? Oftentimes we fail to give ourselves credit for being skilled at things that come naturally to us. Like, Fairuz and I both love to host- we love to get people together, cook big meals, throw parties. Since this comes naturally to us, when asked what our skills are, it might not occur to us to say that we are highly skilled in (to take a few from the worksheet) initiating relationships, drawing people out, listening, or complex project management. We take it for granted because it comes easily and we enjoy it. But really, that’s our goal in work too, right? That should be our goal- to have work that uses our skills so it comes easily to us and we enjoy it. This is, I think, what the concept of being in Flow is all about.


So, take a look at what you have there on the skills and values worksheets, and then ask yourself these questions:


What’s working for me right now in my job? (Or, if you’re not working right now, what skills do you want to use, and what values do you want to honor, in your next job?)

What’s not working for me?

What values are getting met in your current job, and are there values that are getting stepped on? (Is something really pissing you off at work? That can be a good sign that a value is getting trampled. Anger is useful- pay attention to it!)

What skills do you want to use more?