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.