I was sitting with my friend—a senior partner at a big law firm, when he said it.
We were having coffee; finishing our conversation. And then, at one point, he leaned in, and whispered:
“I don’t know if you know, but a lot of lawyers are afraid that someone will find out that they really don’t know what they are doing.”
I remember pausing for a few seconds, then laughing, before I said: “You’re talking about imposter syndrome.”
And it was at this precise moment that it hit me.
My friend, a hugely successful lawyer, who had been practicing for decades, had never heard of this “imposter.” And the manner in which he spoke conveyed the sense that he felt lawyers were alone in feeling this way. That they were somehow an anomaly.
Well, this is…not the case. There’s more to the story than most lawyers realize.
You Are Not Alone
Imagine it’s your first day at work. You get on the elevator. Then it stops.
You’re supposed to be at the opening meeting for all associates in 3 minutes. And that’s when you feel it: you’re starting to sweat, and you notice your heart rate increase rapidly. Then you notice a flurry of thoughts incoming—
I can’t be late.
I’m not even sure I belong here.
If you yelled this out to the other incoming associates in the elevator (which of course, I know you wouldn’t do), you might hear someone else say, “look, I feel the same way.” You also might hear silence.
But what if—in advance of this scenario—you knew that the other people in the elevator actually felt the same way?
The reality is this: most likely, they do.
Impostor syndrome—the idea that your success is due to blind luck, as opposed to real, genuine talent—was first identified in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes.
And according to a systematic review of 62 studies published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in December 2019, up to 82% of individuals might actually experience imposter-type feelings in their day-to-day lives. Another study, which was published in The International Journal of Behavioral Science, estimated that 70% of people experience imposter feelings at some point in their lives.
Meaning: the idea that it’s just you, that you’re alone—is in fact not even close to true. If you’re breathing, you have a heartbeat, and you can blink twice, the truth is, you have—at some point in your life—felt like an imposter.
And it holds for the rich and famous, too. Albert Einstein, Tom Hanks, Maya Angelou, and Neil Armstrong have all openly admitted that they’ve felt like imposters at different points in their lives. And while I haven’t won any academy awards, written 11 books, or walked on the moon, I’ll put my name on the list too, because I’m intimately acquainted with imposter syndrome.
I’ve felt it, seen it happen firsthand—in my work with lawyers and high-performance individuals—I notice it, constantly. But here’s a question that might not be immediately obvious:
How do you know if you have it?
The Different Flavors of Imposter Syndrome (and How to Tell Which One You Are)
Valerie Young, an imposter syndrome expert and author of The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women, has noticed several patterns of how imposter syndrome “shows up” in peoples’ lives—and it’s pretty telling:
The Perfectionist. While getting things right, “crossing every t and dotting every i,” is the name of the game in the legal world, this pattern of thinking can be difficult for anyone. When big goals are set and a perfectionist is unable to reach them, they start to feel overwhelmed and self-doubt can start creeping in. Or, more accurately: it can feel like they’re getting hailed by a rapid-firing machine gun. When minor flaws start to easily color and distort otherwise excellent performance, getting 99 out of 100 can start to feel like failure and shame.
Superman/Superwoman (a.k.a., the workaholic). Many lawyers work so hard (late nights, and weekends) in an effort to prove to themselves that, deep-down, they’re good enough. Falling short evokes shame, and conflicts with the intrinsic belief that they should be able to handle it all (even though it would be hard for anyone). The key here to mention: behavior is not driven by a healthy sense of purpose or meaning, but rather managing an ongoing (and often unacknowledged) identity crisis, one where productivity = worthiness as a human being.
The Expert. This is the lawyer who needs to know every piece of information before taking action. “Experts” often seek out trainings and certifications in their effort to “know everything.” But when they don’t, this is internalized as failure or shame.
The Natural Genius. The bar is set extremely high for lawyers who fall into this category. They’re used to doing things very quickly, so when they have to put in effort, an alarm signals that something must be “wrong.” And then, the shame cycle begins. Plus, if effort is required, and it’s internalized as a weakness, it’ll leave the lawyer unwilling to try something new and avoid challenging situations, ones that can lead to growth.
The Soloist. For the soloist, the belief is that one must go it alone. Asking for help is a weakness and reveals that they’re not well-suited for the job. To be successful, soloists believe they have to do and figure out everything on their own. Needing help is simply a sign of failure.
Okay—Those are the Patterns. But What Exactly Is Imposter Syndrome?
Let’s break it down.
Imposter syndrome is, basically, a manifestation of our “inner critic.” In a nutshell, it’s holding onto beliefs (tightly, I might add) that you’re really not as smart or capable as people think you are despite clear evidence to the contrary.
Most people who struggle with imposter syndrome have a long list of accomplishments—only (and here’s the big thing) they haven’t been able to internalize their “wins.”
This internal mindset, instead, is built upon fear of failure, and a fixed mindset to boot. This leads to insanely high expectations, chronic self-doubt, and even identity crisis.
Imagine them: lawyers, just like you (or someone you love) taking on extra work, staying late, and doing this—every single day—because planted deep in their mind is the sneaky little idea that, on some level, no matter how much evidence they have, they believe they’re an imposter.
Not good, right?
Well, strap in: it gets worse.
When Imposter Syndrome Becomes Worse—a Lot Worse
In a normal situation, imposter syndrome isn’t pleasant. But in high-stress situations, imposter syndrome can become something impossible, even unmanageable. And if it’s not acknowledged, and it’s not dealt with, it can lead to isolation, to depression, anxiety, and burning out.
That means a bright, happy lawyer walking into the job, can walk out of the firm, not feeling any purpose, drive, or desire to continue their job, with all the joy sucked out of their life—even when things are fine.
Okay—So How Do We Move Forward?
To effectively manage “imposter syndrome,” we need tools, and good ones, at that. Here’s a few:
First, work to acknowledge and become more aware of yourself.
Awareness is the first step to change. It’s like the light in a room—if you can’t turn on the light, you won’t find your keys. Self-awareness is the light that leads to growth, because it helps you see the problem clearly. To facilitate this, keeping a journal and pausing long enough to notice and record thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can help us to notice triggers, physiological reactions, and other cues that throw us off track. While this can be uncomfortable starting out, it frees up energy and space long term. Basically, try to map out: how does imposter syndrome show up in my life, very specifically? When? Why? And in what way?
Second, work to reframe “failure.”
Fear of failure is the engine of imposter syndrome. To quell this, read about famous people who have “failed.” What happens is, when you start to read these stories, you start to notice the reality: you’ll likely see that their “failure” was actually the catalyst for their success. So make notes and keep them close. Remind yourself that failure is a critical part of growth. If you’re not failing, you’re not growing. And after you fail, just do it—reset, pick yourself up, learn and write down the lesson (so you can actually grow), and move to the next thing.
Third, celebrate your “wins.”
Keep a notebook with your “wins.” Most high achieving people are fantastic at recounting their struggles with amazing clarity, but don’t take nearly as much time to pause and reflect on their “wins”—the whole point of doing all of this! So come up with ways you’ll reward yourself following a success—maybe take out from your favorite restaurant, leaving work a little early, or spending time doing an activity you enjoy. Rewarding yourself and reflecting are critical and pay off long term—building positive energy and buffer room for the tough times.
And finally, be kind to yourself.
Remember, you’re human. You are allowed to make mistakes. You have one life to live—and success and failure (but especially failure) are part of everyone’s journey. When you’re hard on yourself, imagine you’re talking with a good friend. What would you tell them?