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Impostor Syndrome: What It Is, Its Impact, and Solutions

As if it were not hard enough transitioning from law to business a certain percentage of attorneys find themselves suffering from impostor syndrome. It may manifest itself at any time but the first 6 months, when moving from practicing attorney to business executive, is when the phenomenon is most often observed.

One day the person is a successful attorney able to measure progress every day. It may be a brief filed, a client emergency handled, or it may be as simple as recording 8 hours of billable time that day. Then they find themselves in an executive position in corporate America where there generally is not the same kind of yardstick as seen in the practice of law. For example, an attorney moving right into a position in marketing or HR or investor relations.

Waleed Diab, Director & Global Head of Recorded Music Business Development for YouTube and a former practicing attorney, had this to say about making the jump to business.  He did not suffer from Imposter Syndrome but is very astute on how it can easily arise:

“When you’re a lawyer, even if you’re having a bad day or you’re having a bad week and you’re feeling like, ’Oh I haven’t really done that much, I haven’t accomplished that much, you always have ways to reassure yourself that you’re adding value. Maybe you turn in a redline of a contract, or you go research some legal issue and you feel you’ve done what you needed to do to add value.

When I moved over to the business side, I couldn’t rely on those things anymore because somebody else was responsible for them. I had to figure out new skills and a new way to provide value.”

For some, this is when impostor syndrome may first appear. We asked attorney journalist Nancy Stein to look into this. Her article is enlightening.        

Impostor Syndrome:

What It Is, Its Impact, and Solutions

What It Is

Impostor syndrome (IS) is a psychological phenomenon where people doubt their abilities and accomplishments, attributing their successes to luck or external factors rather than their abilities. Psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes first identified the syndrome in1978. They called it impostor phenomenon. Only later did the name change to impostor syndrome.

People who suffer from IS feel they don’t deserve their success and have a persistent fear that they’ll be exposed as a fraud or incompetent despite the evidence to the contrary. Although it is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5-TR), impostor syndrome is real and affects even the most talented, intelligent and accomplished people at one time or another.

Its Impact

Although a disproportionate number are women and minorities are among the ranks of IS sufferers, men are far from exempt from those feelings. IS leads to low self-esteem, self-doubt, anxiety, and decreased innovation. In some instances, it leads to procrastination and in other instances, it leaves sufferers unable to move forward as they struggle with self-doubt as they strive for perfection. Impostor syndrome affects relationships and collaboration. It impacts people’s personal and professional lives, their creativity, productivity, and advancement opportunities at work.

The issue is serious enough that industry-leading companies have established programs, policies, practices and training to help their employees overcome the problem. A manager over at Google said that the problem can exist at any level of a company, but it tends to manifest most with newer hires who, after a short time on the job, leave the company because they feel intimated, that they’re not as smart as they need to be, and they’re afraid of being found out and fired.

How Impostor Syndrome Affects the Workplace

Not only does Impostor Syndrome impact individuals, it also affects entire teams and companies. People are less likely to share ideas, innovate, and volunteer if they feel they will be perceived as stupid or think they aren’t up to the task. Brainstorming doesn’t generate creative ideas or new strategies if people are too afraid to share what they think. Talented people stagnate. They fail to innovate, and they don’t move up in the ranks because they don’t stand out as potential leaders. Depression can become a serious problem, which impacts overall well-being.

What Companies Are Doing

A number of industry-leading companies have established workshops and training programs to address impostor syndrome. Google offers an “Empowering Impostor Syndrome” workshop that focuses on helping employees recognize and overcome self-doubt. Salesforce has a training program called “Own Your Growth” that has a segment focused on helping workers overcome impostor syndrome. Etsy’s “Overcoming Impostor Syndrome” workshop is aimed at helping employees understand and overcome feelings of inadequacy while Asana’s “Asana for Mindfulness” training program includes a segment on impostor syndrome and how to overcome it. Adobe also has a program. It’s called “Inclusive Leadership,” and it includes a section on addressing impostor syndrome.

Strategize to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

Various strategies that can help individuals overcome impostor syndrome. Among them are:

  • Therapy, including Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a therapeutic approach focused on identifying and changing negative thought patterns. Its goal is to help impostor syndrome sufferers recognize and challenge their feelings of self-doubt and negative beliefs about their abilities. Working with a mental health professional can help in identifying and addressing underlying causes of impostor syndrome and developing a tailored treatment plan.
  • Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) can help individuals develop greater awareness of their thoughts and feelings, respond to them more constructively, and build greater self-confidence.
  • Coaching and Mentorship can help individuals identify and overcome their self-doubt through objective feedback, guidance, and support. A coach or mentor can help set people set achievable goals, develop new skills, and gain greater confidence.
  • Support Groups can provide a sense of validation and support through sharing experiences and strategies for overcoming self-doubt.
  • Self-Affirmation can help reduce negative thoughts, increase positive thoughts, and build greater self-confidence.

There are also many online and in-person programs, workshops and resources to help overcome impostor syndrome including those offered by MasterClass, BetterUp, The Muse, Udemy, Mind Tools, and Lean In, which is the nonprofit Facebook’s former COO Sheryl Sandberg founded. There’s a list of resources at the end of this article.

Words of Wisdom

Even very famous and successful people admit to suffering from impostor syndrome like Sheryl Sandberg. She discusses it in her book and established Lean In to help others. The late and great author and poet Maya Angelo, actors Tom Hanks and Emma Watson, former first lady Michelle Obama, Broadway show “Hamilton” creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and so many others have suffered from impostor syndrome. Here’s what some of them have shared as strategies to manage IS.

  • Acknowledge self-doubt and insecurity instead of trying to ignore or suppress the feelings.
  • Focus on the skills and experiences that have helped you get to where you are, rather than on the things you haven’t accomplished or mistakes you’ve made.
  • Seek out mentors and supportive communities to help navigate insecurities and build confidence.
  • Take risks and step outside of your comfort zone, even if it means risking failure or rejection. Remind yourself that you’re learning and growing. No one is perfect.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes, and then forgive yourself when you do.
  • Stop listening to the negative voice inside you so you can reframe your thinking.

According to Sandberg, it helps for her to remind herself of past successes and focus on the positive impact she’s had on others. According to Miranda, know that impostor syndrome is a common experience. He says it helps him to focus on the work he has to get done instead of the negative feelings and suggests surrounding yourself with support and being kind to yourself. Maya Angelo said, “I think the key to overcoming imposter syndrome is to embrace your own uniqueness. You have something that nobody else has. You have your own voice, your own vision, your own way of looking at the world. Celebrate that and use it to your advantage.”

Law marketing coach Carolyn Sandano who has worked with many lawyers suffering from imposter syndrome said, “It’s important to look at your history, your successes from the past. Even mistakes you’ve made are an indication of future success if you learned from those mistakes. Get an external source to help you see who you are, your skills, and your abilities. You want someone who can be objective, someone you can trust who isn’t financially invested in you or your success.” 

Conclusion

Remember that you’re not alone. Lots of people suffer from impostor syndrome. The path to overcoming impostor syndrome will be different from person to person, but some helpful steps that seem to work well are realizing and acknowledging your feelings, reframing your thoughts, and focusing on your strengths and achievements. Don’t be afraid to take on a challenge. You don’t need to be an expert in all respects, and you don’t have to be experienced in every job criterion. In transitioning from law to another field, carefully consider how your skills will translate well to another role and be prepared to discuss with interviewers what makes you a great candidate for the job.

It’s important to develop a growth mindset, recognize that success often requires hard work, and embrace challenges. In doing so, you can work toward overcoming self-doubt, celebrating achievements, and accomplishing your goals.

Resources

There are numerous resources focused on helping people overcome impostor syndrome. Here are a few:

Books:

  • E.V. Estacio, Ph.D., The Impostor Syndrome Remedy: A 30-Day Action Plan to Stop Feeling Like a Fraud (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform 2018).
  • Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance—What Women Should Know (Harper Business 2014).
  • Valerie Young, Ed.D., The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (Currency 2011).

TED Talks:

  • “How you can use impostor syndrome to your benefit” by Mike Cannon-Brookes
  • “How students of color confront impostor syndrome” by Dena Simmons
  • “The imposter syndrome paradox” by Lisa and Richard Orbe’-Austin 
  • “The surprising solution to the impostor syndrome” by Lou Solomon
  • “Thinking your way out of imposter syndrome” by Dr. Valerie Young

Podcasts:

There are dozens of IS-focused podcasts. These are just a few of the many:

  • “Overcoming Impostor Syndrome” by The Advancement Spot Podcast
  • “The Cure for the Chronic Impostor Syndrome” by The Accidental Creative
  • “The Impostor Syndrome” by Samuel Westwood
  • “The Impostor Syndrome Club” by Jessamy Gee and Alice Edy
  • “The Impostor Syndrome Files” by Kim Meninger
  • “The Impostor Syndrome Podcast” by Anthony English
  • “The Impostor Syndrome Terminator” by Ines Padar

Online Resources:

The Impostor Syndrome Institute’s website has an impostor syndrome test you can take to assess the severity of your impostor syndrome and the institute offers a free workbook to help individuals overcome impostor syndrome.

There are a number of online support groups, such as those on Facebook, that can help you connect with others struggling with impostor syndrome.

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