A lawyer client of mine recently introduced me to Nancy, someone she knew well. Negative Nancy to be precise. This was the name she’d given to her inner critic, the voice inside her head that frequently and consistently told her she wasn’t cut out for her job, and that any minute she was going to get found out as the person least equipped to have a career in law.

You may be familiar with your own Nancy – or Nigel – as well. The one who tells you, regardless of how qualified you are, that you are still a complete fraud. You’re in good company: high profile names such as Sheryl Sandberg, David Bowie, Serena Williams, Tom Hanks and Mary Portas have all at certain times experienced similar feelings.

Prevalence in women

I’m confident most women in law will have been there at some point in their careers. Of all the female lawyers I’ve coached, I’d say around 75%, possibly more, have at some stage experienced what is commonly termed imposter syndrome: ‘the persistent inability to believe that one’s success is deserved or has been legitimately achieved as a result of one’s own efforts or skills’.

The phrase is rooted in American psychology. Research by P R Clance and S A Imes in 1978 shone a light on the so-called imposter phenomenon. Dr Valerie Young in The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer from the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It (2011) develops these ideas further. Interestingly, both studies focus on high achieving women.

Prevalence in men

Yet there needs to be a concession here. As we have already seen, men are not immune. Studies of college students, professors and successful professionals all failed to reveal any differences between the sexes in the imposter feelings, suggesting that men in these groups were just as likely to have low expectations of success and put their achievements down to factors external to their ability, such as luck and timing.

Following a 2012 TED Talk, social psychologist Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School received thousands of emails from people who had reportedly experienced feeling like a fraud, 50% of whom were men (‘Your body language may shape who you are’).

In an article for Business Insider, Shana Lebowitz put forward a reason: ‘Men… are too ashamed to talk about it’ (12 January 2016). This is supported by Clance and Imes’s original findings from anonymous surveys which ‘diagnosed’ [sic] imposter syndrome and revealed men and women experienced it equally.

Prevalence in underrepresented groups

Meanwhile, Sheryl Nance-Nash wrote in an article for the BBC: ‘Self-doubt and imposter syndrome permeate the workplace, but women, especially women of colour, are particularly likely to experience it’ (28 July 2020). Nance-Nash quoted Dr Thema Bryant-Davis, a Black Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University in California, who put this down to ‘the lack of role models for marginalised communities which has a major impact on making people feel like they do – or don’t – belong in these corporate environments’.

Each category has at its core a common thread: high achievement. High achievers seemingly being their own worst enemies.

Image is everything

I’ve been out of the legal profession long enough to feel at liberty to admit that such high achieving lawyers, putting pressure on themselves, do have an image problem. With the day-to-day job, huge respect comes hand in hand with great responsibility. No one wants to be represented by a ‘flaky’ barrister. So we build up our armour, we fluff out our feathers and we straighten our wig as if a helmet, as we prepare for combat. Our barrister image has to be just right. Even when, in truth, it’s all wrong.

Reality bites

How many times have you walked to court with sweaty palms and a dry mouth, with a knot in your stomach anticipating the case ahead?

Or have you been mid-cross examination, so overwhelmed in the moment you’ve had an outer-body experience where, while the words are coming out of your mouth, your mind thinks those words are coming from someone else, as you see the court from a bird’s eye view?

Have you been debating whether to apply for silk, make a Recordership application or try for a part-time judicial post and thought, ‘What’s the point; So and So is so much better than me and bound to get it – not me.’ Or sat before a client whose whole future depends on you and all Nancy or Nigel can say to you is, ‘Yeah, right. How is it you think you can help here? You might care enough but you aren’t good enough to handle this. That poor client deserves better.’

STOP!!! (And yes, I am talking to you…)

Ten strategies to overcome the imposter within

1: You’re not alone

Firstly, don’t think you are the only wig-wearing warrior to feel this way. Michelle Obama, a classic example, writes in Becoming (2018) about a legal career dogged by these feelings. We’ve all had days where our inner voice has been our most critical. If that voice were a real person, would you actually still be friends? No. Probably not. So why allow yourself to be so influenced by the damaging things you tell yourself?

2: Own it

Secondly, own it. I hate to break it to you, given all the research, but you aren’t the first to feel this way. Nor will you be the last. That fact can be very liberating. While some are happy enough with the label ‘imposter syndrome’, others don’t like it. Whatever you call it, it brings you into a community of people open enough to admit and better accept these feelings, develop awareness, and by doing so, equip themselves with the choice to do something about it. From the most junior pupils to the most senior high court judges, lawyers I’ve met over the years of all levels of seniority have at some stage felt that ‘wobbly-wigged’ moment, even if only momentarily.

3: Visualise a confident you

Now, visualise a confident you: What does it look like? What does it feel like? By starting with the end in mind, it is so much easier to work backwards and break down the goal into smaller, more manageable chunks in order to take action towards where you want to be. It’s hard to score without a goal.

4: Work on your game face

Then, work on your game face to inspire client confidence. I’m not a fan of the phrase: ‘Fake it ‘til you make it’. It’s inauthentic. Instead, how about a swan, swimming gracefully on the surface of the water, while feet are paddling crazily below the surface? So many of us are doing it. Perfect the art of external confidence and togetherness, while at the same time, acknowledging the internal stuff too.

5: Fact or feeling?

For the internal stuff, ask yourself: ‘Is this feeling or fact?’ Put another way (as a lawyer, you’ll like this): where is the evidence that you are useless, not up to the job etc? When you shine a light on your successes rather than focusing on your perceived failings, you will soon see that the evidence points against how incapable you are. You are competent, worthy and have important skills to celebrate.

6: Positive focus

That said, even with the evidence, you might need that little added extra. Focus on the things for which you are grateful, and use positive affirmations as a tool to reinforce to yourself that ‘you are enough’. Go a step further. Collate a ‘brag book’ by collecting every bit of positive feedback you have had as good evidence that you are, in fact, a person to admire. It might not come naturally, but after the first positive feedback trickles in, you will feel more confident about asking for it. Momentum builds, giving you the confidence to ask for, and indeed receive, more feedback.

7: Give back

Externally too, focus on the positives by giving back: become a mentor for more junior people for example. When you help others, you shift your focus beyond and outside of yourself on to others, experience the ‘helper’s high’ (which makes you feel good from doing good!) and also provides external validation for the fact that you are skilled, experienced and, truly, a learned friend.

8: Feedback

If you are struggling with self-belief or positive inspiration, look for it elsewhere. There is no shame in asking your trusted circle for feedback on your ‘good bits’. Capture it not only by learning to accept, and celebrate, the compliment but also by writing it down. Maybe even add it to your brag book or put post-it notes around the place as go-to reminders of the star you truly are.

9: Learning

And let’s bring it back down a mo. It might not all be good feedback. If you put yourself out there, be ready for whatever comes your way. If it isn’t all to your liking, relax. Either, think feedback can be as much about the person giving it, than the person receiving it, and find ways to disattach yourself from what is said. After all, ‘it’s not what life does to you that matters, but what you do with what life does to you’ – right?

Or, if you want to take it on board, own that choice, and see it as a point of learning as opposed to actual failure. What opportunities are there here to upskill? Which external resources might I need to rely upon to equip me to develop and grow?

10: Avoid comparisons

An important part of any feedback is to use it appropriately. Don’t allow it to turn into the cruel art of comparison. You are you. So and So is So and So. For the self-critical, nothing positive can come of comparison, unless perhaps you compare yourself to others in order to identify a role model whose behaviour you wish to emulate. The only helpful comparison with a bullying judge or peremptory leader is to know, without question, that they too have from time to time experienced similar, albeit they may not talk about it freely.

Attitude determines altitude

Let’s not treat imposter syndrome as something from which we ‘suffer’. It isn’t a treatable medical condition. Rather, it describes inner thoughts which, on the one hand, keep us grounded, modest and hard working. Without those moments of self-awareness, we risk become blasé, arrogant even. It’s only when we allow ourselves to dwell for too long on those thoughts and allow them to hold us back that we need to think about the negative impact of those limiting beliefs.

It’s a well-rehearsed fact that women delay applying for silk until they are over 90% confident of success. Men don’t wait: when they apply, male barristers are only 50% certain of success. A great example of when imposter syndrome can hold applicants back. You have to be in it to win it, after all.

With consistent, daily effort using some of these strategies, those damaging internal words can be reversed, harnessed even, to keep us on our mettle and find joy in our achievements. And there are a plethora of those achievements already, if you only give yourself permission to be reminded.