Impostor Syndrome or “What The F#@& Am I Doing Here?”

1-28-2021

Throughout your career, have you ever experienced an overwhelming feeling of self-doubt? A nagging thought in the back of your mind that no matter your level of expertise, you genuinely feel like you don’t belong and that “now they’re going to find out I’m a complete fraud and don’t know what I am talking about”?

Many of us have experienced these feelings of inadequacy or incompetence. In fact, SO many of us, it is now often referred to as Imposter Syndrome (IS) which, left unchecked, can become a significant barrier to confidently and joyously moving forward in your career (and your life!).

Luckily, there are ways to address the self-limiting beliefs that lead to IS.


Have you ever felt like your accomplishments or successes are just accidents, or luck? That someday, someone is going to discover you aren’t as talented/smart/capable as you’ve managed to let on? Then you’ve experienced Impostor Syndrome (IS), which can manifest as a one time event, or as on-going, chronic self-doubt.

You might be surprised to know that about 70 per cent of people have experienced IS, so if you have, you’re definitely not alone.

IS happens to people whether they find themselves in a ‘stretch’ role with no to little experience or are considered experts in their fields, and everyone in between. IS doesn’t necessarily go away when you become ‘successful’ either. 

Even highly accomplished people like Tina Fey, Melinda Gates and Albert Einstein experienced, at the height of their careers, feelings of not being good enough and of potentially being ‘discovered’ as frauds. Nobel Laureate Maya Angelou once said: "I have written eleven books, but each time I think, 'uh oh, they’re going to find out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.' "

So, what can you do when you start feeling like an intellectual fraudster?  

  • Awareness is key, so when you start feeling like you’re out of your depth and your achievements are undeserved, don’t freeze. Acknowledge those feelings and move forward.
  • Get real with yourself. Take a step back and examine: how do you know what you know? Is there a gap in knowledge? If so, fill it. Sign up for a course (here’s a link to thousands of free courses from top institutions like Yale). Stay current in your field by signing up to forums and publications. There’s nothing like taking action to address feelings of inadequacy!
  • Re-frame your thoughts because thoughts feed feelings. In her TedTalk, “Thinking your way out of imposter syndrome” Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on IS, says that in order to stop feeling like an imposter, you have to stop thinking like an imposter. We need to reframe our thoughts so “instead of having an imposter life, we have an imposter moment”. 

Dr. Young gives the example of Daniel Boone, who when asked if he ever got lost out in the wilderness, replied, "I can't say I was ever lost, but I was once bewildered for about 3 days.” Now that’s reframing! (For more ways on how to combat IS, see Dr. Young’s 10 Steps You Can Use to Overcome Imposter Syndrome).

 According to the 2019 Imposter Syndrome Research Study, IS has a major impact on people’s individual and team performance, productivity and profit, and is a driving factor in star performers leaving a company and stalled personal development.

Legal firms, because they are typically high-stakes, highly competitive environments that prize perfection, are particularly vulnerable to creating a culture that nurtures IS. There are also steps organizations can take to minimize IS.

  • Get it out in the open! The first step in addressing IS, is for firms to openly acknowledge that regardless of experience or seniority, most legal professionals deal with IS at some point. 
  • Provide resources. Offer workshops and courses on IS for employees, and train leaders to spot someone who might be struggling with IS and how to coach and support that person. 
  • Manage performance. Consistently providing positive feedback on individuals’ unique strengths and how they contribute to the organization goes a long way toward helping employees feel capable and confident. 

The consequences of not addressing IS can be dire. 

Grieving the loss of her husband, a successful lawyer, by suicide, Joanna Litt shared, “He said he felt like a phony who had everyone fooled about his abilities as a lawyer and thought after this case was over, he was going to be fired—despite having won honors for his work.” While suicide is the ninth leading cause of death among the general population, it is the third leading cause of death for lawyers.

Have you experienced IS? Do you work in an organization that hasn’t recognized the impact of IS on people and productivity? Inform yourself, talk to someone in the organization you trust, and help to bring IS into the light. 

Life. Career. Opportunity Awaits. If you have any questions, are considering a change, or just want to chat, we would love to hear from you. 

At Urban Legal Recruitment, we have experienced, along with our clients, the impacts of COVID-19.  We’ve made the necessary adjustments to ensure the safety of our team members and our clients.