What is imposter syndrome and how can you prevent it?

Lauren Moroney is a trainee solicitor in Shoosmiths’ London office. Here she talks about what imposter syndrome actually is and how you can prevent it from holding you back.

What is imposter syndrome?

“I don’t fit in…” “I just got lucky…” “I’m not good enough…” 

If those thoughts sound familiar, you have probably experienced imposter syndrome at least once in your life. 

Imposter syndrome encapsulates many feelings and can affect people in many different ways. Broadly speaking, imposter syndrome is a lingering feeling of self-doubt, despite your achievements; it is the persistent inability to believe that your success is deserved. People who experience imposter syndrome often feel like a fraud, as if they do not belong in the environment they are in, despite how hard they have worked to get there. 

Studies suggest that imposter syndrome affects a large proportion of young solicitors; in 2019 the Junior Lawyers Division reported that over 80% of junior solicitors have suffered from imposter syndrome at some point during their career, and not much has changed since then[1]. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has meant that many lawyers, juniors included, continue to work from home for much of the working week. Whilst working from home has its benefits, the lack of sufficient in-person contact with supervisors and peers can be isolating and heighten feelings of self-doubt and lack of confidence. 

Imposter syndrome as a Trainee Solicitor

Imposter syndrome can affect anybody, regardless of what stage of your career you are at. Many Senior Associates and Partners still experience imposter syndrome despite their years of experience and breadth of knowledge. 

However, imposter syndrome can be especially prevalent during the early years of your career when you do not have as much knowledge and experience as those around you. This can lead to feeling that you are not worthy of the role, or do not fit into the team you are in. This feeling of unworthiness can hold you back from thinking clearly and stop you from taking up opportunities for fear that you will not perform well. Imposter syndrome can also hold you back from being your authentic self for fear that you will expose your ‘weaknesses’ to people (spoiler alert: we all have weaknesses, even our bosses). 

Recognising the signs 

As discussed, imposter syndrome can affect people in many different ways, however, some common signs to look out for include the following:

  • Low mood / experiencing anxiety at work
  • Persistent use of negative language, particularly when talking about yourself / your performance
  • Frequently needing approval or regularly asking for clarification of instructions 
  • Spending longer on tasks than necessary due to overthinking / questioning your work
  • Avoiding tasks / not volunteering for opportunities 

The above is a non-exhaustive list, and if you have any concerns that you are experiencing imposter syndrome, speak to your team for support and try to implement some of the tips below to help prevent it from holding you back in your career. 

How do you prevent imposter syndrome from holding you back during your junior years?

Allowing those feelings of self-doubt to take over can have a massive impact on your performance and can override success at work. Whilst not an illness itself, if ignored, imposter syndrome can become very serious and lead to anxiety and stress related illnesses. Therefore, it is important to have steps in place to help you overcome imposter syndrome and prevent it from holding you back. 

Here are some practical tips for overcoming imposter syndrome as a trainee / junior solicitor:

  1. Ask for feedback on your work. Senior lawyers are often incredibly busy and will not always think to give feedback automatically, so it is important to ask for feedback so that you can monitor your performance and progression. Feedback, both positive and constructive, really helps you to understand what you are doing well and how you can improve. Feedback is especially helpful if you experience imposter syndrome, because whilst you may think that you are underperforming and your work is not good enough, your supervisor may actually be very impressed with your attitude and your work. On the other hand, if your work does need improvement, feedback will highlight the areas you need to work on and help you focus your progression: constructive feedback is not a negative thing, we all make mistakes and there is always room for growth. Let go of perfectionism!
  2. Create a folder for positive feedback and words of encouragement that you receive from your team. By keeping these comments in one place, you can easily revert to them when you are feeling overwhelmed or out of your depth. Reverting to this folder will remind you what you are capable of and boost your confidence to help get you through the challenge you are facing. It is so important to recognise and celebrate your successes, no matter how big or small they may be!
  3. Remember that you are always learning. Regardless of what stage of your legal career you are at, (even at Partner level) you will never be expected to know it all; you will always be learning new things and facing new challenges. Keep this in mind when you are faced with a difficult task or if something goes wrong; as long as you learn from your mistakes and develop as a result, you will not be seen as a bad trainee when errors are made (but do try to avoid making the same mistake again and again!). 
  4. Be physically present. Where practical, work in the office with your team as much as possible. Working in the office with others makes it a lot easier to ask questions as they crop up throughout the day instead of having to call someone or wait for them to respond to an email, and you will also pick up on and be involved in discussions about work that you would not be exposed to if you were sat at home alone. These benefits amongst others will have a very positive impact on your learning and development as a trainee, and as such, will help your confidence grow and minimise the effects of imposter syndrome. 
  5. “Fake it till you make it!” I have heard this line many times during my Training Contract. Even Partners will confess that they still feel uncomfortable and out of their depth on occasion, but it is important to remember that stepping outside of your comfort zone is how progression and growth occurs. Often, pretending you are more confident than you are can help you to actually become more confident in a situation. Do not let your fear of failure prevent you from getting stuck into challenging work or hold you back from experiences and opportunities that will push you to develop; pretend you are confident and eventually, you will be!
  6. Share how you are feeling; “a problem shared is a problem halved.” If you do experience imposter syndrome, speak to a colleague you can confide in (e.g., your supervisor, training principal, or a fellow trainee). The chances are, the person you speak to will also have experienced it at some stage in their career, or they will at least know somebody who has. Talking about how you feel will help you to realise that you are not alone and that your feelings are completely normal and valid. By vocalising your struggles, your team will be able to offer more support where you may need it, and if necessary, implement measures to help make things better moving forwards. 

Remember that your ‘Training’ Contract is exactly that; you are in training and are not expected to be the finished product. Every day is a learning opportunity and a chance to better yourself, both personally and professionally. 

Don’t let imposter syndrome hold you back! 

You may also be interested to read Jess’ blog where she discusses decision fatigue and how to combat it as a trainee solicitor.

If you have any questions you can email us at [email protected] or have a look at some frequently asked questions here.

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Resources

1 - https://communities.lawsociety.org.uk/april-2022/stop-imposter/6002276.article

Disclaimer

This information is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.

 

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