Tips to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

“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.'” – Maya Angelou 

I started a new job in December 2019 in a different field of law than the one I was practicing before. Starting a new job is always difficult, but I don’t think I expected the transition to make me feel so…well, new. I’m totally new to this type of law and I haven’t been the new kid anywhere in a while. There are so many things that I don’t know yet – both in substantive law and in the office procedures.

I don’t like it. As a type A personality, I very much like to be in full control of myself and my actions.  Not knowing what I’m doing has caused me an abundance of stress lately.  Most of this stress is self-imposed because I have a difficult time asking for help when it’s easily available to me. It’s safe to say that I’m writing these tips for myself as much as I am for you.

Before I begin, I want to quickly explain what impostor syndrome is. To me, impostor syndrome is the feeling we all get when we feel we are not adequately qualified to do something but are being asked to do it anyway. We feel that we are going to be discovered as a “fake” or a “fraud” because we don’t truly know what we are doing. So without further ado, here are a few things you can try when you feel like you’re bound to be figured out as an impostor (Which you’re really not. Trust me).

  • Prepare and Over-Prepare
    • Whenever I feel like I don’t have a handle on what I’m doing, I take as  much time as I can to prepare and then prepare some more. Sometimes that means doing things that may sound a little silly. For example, if you have a presentation or a client meeting, you can write out exactly what you’re going to say. I mean, every little thing. From the first word that’s going to come out of your mouth (like, Hello, how is everyone doing?) to how you’re going to move around the room. Then practice it out loud. Then practice it some more. Practice in your car and in the shower. If you’re learning how to do something, write it down and go over it as many times as you need to to learn it.
    • When I first started going to court, I had to write down every single thing in paragraphs that I wanted to say to the judge. It takes a long time, but it works. Preparing as much as we can gives us as much control as we can have over a situation. You’ll feel less like an impostor and more like you’re in charge because you’ve rehearsed and you know the subject matter. However, understand that you will never be fully prepared for every single thing that is going to be thrown your way. Accept that now, and think about how you’re going to handle it or what you will say when something unexpected comes up.
  • Keep a Word Document of All the Successes You’ve Had
    • I picked up this tip from an Instagram account I can’t remember the name of now, but I thought it was so clever. Marie Forleo calls it a “Hype File” in her book, “Everything is Figureoutable.” You wouldn’t be where you are today without having some success on your journey. Remember that paper you wrote that was chosen for publication or that presentation you gave that you kicked ass at? Maybe it was a compliment someone gave you that really stuck with you. Maybe it was an event you  were asked to speak at or some small win that you know means you made some progress. Whatever it is, write (or type) it out so that you have an actual tangible record of it. Whenever you feel like you’re not doing enough or you’re unqualified, read that document and remind yourself that hey, maybe you do know a thing or two and maybe you are a badass after all. Screw those impostor vibes when you have full on proof that you’ve seen your share of success in the past and this situation is no different.
  • Remember That Nobody Really Knows What They’re Doing
    • There are a few people who are going to be complete experts in the area you’re trying to excel at, but the majority of us are out here just trying to figure it all out as well. It seems like everyone is comfortable and in complete control of what they’re doing, but that’s only because none of us are really walking around bragging about our insecurities and how lost we feel in actuality. Nobody is sharing the shame. Even those who are experts now started off as beginners. Remember to be patient with yourself and think about the progress you’ve made. One thing that helps me is to think about my progress in short increments. Two weeks ago I couldn’t do or didn’t know many of the things I know today. Even if those things are small, like the process for sending out mail from the office for example, those are still new things that you didn’t know how to do not that long ago. And look at you go now!
  • Ask for help when you need it 
    • Asking for help when you need it not only sounds logical, it sounds easy. So then why is it so hard? It’s probably because it puts us in a state of vulnerability. Asking for help means admitting that you don’t know something, and we don’t like acknowledging that. It makes us feel insecure. But asking for help is a good thing. It means you’re willing to put yourself in that vulnerable position and you’re not afraid of it. It takes courage to ask for help and put yourself out there, so practice courage and reach out. Plus, people usually welcome questions and they’re willing to help more often than not.
    • Especially in a job setting, it’s a good thing to ask questions rather than staying on the surface level of things. It’s safe to say your supervisor will be pleased you truly want to know how to do something and do it correctly rather than putting in your best guesses and doing the work all wrong. You get out of something what you put in, so look at your questions as a means of improving yourself and the quality of your work. Extra tip: Keep a sticky note on your desktop with all your questions to keep them all in one place. Then, bring them up at your check-in meetings or suggest a meeting where you will ask all your questions at once. This ensures that you’re ready to go in one fell swoop rather than constantly asking questions sporadically.
  • Provide Value and Stop Focusing on Your Ego
    • Our egos are very fragile things. We frequently get caught up in the thoughts in our heads that revolve around ourselves. “How will I look if I don’t know the answer?” or “What will everyone think if I don’t do this correctly?” or “Will everyone think I’m not smart enough to complete my task?” Help others or remember why you’re here – to help others. The self-involved questions are endless! But what if we focused on something else? What if we focused on the whole reason why we’re here to begin with or why we started something. Wasn’t it to make a difference or to help others? For example, as an attorney, I have to remind myself that all the work I’m doing isn’t for my own benefit but for that of my client’s. My client isn’t going to care or be affected by my ego trip – they’re going to be affected by the work that I do on their case. If you’re a teacher, your students aren’t going to be affected by your self-criticism. They’re going to be affected by what you teach them.
    • Remember that at the end of the day, you are most likely trying to make the world a better place and there is nobility in that. There is absolutely no reason why you should feel like you’re not good enough to do so. The world needs your creativity, your expertise, your thoughts, your hard work in what you believe in, so start helping and stop focusing on your ego-maniacal thoughts.
  • Stop Comparing Yourself to Others 
    • Sometimes during our meetings at work, I listen to other attorneys discuss cases and I have NO. IDEA. WHAT. THEY’RE. TALKING. ABOUT. And I sit there feeling very out of place and very much in awe of their discussions and the amount of knowledge they possess on certain subjects. Then, I wonder if I’ll ever know that much about the law and be an expert in my field. After that, I feel bad about myself because I am absolutely certain they made a mistake when they hired me and any day now they’re going to figure out I’m a fraud and fire me. Dramatic enough for you? Or familiar? One day I decided to ask some of these attorneys how long they had been working in this field. Their answers ranged from six to eleven years. YEARS! And then it hit me. I just started. I’m a novice. Hopefully, one day I will obtain just as much knowledge as they have, but for now, it’s absolutely futile to compare myself to them. There is no comparison, plain and simple. Remember that.
    • When it comes to comparison to others, I can’t not mention social media. These days, it is incredibly easy to compare ourselves to the people we see on the internet. Don’t fall for this! Social media is for the highlights and the good stuff. Few people are posting their struggles. We are only seeing what other people want us to see, so why get down in the dumps about not being where they are? We all have something unique to offer, we all have our own perspectives. Someone is ALWAYS going to be doing better than we are. That’s just a fact. But you have to respect your own experience. Comparison is the thief of all joy. (I’m not sure who said that, but it makes a lot of sense).
  • Making Mistakes Does Not Make You A Fraud
    • We are SO afraid of making mistakes! We’re absolutely terrified of them. But guess what? We’re going to make mistakes. Period. It’s better to accept that now than to try to fight it. But there is nothing wrong with making mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process. They mean you’re trying. Trying to do something correctly does not make you a fake or a fraud. Things will go wrong, but that just comes with the territory. There is no need to dwell on a mistake. Accept it, learn from it, and move on.

At the end of the day, we have all experienced impostor syndrome in one way or another. The most important thing to do is to acknowledge the feeling and then move past it. Understand that you are not an impostor and your rational fears are sometimes manifested in this way, but don’t let it take control over you. You’re in charge here. You know much more than you think you do.