By Molly Timko • June 30, 2019•Ms. JD, Writers in Residence, Careers
For this month's post, I wanted to write an article about "impostor syndrome." While scrolling through LinkedIn, I noticed a recent post referencing "imposter syndrome." Cue feelings of self-doubt. So I quickly did a Google search of "impostor or imposter" and discovered that both versions are acceptable. Nevertheless, my inner critic started questioning whether I should do more research (out of fear of making an egregious grammatical error) or, just select one way to spell it, be consistent throughout the post, and move on with my life. Oh the irony!
By now, you're likely familiar with impostor syndrome and its prevalence in the legal profession. In the 1970s, two clinical psychologist coined the phrase “impostor phenomenon” to describe a pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and experiences a persistent and often internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” The phrase was initially used in the context of research involving high-achieving women, but we now know this phenomenon casts a wider net. In fact, it’s no longer a dirty little secret among legal professionals.
Let me share some personal experiences with impostor syndrome or "flare-ups" of self-doubt.
(1) Following my graduation from law school, I completed a two-year clerkship. During this clerkship, we had a peer review or “final check” process. Once our immediate supervisors reviewed our work (e.g., a memo), my fellow clerks and I would review each other’s work product one last time before sending it to the assigned judge. In my early months on the job, a confident and brilliant male colleague reviewed one of my draft memos. During a meeting in his office, he provided me with some solid feedback and tactfully recommended that I read a book on grammar. Today, I am unable to recall the specific grammatical mistakes or the substance of the memo, but I do remember the immediate sense of fear that I did not belong in the position. Compared to my colleagues, I obtained my J.D. from a lower ranking law school (at least according to U.S. News & World Report), I had held a lower position on the law review, and I was from a lower socioeconomic class and the product of an underperforming public school system.
(2) Several years later, I started a new role as an attorney for a federal agency. In this position, I was tasked with drafting decisions for administrative law judges in a fast-paced environment. At this point in my career, my writing skills and confidence had significantly improved compared to my early days as a law clerk. My professional experience included serving as an associate attorney at a law firm and holding management positions at nonprofit organizations. Nevertheless, during my initial training period at the agency, my draft decision had to be reviewed by a more seasoned colleague before it could be routed to the judge. Here we go again!
During this training period, experienced decision writers across the country reviewed my work and provided encouraging feedback via email. The process had been collegial and educational. However, late one afternoon (just before the end of my workday), I received a scathing email from a male reviewer in another state. This reviewer informed me, among other unpleasant things, “she fell flat on her face.” Yes, I was the “she” to which he was referring in his email. This person brazenly critiqued my writing style and word choice. He primarily focused on my use of the term “while” as opposed to “although.” This reviewer’s feedback was overly harsh and, quite frankly, trivial. In this position, we had to churn out decisions as quickly as possible to help reduce an immense backlog. Therefore, we were required to balance efficiency with writing clear, concise, and legally sufficient decisions. I shared the reviewer’s nasty email with my supervisor. Ultimately, a senior executive reassured me that the reviewer’s feedback was inappropriate and contrary to internal policy and, as a result, management would be taking administrative action. Apparently, this particular reviewer had delivered similarly harsh “feedback” to other writers. I was relieved to learn that my supervisor supported me and the management team was pleased with the overall quality of my work. Nevertheless, the reviewer’s words stung and my familiar feelings of self-doubt resurfaced.
About a year or so after that incident, I became a mentor to new writers in my office. Later, I collaborated with some colleagues on the creation of a grammar guide of all things, and I was selected to become a national trainer for new decision writers. However, I still struggled to truly own these achievements and silence my inner critic.
Currently, I am in a new management role at a non-profit healthcare organization. As a result of the experiences described above, I have heightened awareness of the importance of providing thoughtful feedback to others. I choose my words carefully and I am mindful of my tone. More importantly, in the fast-paced world of healthcare administration, I have little time to agonize over the placement of a comma or fret over a typo.
So...here are a few recommendations for overcoming self-doubt:
Serve others. I truly believe that we rise by lifting others up so I continuously look for ways to help others succeed. For me, serving others improves my confidence and helps put things in perspective. For example, you can help connect a job seeker to another person in your network, volunteer to mentor new colleagues, give advice to law students, or do pro bono work.
Stay connected. Keep in touch with supportive friends, colleagues, and loved ones. My childhood friends always have my back, love me unconditionally, and help keep me grounded. I refer to them as my "inner circle."
Document your accomplishments (in a journal, a file, Word document, anywhere). I received this advice from a former supervisor. In researching impostor symdrome, I learned that other women have used this strategy as well. When I worked at the federal agency, I created a Word document called “Props from Judges.” This document contained excerpts of emails from judges who shared positive feedback about my work. This type of document will also come in handy when you are updating your resume or preparing for an annual review. Moreover, revisiting your list of accomplishments can provide an immediate confidence boost when needed.
It's totally ok to ask for help, consult a more seasoned colleague or content expert, or do a little more research before responding to someone's request. In the legal world, there is pressure to provide an immediate response, but I personally prefer to admit that I need to do more research as opposed to trying to "fake it til you make it."
As always, I would love to hear from other readers. What are your suggestions for overcoming self-doubt or flare-ups of impostor syndrome?