Statistically Weeping: One Intern and Her Imposter Syndrome

There’s one thing that sticks out in my mind the most when I recall my summer internship experiences, particularly the more formal internship I took on between my second and third year of law school.

It’s how often I repeated the phrase, “I’m not sure I’m really supposed to be here.”

I said it to myself. I said it to my fellow interns. I said it to friends, who were also law students. I even said it to my mom.

And though it horrifies me now to admit it, I’m sure I said it in so many words to my supervisors. If not outright, then through my actions. There’s no hiding that level of insecurity. A scent that strong tends to linger.

I left school in the spring of that year to go home and put myself back together again. I needed the break. Unfortunately, learning how to care for myself mentally and emotionally, and learning to do it well, was not something I could accomplish in a few weeks. I have always prided myself on that ability to achieve, but emotional intelligence and effective self-care were not going to come easily for me. I had thought about it, read some articles, and kept going to therapy. I assumed that would be enough. It wasn’t, and I didn’t know that at the time. I could begin to admit something was wrong, and I could readily admit I wanted to fix things. Surely, that realization would magically clear everything up, and I could return to my previous life back at school without a hitch.

I wanted so desperately to get better. To just be better, as if through sheer force of will I would wake up the next day not panicky and sad. I did everything in my power to convince myself that what happened was an abnormal event and it was over. I decided it would be very normal to leave home, come back to the city, and start an internship that May. That’s what I would normally be doing at the start of the summer, and normal was best at that point in time. Normal won out. And normal did not care for a second that I still needed to learn how to manage mental illness.

It was an awful summer. I spent it walking on eggshells, tip-toeing around my depression and trying to release the chokehold my anxiety had on me. And even now, I can’t see that internship clearly at all. I genuinely cannot judge my performance, or view the experience as a whole without seeing it through the lens of what I was feeling at the time. A very deeply entrenched form of imposter syndrome clouds over the memory of those few weeks.

“I’m not supposed to be here.” The unspoken subtext is something along the lines of, “I don’t think I’m supposed to be here. And I’m sure everyone can see how broken my brain is right now. It’s written on my forehead, right?”

Bleak as it all sounds, I still consider myself lucky. I was wrestling with these feelings that scared the hell out of me, but I also knew they weren’t as real as I wanted to give them credit for. I knew what imposter syndrome was. I knew that I had more than a touch of it, even when I was in a mentally healthy space. Lots of women do, and so do lots of women in law. My supervisors, my friends, and (once again) my mom, weren’t afraid to talk to me about it, and I am so grateful for that. Those conversations were part of a larger one we’re all moving towards. More women are beginning to speak about their insecurity in the workplace and question why it’s there at all, rather than trying to stuff it down and drown it out.

It’s that bigger conversation which interests me right now. As more women graduate from law school and enter the legal profession, as it’s recognized that mental and emotional health cannot be shoved aside or fixed overnight so we can keep working at an ungodly pace, as we continue to understand the pressure to perform perfectly and deal with the expectation to smile through it, we are coming to a place where what’s wrong about all of this can be named. And from there, what can be done to change it.

If you are working right now, it is okay to feel unsure. It is okay to struggle. If you can, give yourself a break from the stream of questions that all hinge on your qualifications to be in the position you’re in. Believe me, I know that it is easier said than done. Your doubts about your ability to do the work you were tasked with do not reflect reality. They are just thoughts, and thoughts play dirty tricks on all of us from time to time. If you are feeling the weight of depression, or the exhaustion of anxiety as you move through each day in the office, know that you’re not alone.

You’re doing your best. It’s going to get better. And I’m proud of you.

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