As a skills trainer for lawyers, seeing people work to improve themselves and become the best they can be, is part of my raison d’etre. It is always commendable for someone to expand their skill set or overcome weaknesses which may be holding them back in their career.

However, the drive to do so can go too far. The desire to be perfect, or perfectionism,   

I recently took a question from a partner of a law firm which touched upon this, at my ‘Boost your Confidence at Work’ Workshop. He asked:What is the Impostor Syndrome?’

I explained that Impostor Syndrome is best considered as a ‘pattern of thought’. It causes someone to doubt their accomplishments, and to persistently worry that they will one day be exposed as the ‘fraud’ which they ‘know’ themselves to be. They cannot see the evidence of their accomplishments only their failures. Even where they do see a ‘win’ they will often discount it as a fluke. This also means that they focus on the negative – something which can easily drive them to constantly aim for perfectionism to counter-act it.

The discussion then led to us to comparing self-confidence with self-esteem. There is a close link between Impostor Syndrome and self-confidence; its psychological patterns can cause severe consequences in personal and professional life. As Medical News Today explains: ‘People with Impostor Syndrome tendencies have low self-confidence and a fear of failure. They experience a constant internal struggle between achieving success and avoiding being “found out.” This struggle prevents many with the condition from reaching their potential.’

The condition can affect anyone, regardless of his or her job or social status.

Whilst there are many components to developing Impostor Syndrome this blog is going to focus on the perfectionist aspect, as this is the one  that I see most regularly in the legal field.

The fear of failing to live up to expectations

Many lawyers who experience ’impostorism’ fear that their colleagues and supervisors expect too much from them and they will be unable to meet such standards.

It does not matter whether you are a partner or a trainee, or what level of responsibility you shoulder, these fears can occur in anyone. However, the severity and duration of Impostor Syndrome varies. Many people experience symptoms for a limited time, such as in the first few weeks of a new job. Others may battle feelings of incompetency for their whole lives.

If you are a sufferer, you may think that the best way to overcome Impostor Syndrome is to simply to become more successful. Unfortunately, with this syndrome, success just leads to a negative spiral, creating a continuous cycle of self-doubt; every time you accomplish something, the usual result is to become more worried that others will discover the ’truth’ about your abilities.

Perhaps even more frustrating is that everyone with Impostor Syndrome thinks he or she’s the only one who is feeling insecure. The truth is that we all feel insecure from time to time. Some of us are just more aware of it than others.

Developing Impostor Syndrome as a Perfectionist Lawyer

Perfectionists often experience high levels of doubt, worry and anxiety, especially when they fail to achieve their extremely ambitious goals. Working as a lawyer, there will always be times when cases and situations do not go to plan. If you are a perfectionist, you are likely to take these setbacks much harder than others who may see things more pragmatically. It can affect your own self-esteem too; when you are looking for the reason why something didn’t work out perfectly, there will be the tendency to focus on your own performance, to see areas where you ‘could have done better’ even if, objectively, this is a very unfair assessment.

Law is a more tumultuous profession than most. It does not rely on mathematical certainties. Legal ‘grey areas’ and differences in interpretations are common. In law, absolute ideals such as perfectionism, do not often make a good mix for job satisfaction”

The effects of the perfectionist driver/Impostor Syndrome.

These include:

1. Lawyers having the tendency to bury themselves in work which they ‘know’ instead of taking on additional duties that can give themselves the opportunity to demonstrate their abilities in other areas. This can, also, be because they view these other tasks as a distraction that could compromise the ‘quality’ of their other tasks.

2. Attributing successes to outside factors. Individuals with perfectionist drivers will deny their own competency. They often feel like chance, or factors beyond their control (which they cannot take any credit for), are behind their successes. They may also believe that they need to work harder than most – for example, to attain the perfect results for which they strive.3

3 . An intense fear of failure, and the need to be the very best, can lead lawyers to overachieve when completing simple or specific tasks and/or going on technical course after technical course. (This is not to detract from valuable CPD training for appropriate development).

4. Feeling unhappy or unsatisfied in their current jobs or level or even area of law. They may not feel challenged enough, but a fear of failure or ‘exposure as a fraud’ stops them from seeking promotions or extra responsibilities or switching to a new area.

5. Undervaluing their skills and abilities. This can lead to them denying their worth – hence the link to self-esteem. They may not ask for a raise because they do not believe they deserve more money for what they do or apply for an interview because they do not have 100% of what the new firm is looking for.

Overcoming the ‘perfectionist’ driver part of the Impostor Syndrome

If you suffer from Impostor Syndrome stemming from the perfectionist driver, the following steps can help you to manage and overcome your symptoms:

1. Talk about it. Talking about feeling less than perfect and how this is playing out in your professional life. Choose someone that you trust, such as a friend or professional coach, and explain what you have been experiencing. Talking to someone can allow you to take your thoughts ‘out of your head’ so that they are separated from your own negative perceptions. You will probably find that another person’s assessment of a situation, which you perceived as a failure, will be much more positive. Your discussion may even indicate where your thought patterns stem from.

2. Have a success log. Write down your accomplishments and celebrate them. Think of all the things you have achieved in your life – professionally and personally – then write them down. Don’t let negative thoughts ‘edit’ your list, if any part of you feels that something is an achievement, write it in. Look at your testimonials – record the positives. In fact this latter is an exercise I use with Legal Business Owners when reviewing brand. Once you have finished, you may be surprised at seeing all these varied accomplishments collated and set down in black and white. Spend a few moments to think about and celebrate each one – recognise that you achieved them.

3. Accepting yourself – Accepting who you are, flaws and all, is an important part of having healthy self-esteem and self-worth. Nobody is perfect, and mistakes are an inevitable part of life. Learning to accept that things sometimes go wrong can increase your resilience and happiness.

4. Challenge negative thoughts – Negative thoughts play a big role in the Impostor cycle. Being conscious of those thoughts, and challenging them whenever they occur, is a key step toward overcoming symptoms.  Ask yourself where is the factual evidence? For example the ‘boss’ may have walked passed you without speaking. That is a fact. What is not factual is the story you tell yourself why they did this. There could be many reasons, which actually have nothing to do with you.

5. Strive for excellence – Be the best you can with what you have from where you are. There is no failure just degrees of success. We are always learning.

If you feel that you suffer from the Impostor Syndrome, or you want to improve your self-confidence generally, my next ‘Boosting Self-Confidence in the Workplace’ Workshops cover these topics in more detail and provide practical techniques to overcoming these challenges. The next sessions are:

  • 20th September London
  • 25th October Leeds

Click Here to Book

For those that can’t wait I can deliver a 2-hour lunchtime workshop at your office. This workshop focuses on three areas you can use to stop the Impostor Syndrome taking root as well as boosting your self-confidence. Or you can fast-track your confidence with a coaching package guaranteed to increase your confidence. Telephone me for a friendly, no-pressure chat on 07921540039 to discuss the best option for you.

YCFL delivers strategic coaching, leadership, management and interpersonal skills training for the legal profession. Since 2003 Ann has trained nearly 7000 lawyers in leadership, management and interpersonal skills. She has also trained with the Coaching Academy and holds a H.N.L.P. certificate in coaching as well as being an N.L.P. Master Practitioner. She is a member of the Professional Speaking Association and Professional Speakers Academy.

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