Anita Gohil-Thorp explains how to recognise the signs of imposter syndrome, and how individuals and organisations alike can tackle it

Anita Gohil-Thorp 600x400

Imposter syndrome (IS) is not a new phenomenon. I recall feeling exactly that as a female Asian lawyer. I was the first in my family to attend university, after which I trained as a solicitor at a City firm. It doesn’t seem too much has changed since then: in 2019, the Junior Lawyers Division reported that over 80% of young solicitors have at some point suffered from IS. Females below the age of 34 also appear to experience IS at work more than men.

In the 21st century, as the legal profession seeks to embrace diversity and promote belonging for all, what I notice is the opening up of conversations that enable voices to be heard. I also notice, however, that many of those thinking of entering the profession, or currently at trainee level, already feel concerned about not being good enough.

What is imposter syndrome?

The term ‘imposter syndrome’ was first used by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance over 40 years ago, but it is not technically an illness. It means that you do not feel good enough, deserving enough – a fake. This can occur even if you view yourself as a perfectionist or over-achiever.

Why is it important to notice it?

Believing that your achievements are not legitimately deserved has a knock-on negative effect: you may feel like a fraud, insecure and fearful of being ‘caught out’. It holds you back from clearly seeing, and taking up, opportunities.

Further, law firms cannot identify your full talents, as you feel ‘trapped’ from exposing them, worried more that you may expose weaknesses. Your nerves stemming from IS may also be transparent and, while we are experiencing some cultural shifts in organisations towards openness, unhelpful assumptions or judgements that still prevail may hinder you reaching your fullest potential.

IS consumes energy and creates stress. This negatively impacts critical functions of the brain, such as:

  • rational thinking
  • regulation of emotion
  • clarity, and
  • the ability to assess

Long-term IS, creating ongoing stress, can affect one’s confidence, health and wellbeing. The knock-on effect of this can be poor judgement, lack of concentration, time management issues, absenteeism, errors and so on.

Is it just me?

People often feel that they are the only one experiencing IS. It is also commonly believed that IS impacts only on those at the start of their legal career, but this is far from the truth – I work with an array of senior lawyers who, for varying reasons, carry the weight of IS.

Not addressing it effectively can prevent you from being your best self at work, if it is experienced so strongly that your work is suffering. It can cause you to hide your talents, preventing timely recognition, promotion or even retention.

Recognising the signs

Imposter syndrome is hidden and complex. As it increases a person’s sense of stress and strengthens lack of confidence, symptoms may include being:

  • unusually distracted
  • unable to effectively complete tasks in a timely fashion
  • overly tired
  • in a low mood, anxious, stepping away from tasks
  • stuck in negative language
  • in need of frequent approval on completed tasks or repeatedly asking for instructions.

As people with different personalities face IS, there may be other responses. A person may:

  • strive to cover up how they feel
  • appear overly confident and on top of their workload
  • appear highly energised and motivated
  • stay at the office (or online) without a break.

How can law firms and management respond?

Initially, it is important to be observant of any behavioural changes in your line reports. In the virtual world, this may be harder to notice. Build rapport with your team; let them know you care about who they are, not just what they can do for you.

If you sense that a person is dealing with IS, you should not judge the individual – marginalised groups, such as women of colour and/or the LGBTQ+ community, are noted to feel IS more than white males, but neither must be stereotyped. Apply empathy with the aim of understanding the other person through their lens, and:

  • observe whether your work environment, appraisals or other processes reinforce an atmosphere for IS; if they do, seek to challenge this
  • provide a safe space for individuals to talk openly without judgment as a means to understand and create an environment of authenticity where everyone can thrive.

As a firm, you should do the following:

  • acknowledge that IS exists across all ages, cultures and social groups, stopping people from bringing their full true self (and potential) to work
  • provide safe spaces for authentic conversations to take place, including associates and partners talking about their previous experiences of IS
  • promote an open culture, offering staff networks to support more vulnerable employees and ensuring they know they are recruited for their talent and potential.