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As a litigation partner with over two decades of experience, Erin Young has learned a thing or two about how to deal with imposter syndrome. Here’s her advice.
As a young(er) Black woman in law, I frequently felt invisible in a practice area dominated by white males. Candidly, even after 20 years of practice, I still struggle with feelings of self-doubt and impostor syndrome. According to psychology professionals, impostor syndrome “is a psychological pattern in which one doubts one’s accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud.” In my case, I would wonder if my colleagues thought I was only offered admission, employment, or an opportunity because of my race. Worse yet, I would doubt myself and question whether I received an offer or accomplishment because of some arbitrary diversity “quota.”
My parents and grandparents were products of Jim Crow segregation and “separate but equal” education. The colored schools they attended received “hand me down” books, furniture, and supplies when the white schools disposed of them in exchange for new supplies. Their generation also pioneered the aggressive push for affirmative action policies to address long histories of racial and gender discrimination.
In contrast, I was a part of the first-generation in my family to attend all integrated schools. This means that I’ve spent most of my academic and professional life being the only—or one of a few—black people in classes or at the workplace. My family took pride in my ability to compete academically with white students who, for generations, had access to better educational tools and opportunities. Given this, it’s not hard to see how I subconsciously made erroneous assumptions about my perceived “place” in the professional world.
However, years of experience dealing with lawyers of all types, races, and skill levels has given me the perspective necessary to manage my anxieties. I’ve spent plenty of time in my twenties and thirties shrinking myself into a corner to let the "smarter" people do the talking. But now, I experience these feelings less often than I did when I was younger, so here’s some tips I'd share with my younger self—and you:
You belong in the room.
Over the years, I’ve often had to remind myself: It was you that earned that spot on the Dean's List while working part-time, pledging a sorority, and dancing on your college's dance team. It was you that killed the LSAT and earned a partial scholarship to a Top 25 law school. It was you that impressed your potential employer and got that job. It was definitely not nepotism or your social "connections." You are in your present situation because of your hard work and discipline. Remember to own this.
Hop over the “confidence gap.”
According to several studies in recent years, women tend to underestimate both their performance and abilities at work, and men do the opposite. This tendency is so well-documented and prevalent that a Columbia Business School professor has coined the term “honest confidence” to describe the phenomenon. At the same time, some researchers also found that confidence can often get you just as far, and sometimes farther, than competence. Personally, I learned that there's no reason my confidence shouldn't be at the same level as the (mostly) white men around me. As you progress in your career, your confidence in your skills will grow, but don't wait years to start believing in yourself! Remember: When you doubt your power, you give power to your doubt.
Let your hard work speak for itself.
As a Black person, I was always taught that I have to work twice as hard to get half as far. Whether the adage is true or not, I try to never leave room for doubt. Simply put: do the best work. Don't just complete assignments or tasks at your job. Be a problem solver! In the legal field, we get paid to counsel; to advise; to strategize. We cannot just file an Answer to a lawsuit without thinking several steps ahead in the client's defense. Do your research; analyze the potential outcomes; play devil's advocate with yourself. Over-prepare. If your work (and word) is impeccable, you leave less opportunity for anyone, including you, to doubt your abilities.
Everything isn’t personal.
When a colleague criticizes you or a client snaps at you, it may have nothing to do with you. Everyone has a bad day. On the flip side, learn to take constructive criticism from people you trust. Though difficult to hear, negative feedback can be just as valuable as positive. It offers an opportunity for learning and improvement—two things you never want to stop doing.
Stop trying to fit in.
I don’t golf. I could care less about sports. I don’t drink beer. I used to think I needed to do these things to be accepted, to get clients, to impress my partners. I didn’t and I looked silly trying. In my experiences, I have learned that part of the beauty of being a Black woman is that we set the standard for what is "cool." So, embrace who you are. Be yourself.
Your perspective is invaluable.
Personally, I’ve learned to remember that many of my clients and colleagues are just starting to adapt to a world where more and more people look differently than they do. You’ve been operating in this environment your entire life, so appreciate the value of your unique perspective. Your experiences and insights can be just as valuable work product.
Manage your assumptions and preconceptions about others.
Take a hard look at yourself as well. Are you projecting your own preconceived beliefs onto others? Impostor syndrome causes us to question our own worth. But, be sure to give everyone else a fair shake as well. Most people, believe it or not, have worked hard for their achievements. Put out the same energy and trust you want to receive.
You're not alone.
The fact that psychologists recognize “impostor syndrome” as an actual phenomenon means that enough people have dealt with this issue such that it has been researched, tested, and given a name. You’re not alone in your feelings of self-doubt. Do not let these thoughts consume you. If you are overwhelmed by anxiety and insecurity, I recommend seeing the help of a licensed therapist.
Note: This post was adapted and republished with permission. You can find more from Erin on her blog, Opening Statements, at Legal Fitness, Etc.