Who is the Imposter? Not You.
I recently read a new article from Harvard Business Review discussing how imposter syndrome is often blamed for our self doubt and lack of growth in our career, but that ignores outside factors (i.e. work culture) that actually influences your growth, more than your own confidence in abilities. Essentially, the report lays out that everyone—everyone—experiences doubt when they are starting something new, but most work environments are structured so that it tends to help one group of workers over others. Meaning, men may feel self-doubt but are given access to mentors and sponsors, both formally and informally, to help them grow and feel more secure in their work. So as they progress in their careers, they start to feel more sure in their skill sets, whereas most of us don’t get that extra help.
In addition to support systems, there are also lots of “little” things that impact how we feel about ourselves. For example, colleagues may not recognize their implicit bias and do things that throw us off. There is lots of behaviors by “well-meaning” people who assume you’ll do badly and think that intervening on your behalf will help you. Maybe they don’t let you participate in larger projects or do assignments you were tasked to do. And so when you sense people doing things that implies they don’t think you’re capable, you start to question yourself. Imagine how different you would feel if you could recognize that behavior for what it is and how it has nothing to do with your actual skills. All of this is exhausting and it gnaws on your confidence little by little. The report gives great steps for agencies and businesses to take on this issue and create environments that are more supportive.
But, I’m not going to hold my breath on a major culture shift. Instead, let’s talk about what you can do to protect your mental health while still developing your career and professional opportunities.
One. Know thyself. It is incumbent on you, as a growing professional, to do assessments and know your strengths and weaknesses as much as you can. Let me emphasize—it will be rare for your firm (private or nonprofit) to prioritize helping you develop. You must lookout for yourself in order to grow as a professional. You do this by knowing what type of trainings you need, challenging yourself to try more complex cases, and not waiting for someone to invite you to learn. Take advantage of CLEs and other post-ed requirements that will allow you to gain new skills. And get a sense of what you’re really good at so you can make a mark in that area. For example, if you recognize you have a knack for depositions, start really honing that skill so that you can eventually speak as an expert on panels, train attorneys and students, etc. But no one is going to make that path for you.
Two. Find support. It is vital that you build community with likeminded coworkers because they will be the ones you can go to gut-check to see if a situation was weird. Unfortunately, we are gaslit often and sometimes question if a weird situation really happened. Being able to go to a trusted friend to talk to will be vital in helping you determine how you respond. And I know this sounds a bit dramatic but I have had multiple conversations about racist/sexist incidents I’ve experienced and incidents my Black and Brown friends have experienced to know how important it is to have someone to check in with.
Three. Recognize when it matters and when it doesn’t. Unfortunately, when you’re practicing, the little daggers of doubt may come from all over, not just the higher ups. You have to recognize when the doubt from others is an issue (i.e. a boss that refuses to give you more responsibility) versus a lateral who doesn’t really impact your daily life. I have countless, COUNTLESS, experiences where YT colleagues “mean well” and don’t trust me to take on larger responsibilities in projects or offer suggestions that get awfully close to insulting. In those instances, I have to determine if their behavior is impacting my work and my goals enough to actually require a response. If it’s not impacting me, then I learn to inwardly roll my eyes and keep moving. I’ve shared this example before but it bears repeating. I was set to give a training, one I’ve done many times, and before I began a lateral coworker gently reminded me that it would be good if I introduced myself before I started the presentation. That comment could have thrown me off and made me start thinking like wow, am I that bad? Do they think I’m so inept that I need that type of guidance? Maybe I am that bad… BUT because I knew my strengths, had gut-checked similar incidents with friends before, and this person wasn’t a superior, I moved on a gave a stellar presentation. We are used to being underestimated. I almost enjoy it now because I get a weird satisfaction in being the one called in to fix things, but being underestimated hits different when you’re starting out. That’s why it’s important to know when it’s just someone being dumb and when it’s actually necessary to respond.
Of course, even incidents that “don’t matter” still can grate at you (clearly as I still remember this stupid comment years later). It’s frustrating to have to constantly prove your worth in a way others don’t have to do and when people constantly question your abilities, naturally, you start to question whether you are even capable. But don’t let them erode your confidence in yourself. You are intelligent, determined, and capable. As long as you maintain that belief in yourself and do the work to strengthen your skills, you will be an asset to any firm or organization smart enough to keep you.