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Five Ways to Challenge Impostor Syndrome

By Maximillian (Max) H. Matthies posted 01-21-2019 14:08


A few years ago, my partner came home from one of her professional conferences and told me she walked around the conference with impostor syndrome. I had never come across the term before, but I immediately knew what it meant. It perfectly named that feeling I had whenever I went to court on a new case, met with a new client, or went to any lawyer event where I didn’t know anyone. For me, impostor syndrome is the sense that I don’t belong, am not as sharp as everyone else in the room, and am going to be found out as a fraud. Impostor syndrome has diminished for me as I’ve gained more experience as a lawyer, but it still comes up when I’m doing something new or unfamiliar or when I’m with people I don’t know well.

After discussions with my partner and other peers who have felt the same way, I’ve developed some hacks to challenge my impostor syndrome:

1.  Don’t compare my insides to everyone else’s outsides.

Comparison is the single biggest source of impostor syndrome. But it’s all illusion because we aren’t comparing things that are equal. We have no idea of the lived experience of that seemingly ideal person. My partner reminds me that if I want what they have, I have to do what they do. When I look at it that way, I end up wanting what I have. As Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

2.  Get a second opinion from a coach, mentor, or trusted ally.

We are not going to do everything perfectly. And anyway, perfection is overrated. Getting real feedback, even feedback that isn’t necessarily complimentary, from someone you trust is invaluable. Sometimes I am good at what I’m doing, sometimes I have to settle for being good enough, and sometimes I need to practice more or do a little more research.

3.  Ask myself better questions.

The brain is an incredible machine. If you ask it a question, it will spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with a very in-depth, color-coded, and visceral answer. Ask a bad question, get a devastating answer. Instead of asking, “What if I say something wrong?”, “What will they think of me?”, or “What if I am not smart enough?”, ask instead, “What can I say that is helpful?”, “What can I say that is honest and true?”, “What did I do right?”, and the best one, “What can I do that isn’t about me?”

4.  Remember that feelings are not facts.

There are days when I feel incompetent. I am not. I feel stupid. I am not. This is all my fault. It is not. I have angered (disappointed, insulted, etc.) someone. I have not. Working through this concept is harder for me than the other hacks because I invariably have to wade through my own baggage to get clarity.

5.  Reverse engineer the worst possible outcome.

My worst possible outcomes are always very dramatic. If I lose this motion for summary disposition, my client will fire me or sue me for malpractice, I won’t ever have another client, and I’ll become homeless. But is that likely? Hardly. So I reality-test each piece of the drama. There are many reasons why I won’t become homeless. Even if I never get another client, I certainly know how to work and I can get a job. My client may fire me for not winning, which is his or her choice, but if I have done the work, showed up, was honest in my pleadings and papers, and made good-faith efforts, that likelihood and the threat of malpractice diminishes.

I am always a work in progress.





Thanks for the comment, Paul.

01-25-2019 14:41

Mr. Matthies,

Thank you for this post. It contains advice we should all take to heart. Law is a high-pressure career. The first sentence of paragraph five elicited a laugh. I have no problem jumping to the worst-case scenario, so it was good to see I'm not alone in this, and when seen in print, it's patent absurdity is refreshing.