Today was the first day of my last semester of school, ever.* (*Unless I decide I want another degree down the line, but for now, after seven straight years of undergrad and grad school, I’m definitely done for the near future.) As I saw all of the “happy last first day of school” messages this morning, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of restlessness. I’m externing this semester and was working full-time for the day. I realized my anxiety was building up over being in this new externship placement. Here, I’m working in an area of law that I have no experience in, so before I began this morning, I felt incredibly nervous about this new position: What if I’m in a meeting and get asked a question I have no idea how to answer? What if I’m supposed to know about some substantive area of the law that I actually am clueless about? Until I eventually calmed down, I even started wondering how and why I landed the position in the first place. Who, me? How? Why?
This feeling of doubt and lack of confidence isn’t foreign to me. I felt similarly on my very first day of law school, my first case during my clinic experience, and throughout my 2L summer as a summer associate at a law firm. These feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty are a form of imposter syndrome, which is something I continue to struggle with as a final semester 3L. Imposter syndrome can come in various forms for various people. One HBR article defines it as “doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud.”
When we get in our heads with imposter syndrome, we tend to convince ourselves that everyone else around us has it all figured out and that we have somehow tricked our way to where we are; we fear that someone might expose us someday for not “actually” belonging or deserving to be where we are at. Not surprisingly, research demonstrates that in workplace settings, imposter syndrome disproportionately affects individuals in high achieving, high pressure professions like the law.
This isn’t to say, though, that imposter syndrome is all in our heads. For a lot of people, especially those who come from marginalized identities — women, people of color, first generation students/attorneys — the feeling of discomfort comes from the fact that these identities are underrepresented in the law, so there are real systemic barriers to inclusion in the profession. We can acknowledge that these feelings of uncertainty validly stem from environments where we, by design, do not feel fully welcome or that we belong. We should push the profession to become less Eurocentric, masculine, and heteronormative.
At the same time, there are ways in which we amplify our own self-doubt, and there are steps we can take to overcome our own imposter syndrome in those moments. Foremost, I’ve found it helpful to analyze the root of my thoughts that try to convince me I’m an imposter. Often, my feeling like a fraud is simply nerves from lack of preparation for something. For instance, this morning, I was afraid to log into my meeting and get asked about homeownership preservation, the area I’ll be working in for my externship. Before the meeting, I found some quick articles on legal issues affecting this area. I read briefly about fraudulent deed transfers and about foreclosure defense generally. Even knowing these terms and having a surface-level familiarity with them helped to calm me down before my meeting. Actually, while reading up on these terms, I realized that I did know a bit more about this area that I had initially realized. When you try to attack the root cause of your feeling like an imposter, you might be better able to rationally separate your feelings from the facts of the situation.
It also can help to remember our accomplishments in times of self-doubt. In moments where the imposter syndrome hits, if we can remember classes that we have done particularly well in, laudatory comments we’ve received from professors, or times we’ve felt particularly proud after an assignment, we have tangible instances of our successes to remind us that we are competent and here for a reason. For me, I also think about myself as a freshman or sophomore in college. At that age, I could not have imagined that in five years, I’d be where I’m at now, about to graduate from Boston College Law School in just a few short months. Thinking about how proud my past self would be of me now always helps to ground me. Every time in the past when I felt I couldn’t do something or that I didn’t belong, I managed to push through and make it to where I am today. What’s to stop me this time or the next?
I do believe that no matter how independent and full of self-love we are, sometimes, we need support from people around us to talk us through our imposter syndrome. Talking with people serves several functions. Firstly, when we stop struggling in silence, we realize that there are more people who can relate to our experiences than we may have originally thought. In addition, when we talk with someone we trust, they can help sort out our valid emotions from the irrational thoughts and fears we conflate with them; our people can support us while reminding us that we are inherently capable and worthy. Throughout law school, I’ve been blessed with not only strong friendships in my peers, but also mentors and mentees who have turned into dear friends, too. These are the people who will share my joy when I achieve something and — equally as importantly — will share in my frustration and pain when I don’t quite feel up to par. They remind me that of course it’s okay to not feel 100% all the time, but that nothing can take away from my innate worth and competence as I navigate this taxing profession.
If you’re feeling like an imposter, know that the feeling is normal and you’re certainly not alone. Whether or not they make it known to you, many of your peers are probably feeling it too. The truth is, we are all here because we worked hard, we are more than deserving, and we belong. Being in this kind of competitive environment can make us forget that sometimes. Remember all of this when you start to ask yourself why me? Because yes you! More likely than not, the people around you already see and know how talented, deserving, and valuable you are. You’d better start believing it for yourself, too.
Roma Gujarathi is a third-year student at BC Law. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.