The Woman beneath the Wig: Imposter Syndrome and how to overcome it

Image is EverythingI’ve been out of the legal profession long enough to feel at liberty to admit that women in law have an image problem. With the day to day job, huge respect comes hand in hand with great responsibility. No one wants to be represented by a “flaky” barrister. So we build up our […]

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Image is Everything
I’ve been out of the legal profession long enough to feel at liberty to admit that women in law have an image problem. With the day to day job, huge respect comes hand in hand with great responsibility. No one wants to be represented by a “flaky” barrister. So we build up our armour, we fluff out our feathers and we straighten our wig like a helmet, as we prepare for combat. Our barrister image has to be just right.
Even when, in truth, it’s all wrong.
Reality Bites
How many times have you walked to court with sweaty palms and a dry mouth, with a knot in your stomach anticipating the case ahead? Ever felt so nervous you could almost throw up?
Or have you been mid-cross examination and been so overwhelmed in the moment you’ve had an outer-body experience where, whilst the words are coming out of your mouth, your mind thinks those words are coming out of a different body, as you suddenly see the court from a bird’s eye view?
Have you been debating whether to apply for Recordership or a part time judicial post and told yourself, “What’s the point; So and So is so much better than me and bound to get it not me.”
Or sat before a client whose whole future depends on you, and you alone, and all your inner voice can say to you is, “Yeah, right. How is it you think you can help here? You might care enough but you aren’t good enough to handle this and do the best job. That poor client deserved someone better.”
(And yes, I am talking to you…!)
10 Strategies to successfully overcome the Imposter Within
1.You’re not alone
Firstly, don’t think you are the only wig-wearing warrior to feel this way. Michelle Obama, a classic example in fact, writes in Becoming about a legal career dogged by these feelings. We’ve all had days where our inner voice has been our most critical. Ask yourself, if that voice were a friend, would you actually still have that friend in your life? No. I thought so. Probably not. So why allow yourself to be so affected and influenced by the horrible, damaging things you say to yourself?
2.Own it
Secondly, own it. I hate to break it to you, you aren’t the first to feel this way, nor will you be the last. But that fact of itself can be very liberating. The phenomenon has been called “imposter syndrome.” Some are happy enough with the label, others don’t like it. Whatever you call it, it brings you into a community of people, men included, who have been open enough to admit these feelings, get an awareness around it, and by doing so, equip themselves with the choice to do something about it. From the most junior pupils to the most senior high court judges, female lawyers of all levels of seniority have felt that “wobbly-wigged women” moment, even if only momentarily. If people tell you they haven’t, they are neither honest nor reliable wellbeing role models of the future.
3.Visualise a Confident you
Now, visualise a confident you: What does it look like? What does it feel like? What do it give you that you don’t have now? By starting with the end in mind, so much easier to work backwards and break down the goal into smaller more manageable chunks to take the action steps needed to get you to where you want to be. “It’s hard to score without a goal”.
4.Work on your Game Face
Then, work on your game face. I’m not a fan of the “Fake it ‘til you make it” approach though. To me, at the core of this phrase is a lack of authenticity which many find incongruent and induces internal conflict. Instead, I invite you to think of a swan, swimming gracefully on the surface of the water, whilst their feet are going crazy below the surface. So many of us are doing it. So too you should perfect the art of external confidence and togetherness, whilst at the same time, acknowledging the internal stuff too. Client confidence is slowly earned and quickly lost, so important to have that exterior stuff nailed.
5.Fact or Feeling?
For the internal stuff, ask yourself a simple question. Is this feeling or fact? Put another way, (as a lawyer, you’ll like this:) where is the EVIDENCE that you are as useless as you tell, and reinforce to, yourself or that you are not up to the job etc etc? When you shine a light on your successes rather than focusing on your perceived failings, you will soon see not only the power of positive mindset, but also that the evidence points against how incapable you are. You are competent, worthy and have important skills to celebrate and replicate.
6.Positive Focus
That said, even with the evidence, you might need that little added extra. Great tools for increasing our ability to look at the positives and not dwell on the negatives are to focus on the things we are grateful for in life, and to use positive affirmations as a tool to re-enforce to ourselves that we are enough: “ You are enough”, “You got this” and so on. You might want to go a step further and actually collate a “Brag book” by collecting every bit of positive feedback you have had as good evidence that you are “Da wo-Man”. It might not come naturally at first, but after the first bit of positive feedback starts to trickle in, you will feel more confident around asking for it and, just like a rolling stone, the momentum will build giving you further confidence to ask for, and indeed receive more.
7.Give Back
Externally too, focus on the positives by giving back: become a mentor for more junior people to yourself for example to reinforce your own depth of knowledge. When you help others, you also shift your focus beyond and outside of yourself on to others, experience the “helper’s high” (which makes you feel good from doing good!) and also provides external validation for the fact that you ARE skilled, experienced and, truly, a learned friend.
If you are initially struggling with your own self-belief or positive inspiration to look for it elsewhere, no shame in asking your trusted circle. Ask them for feedback on your good bits. Capture it not only by learning to accept, and celebrate, the compliment but also by writing it down. Maybe even add it to your brag book or put post-it notes around the place as go-to reminders of the star you truly are.
And let’s bring it back down a mo. It might not all be good feedback. If you put yourself out there, be ready for whatever comes your way. If it isn’t all to your liking, relax. Either, think feedback is only ever about the person giving it, not about the person receiving it, and find ways to dis-attach yourself from what is said. After all, “it’s not what life does to you that matters, but what you do with what life does to you” right?
Or, if you want to take it on board, own that choice, and see it as a point of learning as opposed to actual failure. What opportunities are there here to upskill? Which external resources might I need to rely upon to equip me to develop and grow?
10.Avoid Comparisons
As I’ve mentioned, an important part of feedback, whether positive or negative, is to use it appropriately. Don’t allow it to turn into the cruel art of comparison. You are you. So and So is So and So. For the self-critical, nothing positive can come of comparison, unless perhaps you compare yourself to others in order to identify a role model whose behaviour you wish to emulate.
Attitude determines Altitude
At the end of the day, it’s your life. So live it – in a way that empowers you through awareness, choice and positivity to reach the outcomes you desire and the success that you deserve!

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