Do you ever find yourself thinking that you’re not smart enough and can’t believe you’ve made it as far as you have? Perhaps you worry that one day people will figure this out?
It’s called Imposter Syndrome (and is more common that you think).
Contrary to what most people thought, that was me for much of my legal career.
I started out like any other baby lawyer. Nervous yet confident in my abilities. Unfortunately, I soon learned that law school didn’t teach me how to practice law (just how to think like a lawyer).
I remember my first few months of putting my all into documents and research projects that I barely understood… only to get my work back with so many red marks that you couldn’t tell what had been preserved.
And I also recall how dumb I felt as I attended conference calls to discuss issues that were completely over my head (while thinking I’d NEVER be as smart as anyone else on the call).
It felt like everyone was smarter than me, which quickly translated into me not measuring up.
What did I do about it? I doubled down and expected even more of myself. I started to require perfection and assumed that I just needed to work harder than everyone else.
But the result was that I never felt good enough.
Lawyers don’t talk about their feelings (especially negative ones) – we’re too proud to admit that we feel inadequate. So, I suffered in silence and told myself that I’d finally believe in myself once it was clear that I was on track to make partner.
As I continued in my career, I did rebuild some of my confidence. Working hard resulted in real success, respect from others, and better pay (which was hard to ignore).
Yet there was always a whispering voice in the back of my head questioning whether I was smart enough, telling me that I’d been lucky, and warning that I’d one day be revealed as a fraud.
And then I finally did it. I made partner!
I was elated – not just that my hard work and all the time invested in my career had paid off, but also because this was proof that I should believe in myself. If others believed in me enough to make me partner, then I should too.
But human brains often don’t think rationally.
I soon discovered that just because other people had faith in me didn’t mean that I also had faith in myself. Not only did my voice not go away, it got louder and more consistent.
Like with any big promotion, becoming partner within a law firm brings with it more responsibility and new challenges. You’re expected to be a leader, build your own book of business, and be (or quickly become) an expert in your area. And there’s very little training on how to do all that.
I doubted my ability to build a book of business from scratch. And I didn’t see myself as a leader or an expert at anything.
My inner voice kept telling me that they’d made a mistake (and that they’d soon figure it out). But then something interesting happened…
I asked a fellow partner (who had previously been a mentor) his opinion on something I was struggling with. His response was that I was a hot-shot partner now and to figure it out on my own.
Truthfully, his response was out-of-bounds. Yet it hit every nerve in my body. In that moment, I KNEW that every fear I had about not being good enough and being a complete fraud was true.
But that only lasted for a few seconds because I realized that he was acting out of fear and self-doubt. He was under a lot of pressure and stress in that moment and his response had nothing to do with me at all!
That when I realized that I wasn’t alone.
Other smart, capable people had the same worries and self-doubt.
This discovery made me curious. Who else suffered? Better yet, who didn’t… and why not?
I started observing people to figure this out. What I found was that there was a big difference in how people viewed – and dealt with – fear.
There were the perfectionists who feared failure and not being in control. Their perfectionism was fueled by their fears and doubts, while also causing them to feel like they’d never measure up. They were caught in a never-ending loop.
And there were the self-confident and courageous folks who accepted imperfection and were more comfortable with the idea of failing.
Although they didn’t enjoy or want to fail (and still held themselves to high standards), they had adopted a mentality that failure leads to growth and ultimately is necessary to succeed. It’s as if they got comfortable with their fears.
I needed to get comfortable with my fears, stop requiring perfection, and take control of my inner negative voice. And I figured out how to make that happen.
Notice that I’m not saying my fears were vanquished or that I got rid of my negative voice. Not only is it impossible to do that, but fears and negative thinking are sometimes good (they help you to be aware of potential pitfalls and to plan accordingly).
So, what did I do (and how can you too build self-confidence and control your inner negative voice so that you can stop feeling like you’re not good enough)?
1. Surround yourself with supportive people who have the mentality you’re trying to adopt.
If I was going to change, I needed people around me that had the traits I wanted. I knew that I could learn from them – both by asking questions and through carefully observing how they dealt with adversity and stress.
You don’t have to drop everyone else from your life (I didn’t), but you do need to take negative people with the wrong mindset out of your inner circle.
2. Let go of perfectionism.
Admittedly, this is easier said than done when you’ve been working towards perfection for a long time. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible.
To help me let go, I kept a daily journal at work. I’d write down what I wanted to get done and the standards I wanted to hold myself to. And I challenged those standards, asking questions about whether they were too high or not.
And since my perfectionism stemmed from my fears, I wrote down any fears or doubts that showed up. It’s amazing how writing about how you feel can help you move past those feelings. It also helped me better recognize when my standards were leaning towards perfectionism.
3. Treat your inner voice as though he/she is a friend trying to help (albeit in an overly negative way).
Anytime my inner negative voice showed up, I spoke to her and asked questions about what she needed to tell me. I then reminded her to be brief. Whenever she started to repeat herself, I’d tell her that she’d done her job and could go away.
This helped me to befriend my inner negative voice and take control over it. And it’s something I still do.
4. Use truthful (yet positive) affirmations that tell a story about where you are, where you’re going, and what you’re doing to get there.
Many self-help professionals over-simplify positive affirmations. If you believe something negative about yourself, saying the exact opposite repeatedly isn’t going to change your mind.
But you can change how you relate to yourself, build self-confidence, and think more positively through affirmations that are realistic and believable. I’ve found that they work best when narrating a story about where you are, where you want to go, and what you’re doing to bridge the gap.
5. Set goals around building your self-confidence in small (yet important) ways.
Confidence can only be built through doing – it doesn’t magically appear. And that requires courage.
I knew that speaking up in group settings, making my opinions known, and volunteering for new challenges would build my self-confidence. And I also knew that it wouldn’t work to do this haphazardly. I needed to be consistent (and persistent).
So, I set specific goals and stuck to them. Plus, I started small and built up from there.
To believe in yourself you must accept that courage is about taking one small step at a time despite your fears. No one else can give you courage or confidence. It comes from within you. @moulder_heather (Click to Tweet!)
Heather Moulder is a writer, speaker, and executive career coach who guides and empowers overwhelmed and unfulfilled professionals to cultivate a focused and mentally resilient mind so they can confidently create success on their own terms. She’s a recovering lawyer (and perfectionist) who enjoys reading, college football, and spending time with her boys. Connect with Heather on Facebook or at coursecorrectioncoaching.com.
Image courtesy of CoWomen.