'Time to Talk Day' - Tackling Imposter Syndrome: experiences and advice from an LLB Law Student
In honour of 'Time to Talk Day' our most recent guest blogger Courtney Evison, a third year LLB Law Student at the University of Stirling discusses the effects of imposter syndrome, shares her own experiences of imposter syndrome and provides useful tips on how to manage it.
Imposter syndrome. Unfortunately for many of us this may be all too familiar. No matter how successful, experienced, or accomplished a person may be, the chances are we have all experienced feelings of imposter syndrome in some form at some point in our life. If you’ve ever repeatedly found yourself asking things like “how did I get here?” or caught yourself thinking “I don’t think I deserve this” and “that can’t be right, there must have been a mistake?”, you may very well be experiencing characteristics of the infamous imposter syndrome.
Alongside self-doubt, imposter syndrome may also manifest itself through refusal to acknowledge when a job has been well done, berating and extensively critiquing your work and overriding your own successes, competence, and ability to work well.
Many of those experiencing imposter syndrome (including myself) are overachievers, however are stuck in a catch 22 when they fear that they won’t live up to the expectations they have set for themselves. Unsurprisingly this creates an exhausting cycle, and one which is difficult to break. Consequently, imposter syndrome can harbour negative side effects on an individual’s mental health and wellbeing through adopting and believing unhealthy thinking patterns.
It comes as no surprise that many students experience the negativities of imposter syndrome. Exams and coursework create feelings of anxiety, unease, and pressure. Everyone wants to do well, who doesn’t want a first? Law is a competitive field, in undergraduate and postgraduate studies as well as in practice. The phenomenon isn’t something that disappears as soon you hand in your dissertation, walk across the stage at a graduation ceremony, or qualify after completing your traineeship. However acknowledging that others also experience the way you feel and putting thoughts into perspective may just make them a bit easier to overcome.
Studying can be stressful enough, without adding in stress from the unwanted thoughts of convincing yourself that you aren’t worthy of your successes. Experiencing imposter syndrome increases anxiety and may contribute to constant states of being stuck in hypertension and worry. These unwanted impacts and feelings can detrimentally effect our mental health through loss of sleep, resulting in lack of concentration, alongside lack of appetite which contributes to nausea. This may ultimately lead to feelings of mental and physical burnt out, which can also negatively impact on studies and our daily lives.
Constant monitoring can also decrease productivity levels, and continuous fears of failure are both unhealthy and irrational. Negative self-belief’s resulting from imposter syndrome may also hold us back from pursuing future opportunities through fears of rejection. This cycle can become never ending, playing havoc on our stress levels, as well as self-confidence.
I remember receiving my university offer, my first thought after seeing the UCAS email being “brace yourself, and remember there’s always next year”: my very first memory of catastrophising, thinking the worst to cushion the fall in the event of disappointment. Moving then to my first day of university; sitting at home behind my laptop screen thinking “what on earth am I doing here? I am way out of my depth”, believing that all the other names on the screen of Microsoft Teams were more worthy than I was. Surely they were more deserving to be studying law, and had more to offer?
Flash forward to my first piece of coursework and the sleepless nights wondering “am I on the right track? Is this case law even relevant?”, and although my grade was higher than I expected- I did not stop to allow myself to appreciate it, but still constantly compared myself to others. When I did well, I subconsciously accredited my efforts and grades to other factors, refusing to acknowledge or recognise that my own hard work had gotten me there. When receiving grades, feedback or being offered opportunities it was not uncommon for me to respond with “I must have just gotten lucky, it probably won’t happen again”, or “it must have just been an easy paper.” I was unknowingly encouraging my imposturous thoughts by attributing my success to external factors and refusing to acknowledge my abilities.
Imposter syndrome can lead us to irrational thinking and thoughts, something of which I was becoming all too familiar with. I felt like I wasn’t worthy of a place on my course if I had to ask for help, or if everything didn’t come naturally to me. I am guilty of refusing to recognise my wins and successes, instead just waiting for something to get too difficult, something to catch me out or trip me up and always preparing for the worst. Although a hard cycle to break, by using some of the tips below I slowly began to appreciate and take pride in my hard work.
How to manage it
Attempting to deal with the intrusive thoughts are much easier said than done. Basic self-care techniques may be a good start, but overcoming imposter syndrome is a long process- one that may be difficult to fully overcome. I’m not saying that taking a bath and lighting a candle will automatically cure any self-doubts (although it may be a good start) and I am by no means the epitome of successfully taking hold of and banishing imposter syndrome, but sometimes it may be worthwhile looking into what works for others, and seeking comfort in the fact that you are not the only one to feel the way you do.
Rationalise. What is the worst-case scenario? Thinking along these lines and jumping straight to catastrophe is unhelpful, timely and may have a harmful impact overall on the task at hand. Take a breather, step back and put your task into perspective. Utilise the time you have by changing your perspective and looking from a more positive angle, instead of heading straight for self-destruction and panic mode (we’ve all been there!). Although separating yourself from the work may seem impossible, it will always be worth your while to put things into perspective without getting caught up in the ‘what if’s’. In my experience, rationalising is key when it comes to coping mechanisms.
If at first you don’t succeed.. Receiving an unfavourable outcome, or one which you didn’t expect may also make imposter syndrome worse. So when things don’t work out exactly how you’d hope, don’t berate yourself too much or self-sabotage. It’s a learning curve; and learning curves are life-long experiences! Take the positives from every situation and take them with you going forward. It is all part of the process. Although being a perfectionist shows commitment, setting unrealistic goals may also contribute to negative thinking patterns when impossibly high standards cannot be attained.
Speak! You are not alone, and you will never be the only person experiencing these thoughts and feelings. You will be surprised by the amount of people who feel the same as you do. Seek comfort in the fact that your feelings are valid and felt by others too. Grab your friends for a coffee (or something stronger, I’m not judging) and have a check in on how you’re feeling. They say a problem shared is a problem halved, and this couldn’t be more true. Feeling overwhelmed or undeserving is nothing to be ashamed of, and you can always count on those closest to you for the reassurance and pick-me-up you might need.
Self-appreciation. Even if you are the modest type; sit back and appreciate what you have accomplished so far, and no, you didn’t just get lucky! When that essay seems a bit too overwhelming, or that work placement seems too far out of reach; don’t jump straight to the worst-case scenario. Look back at past comments and feedback on previous work, and use these to encourage you. You are capable of doing well, and this has been recognised before! Take that forward, that is proof that you can do it. Accept the praise when it comes, you worked hard to deserve it.
Stop comparing and downplaying. Focus on your own goals, your own development, and your own wins. Comparing yourself to others will only fuel the thoughts. You should be in competition with yourself and nobody else. Everyone’s circumstances, learning techniques and writing styles are different- we all have different strengths to bring to the table and these may be evidenced in different ways when it comes to coursework and exams. It is easy enough to say, but an extra 3% achieved by someone else does not make them any more deserving of their success than you are of yours!
Your efforts are worthy of success and recognition, so despite what that voice in your head tells you; own it and enjoy it. So when the hard work pays off and opportunities arise, don’t be surprised. No, it’s not a mistake. Success isn’t the product of coincidence; it is the well-deserved consequences of hard work and effort. Convincing yourself that you are a fraud is not only untrue, but also exhausting and unfair. We often find ourselves being our friend’s biggest supporters, yet our own worst critic; and where is the justice in that? We deserve the same amount of kindness to ourselves that we give to others, and it is important that we celebrate and recognise our successes in the same way we would for anyone else. Remember: you have come this far, and there are legitimate reasons for that. Celebrate your wins and be kind to yourself. You are where you are for a reason!
Finishing with a quote from the iconic Elle Woods may be well-founded at this point: “You must always have faith in others, but most importantly; you must always have faith in yourself.”
I hope this article has been helpful, or at the very least offered reassurance that you are not alone.
Please feel free to connect on LinkedIn- my inbox is open, and I am always willing to share tips or have a chat.
By Courtney Evison
Third Year LLB Student
University of Stirling
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