No, I’m seriously asking: does anyone else suffer from Impostor Syndrome? Because I have a feeling a lot of us do. I know I do, and if any of y’all have any tips as to how to deal with it, I’m all ears.
Now, obviously, we all carry around baggage, and this isn’t going to devolve into some Woe is I post about how I’m such a special snowflake and I need to be wrapped up in cotton and protected from the world. (If anything, with my rabid wounded bird tendencies, I’m far more likely to wrap someone ELSE up in cotton and protect them from the world!)
But I’m honestly asking, because I suffer greatly from Impostor Syndrome and I’m hoping it’s something I’ll grow out of.
I think a big part of it is that I’m a South Asian Muslim girl (hah, notice how I still refer to myself as a girl? Calling myself a woman just seems … weird and inauthentic). I’m the daughter of traditional South Asians and fairly conservative Muslims.
And South Asian culture, at least what I’ve seen and experienced all my life, seems to demand an almost … infantilization of girls. We’re the ones that are most often sheltered and protected from all the unpleasant aspects of life – protected by our fathers, who then transfer that responsibility to our husbands.
I mean, ideally, that’s how our cultural norms would have it. The reality of the situation often doesn’t play out that way because South Asian girls tend to have, you know, agency and ideas and individuality. Troublesome, pesky little things like that.
But I’ve had to deal with that pretty much all my life. Anything that was even slightly unpleasant or slightly resembling work, my dad wanted to do it, or he made my brother do it. And obviously, that’s very sweet and it was helpful, too, because I got to focus on things I wanted to do, like school or reading or writing or any of my other pursuits.
However, I’m sure I don’t need to get into all the ways that such treatment is intensely problematic. The biggest reason for me, personally, is that being treated that way puts me in a position where the big decisions in my life are made by someone else, and the unpleasant things are dealt with by someone else. So when I had to make a big decision, I didn’t necessarily have all the tools and life experience to do so. And when I had to deal with something unpleasant, from being rear-ended on the way to school or being followed to my car by some jackass who didn’t understand how NOT into him I was, I didn’t always know how to handle it.
Which leads me back to the idea of infantilization, which in this case meant that I felt like an Impostor Adult for a very long time after I legally became an adult. And I still feel like that, but I’m much better now.
But screw that, because no one cares about my personal life. That’s boring. Anyway, I have this same dilemma professionally.
As devotees will remember, I’m a criminal defense attorney. I represent people accused of crimes – some not to so terrible, and some pretty damn terrible. And in every case, the plaintiff is the State (or the federal government). And that means that I’m the one basically keeping someone else’s ass out of jail. And sometimes I can’t, and I’ve had that happen, in which case I just try to get them out of jail as soon as possible.
But that’s basically what I do.
So what I’m saying is, the stakes are pretty high. I’ve had a client taken into custody right before me. It’s hard, even though you prepare for it and you prepare the client for it as a possibility. I’ve sat across a small table from a man and watched him sign away the next thirty years of his life.
The stakes are fucking high.
And it’s generally not a good idea for me to have to deal with a bout of Impostor Syndrome when all this is going on and when I’m trying to stay focused.
Impostor Syndrome is exactly what it sounds like. It’s when you walk into a room, prepared and ready to do your job and deal with whatever curveballs are flung at you, and all of a sudden some little voice in your head decides to be an asshole.
What are you doing here? This little voice wants to know. Who do you think you’re fooling? You don’t belong here. You might look the part, in your dresses and blazers and heels, but you’re just a child playing dress up. Look at the rest of the people here – the men in their suits with their silk ties, the women with their briefcases and neatly pulled back hair. They’re the ones who actually know what they’re doing. You? What do you know? You probably wrote your motion in crayon, didn’t you? You don’t belong here. You’re just faking. Faker!
The voice sounds a lot like Lucille Bluth, you guys.
Anyway, I hear this voice every single damn time I walk into court. Which is dumb. Because I even hear this voice when literally all I have to do is walk up to the podium, state my name and the fact that my client is in custody or out on bond, and ask for a date.
Like, damn. That’s not normal! What in the world is wrong with me?!
You’d think that after having done this for a while, and loving my job and (according to my boss, because what do I know) doing well at it, I’d have developed a little bit of self confidence. At least, enough of it that I can tell that little voice to piss off, because I’m awesome and competent and know things, dammit.
You’d think so, but no. Not even the angry!Doctor can inspire that sort of confidence with his all his yelling about cleverness.
Oddly, it rarely happens at the office. When I sit and type out long, detailed motions, I’m in my element. I’m fine. I know what I’m doing (generally) and I know that no matter what, even if I mess up, my boss will nudge me in the right direction and then send me along on my merry way to fix it. So that’s fine.
But get me in court, or hanging out with other attorneys, and I’m convinced that I’ve got the legal know-how of a 3yo.
I’m convinced I’m not the only one that feels this way.
I have friends that are doing their residency and stuff right now, and I’m pretty sure that they get up there in front of an actual patient and think, AAA IT SHOULD BE A CRIME FOR ME TO EVEN TOUCH THIS PERSON I WILL PROBABLY ACCIDENTALLY GIVE THEM EBOLA RETROVIRUS HERPES AND A BROKEN LEG. I have friends that are journalists and writers, and the very first time someone ‘in the industry’ took on one of their pieces, they’d quietly flip out, too, suddenly convinced that their well-thought out and researched stories were on par with See Spot Run.
I’m positive we’ve all been there in one way or another.
I guess I’m just wondering if it gets easier. I’ve been making court appearances for months now, and even when it’s something a trained monkey could do, I second-guess myself. I always get a handle on it before I even step out of my car, to be honest, but still. It’s odd and disconcerting that the little voice is even there – on the small things. I can understand it being there if I’m doing something huge and complicated and totally out of my league.
Like with everything else in my life, I have a game plan to defeat this. I think. Because that’s how I am: I identify problems and then I figure out ways to conquer them. I kind of obsess about it until I am able to figure something out, which works well but makes me a little neurotic, I think.
My game plan is simple.
- I’m going to keep learning everything I can by watching other attorneys (namely by boss, who is a rock star, and Andrea Lyon, on those occasions when I’m fortunate enough to be within a ten foot radius of her), and by reading whatever I can get my hands on. And I’m definitely going to keep practicing and stretching my limits and figuring out what I can do, and getting help when I need it.
- I’m going to tell the little voice to STFU.
- No, no, kidding. That won’t work.
- Damn it, I wish that would work.
- What was I talking about?
- Oh, yes, keep learning and keep reading and keep watching and asking for help.
- Keep the hell out of my own head. If I’m truly focusing on the case at hand, then, really, I shouldn’t be able to focus on that stupid Lucille Bluth voice about how I’m a faker. If I’m truly focused, I need to be just that: truly focused. And that means thinking about the case and my client and possible curveballs, and staying out of my own head in any way that’s not productive.
- Every time I leave court, or a similar place where the little voice often invites itself, I need to take a few minutes to just sit in my car and review what happened. I need to take those few minutes to let myself focus on how well I did my job just moments ago, and how nothing terrible happened. And even if something terrible happened, I was able to handle it. (That happened, too, in the past, but that’s a post for another time.) That kind of positive, self-affirming Monday morning quarter-backing can potentially be really helpful, I think, and can go a long way toward getting rid of that jerk voice.
- Every time that voice pops up, I’m just going to remember sitting in my car, patting myself on the back for little victories. Before long, that little voice should fade away.
One of the first things my boss told me when I joined his firm was to savor the little victories. Because as defense attorneys, we don’t get many of those. I wish I’d taken that advice to heart right away, because it would have saved me some stress and heartache and fear and tears. But at the same time, I don’t know that I could have taken that advice to heart without having gotten my teeth kicked in by a judge, or having had the fear of God put into me by whatever curveballs were whipped right at my head, you know?
Sometimes, you just have to live through shit before you can truly understand the advice someone gave you about it all.
But I did live through some stressful incidents like that, and I had my small victories even in those cases. And my boss’s words came back to me: you have to savor the little victories. And not only that, but he said that sometimes you have to create victories from things you might otherwise have thought were losses.
I remember the very first time I was sent alone on a case and it was something terribly simple that went terribly awry, and I handled it and managed to avoid having my client taken into custody by desperately, strenuously prying a date from the Judge’s vice-like grip on his packed calendar.
I remember standing on the courthouse steps on that cold January morning, and calling my boss. I was breathless and convinced I’d bungled it all up somehow. (Even though, objectively, I hadn’t. Objectively, I’d done a kick-ass job, but I couldn’t see it at that point.) He was in federal court in Indiana that morning, gearing up for a change of plea that was to happen in literally less than 15 minutes, and he still took the time to listen to me and calm me down and get me off my ledge.
And he said something that I won’t soon forget – something that comes back to me when I’m having trouble seeing the small victories I’ve created.
He said, “Huma, breathe. I know you’re stressed. I know this was a bad situation, but remember, we knew there was a chance – a very small one, but still – that this could happen. And you dealt with it. He’s not in jail. He walked out of the courthouse with you. We still have some ways to fight this. I know you’re feeling upset because it’s not the outcome you’d hoped for, but remember: any time you can set a date, any time you can just get some time to take a fucking breath, that’s a win. That’s a win!”
Any time you can set a date, it’s a win.
Even when the situation feels like this.
And I’ll tell you, when my boss put it that way, it clicked in my head. Any time you can set a date and breathe, it’s a win.
I mean, I didn’t get it right away. I was still upset. I drove to a nearby McDonalds, bought a bunch of cookies, and ate them in my car. So yeah. Not a proud moment for your friendly neighborhood Hoomster.
But when I sat down and evaluated the situation (and geared up for the next stage of the fight), it did click. He was right. I bought my guy another week of freedom. And I got the Judge down from 40 days straight in prison, to 20 days, which meant, since they’d be served day-for-day, that he’d spend 10 days in jail. So even though the Judge was angling for jail time, I’d go into sentencing next time knowing that I’d at least gotten the Judge down from what he was considering giving my client. Sure, he could pull a 180 on me and go back to the 40 straight, and that would totally be within his discretion, but even though he wasn’t keen on my defense position, I had a gut feeling that this Judge was the kind that would remember what he said to me and would abide by it. He just struck me as that type.
In, like, the brief (10-15 minutes?) time that I spent up there, talking to him.
(And I was right. So there’s that.)
But that “little victories” thing my boss tried to drum into my head is absolutely on the money, and I think it’s a good way to deal with Impostor Syndrome. So every time that voice pops up, I’m going to take it as a sign that I’m not FULLY focused on my case, because if I was, I wouldn’t register that voice. And after I’m done with my court call, I’m going to sit in my car and review it and think about everything I did right, and how I handled the unexpected. And whenever that voice pops up again, I’m going to remember my little victories and force it back.
Because I’ve got to stop walking into court like this:
And start walking into court like this: