This is one of those posts that most people would think and never say but here goes.
I was admitted to the roll of solicitors 7 years ago this month. Most people have big celebrations, go to the admission to the roll ceremony, get their pictures taken with all their family whilst they’re wearing the black gown etc etc.
I didn’t do any of that.
I was embarrassed.
I was exhausted.
I was already on to ‘what’s next’.
There were lots of reasons why, and I appreciated what a privileged snotty nosed little shit I sound like as I say that, I know just how many people have been desperate to get to where I was and not achieved it. I’m not trying to be an ungrateful wretch, more to share some of those feelings that most of us won’t admit, even to ourselves, that we have.
I hadn’t set out to be a solicitor, I had set my heart on being a barrister, I was called to the Bar in 2007.
First embarrassment; I had had to resit a module of my bar exam, the first time I failed a test in my life was at a postgraduate degree level #sorelateablerightnow #putdownthepitchforks
So I was called to the Bar an entire year after everyone else in my class. I went to the ceremony but was close to tears most of the way through, because what should have been the crowning achievement of my life, felt shameful.
So I was called to the bar… but I didn’t get pupillage. I kept going on the interview track for far longer than most, I was still attending interviews more than 2 years after my call, shrinking smaller and smaller with each rejection.
I had never felt like I had belonged, being the daughter of an electrician and an office worker, coming from a family with a working class background stretching back centuries. I attended my call ceremony wearing a Next suit jacket that I had bought, reduced in the sale, when I was 15. I didn’t come from a place of significant privilege or access or money and I had felt decidedly out of place.
If you didn’t know what imposter syndrome was, then this part of my career is a great visual aid; feelings of insufficiency, insecurity, inability and lack. I had them in abundance.
I cross-qualified to become a solicitor, someone I had studied with had been told about the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test and showed me what she was doing to qualify.
I asked my employers to help and they said yes, great, when they started offering training contracts I would be included in that process. I waited over a year. The day the training contract job spec came out, I quit. It had specifically excluded my qualification. In my head I read it as rejection, again. So I found somewhere that agreed I could qualify with them and off I trotted.
Not that that was easy either. I waited ages before I pushed it and then soon became a broken record about it. It took nearly 4 years from that first discussion to finally getting qualified as a solicitor.
By the time I was admitted to the Roll, I had worked as a paralegal for 5 years, 11 months and 3 weeks. And in paid overtime alone I had worked an additional 3 years on top of that.
I was exhausted and embarrassed by just how much failure I had had to go through to get to a place that I hadn’t even really intended to be at to begin with.
Most of the time I felt completely out of control of my career; I had felt helpless and kind of hopeless and so had worked to make myself more valuable, more indispensable. I thought that if I worked hard enough I would be taken care of a little.
When I looked back at my career, I didn’t see a bright, resilient plucky little ginger who fought against the odds of her childhood, her background, the socio-economic boundaries others had made so much of, the economic climate, the sudden cuts to legal aid. I didn’t see a resilient, flexible and business minded junior lawyer who had seen and experienced more than most people with 10 years on her.
No, I saw the sadder telling of the story. I saw the repeated rejections, I saw the failures and the resits and the stumbling blocks. I focused on every ‘no’ I had received, every ‘not this time’, and spun them out into ‘you’re not good enough’, ‘you don’t belong here’ and ‘who did you even think you were to try?’
This right here is the danger of allowing imposter syndrome to go on unchecked and unmanaged. Because, even when it doesn’t actively hold you back from doing something, going for it, achieving something, it takes all of the joy and happiness and reward from it.
Imposter syndrome takes your greatest wins and makes them ‘could have done better’s, it takes the stumbling blocks and makes them into monoliths demonstrating your lack of worth and lack of talent. It will twist up every sideways glance and sigh in to ‘they hate me’ and it will always, always be at your back whipping you on to do more, faster, quicker, be better and be less stupid.
Imposter syndrome is the cat o’nine tails of self-loathing self-flagellation, beating you for everything you are and everything you are not, everything you could be and everything you never were, all at once.
And once imposter syndrome takes the wheel and starts driving the car, burnout is an almost inevitable conclusion.
I hope that anyone reading this will understand that I was not embarrassed to admit that I was a solicitor because I thought the job or role somehow not good enough, or that I was arrogant enough to think that I should have done ‘more’ somehow, but because the path to my qualification was paved with so many perceived imperfections and embarrassments, that I was embedded in a perpetual state of shame.
I know from experience that I am far from the only person who feels this way; in particular I have spoken with so many lawyers who ‘got in through the side door’ to qualification, who jumped through different hoops or were not granted a training contract and so somehow still perceive their qualification as less than or different, because they weren’t chosen and approved of and nurtured into the role, but got there through sheer force of will, or still feel like they somehow cheated their way in. The QLTT route to qualification closed a few short months after I qualified and I still occasionally joke that they closed the loophole because I had qualified.
But even if you were one of the chosen ones, winning a training contract against the odds and qualifying through that traditional route, if you have an imposter syndrome monster on your back, pouring hate and fear into your ear on a daily basis, you could well end up as embarrassed and self critical and self-destructive as I was.
What can we do about it?
Change the behaviour. Consciously notice when we chalk our successes up to luck or the work of others or something we could have done better, and very deliberately change the narrative. i adopt the ‘little sister’ test; is that something I would say to or about someone I loved dearly, or is it something I would stand by and allow them to say about themselves without setting them straight? It’s often easier to think about the words we’re using in the context of other people rather than ourselves.
Create a positive feedback loop. This week I have a new client starting work with me 1:1 and have secured my first two Burnout Prevention training sessions with big law firms, I will therefore be celebrating this weekend. It doesn’t have to be a big ole drama, it doesn’t even need to involve money, but I will consciously and deliberately choose to do something that feels brilliant and wonderful and indulgent, in recognition of my success.
Acknowledge and give thanks to the imposter monster. Something happens when we worry about outcomes or try to prevent them; we end up acting out of just as much fear in prevention of the thing than the thing caused itself. Neither way is workable in the long term. I choose to rehabilitate my imposter monster by thank it for trying to keep me small and safe and away from harm, but that it’s not going to change what I do. Overtime, with conscious action, our imposter monsters can shrink down and become less noisy, like a dry, well fed gremlin asleep at 9pm. Accidents happen and sometimes Gizmo will get caught in the rain, but your imposter syndrome monster is as scared and fearful as you are. Calm both yourself and the monster down and start treating them with the love and care they deserve - both of you will flourish.
PS With the launch of my Burnout Prevention training course, I will be travelling around the country to law firms and other businesses, sharing with teams of up to 25 people what burnout is, how to spot it, to manage and reverse it. If you’re a business what wants to more productive, more profitable with less time wasted in interpersonal dramas, staff turnover and endless money spent on shiny things to try and improve staff morale, then this is for you. Message me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org for details of prices and availability.