I’ve gotten the question “how are you so confident?” too many times to count. I used to love this question, beaming from the inside, ready to share my top 10 tips for achieving confidence and tricking the world into believing I shy away from nothing. And while it may be true that I feel comfortable wearing whatever clothes I want, or speaking in front of large auditoriums of people, or standing up for something I believe in regardless of the opposition, or approaching just about anyone at a party, these past few months I have struggled with an extreme lack of the thing I once prided myself on having an abundance of – confidence.
When I first read about imposter syndrome it took me a whole two hours to read through 50 pages detailing the subject. To anyone who knows me, this is an absurd amount of time for me to spend reading such a small number of pages (I religiously watched videos in double speed with subtitles so that I could teach myself how to speed read). It was not the difficulty of the language, nor the complexity of the material that caused my slower-than-normal pace. Rather, it was that every time I read a sentence my heart and brain clouded up with an unrecognizable fog. It was if I was reading a book written by my subconscious. This book was detailing things that I thought that I hadn’t even known I thought (if that doesn’t make sense, it didn’t make sense to me either, hence the slowness at which I read).
Imposter syndrome is the term that refers to a psychological feeling that, regardless of your accomplishments and actions, you believe that you are not actually worthy of what you are receiving and one day everyone will find out that you’re faking.
I was hit with a wave of this feeling most recently in the moot competition I participated in this past weekend. After reading the case, preparing my arguments, and practicing (admittedly too few times) answering judges’ questions, myself and my partner faced off against four separate teams. In each round I sensed we were doing well, convincingly advocating for our client, fielding the hardest of questions, and keeping composure when we slipped up on words or were posed an exceedingly difficult question. Our hard work paid off and we were chosen to compete in the second day of the competition as one team of sixteen chosen from 109. While this was our second time advancing to the quarter-semi-finals of a moot competition, and though I had seen others advance onto the second day of competing and carry with them a huge sense of accomplishment and confidence, I was convinced there must be some sort of mistake. I repeatedly questioned how I could have possibly made it above others in this highly competitive competition. I carried with me a defeatist attitude, convinced that there was no possible way to beat our competition, regardless of the fact that our scores would have to be almost identical to be able to compete at this level.
It wasn’t until the next day when I was talking to my mom on the phone about how lucky I had felt to be chosen to move on, that she pointed out to me all the hard work I had done to get there. It was only by her reaffirming that I was in-fact talented at oral advocacy that I could see that all of my feelings on the day of the competition were unfounded and based in this weird imposter syndrome way of thinking.
In addition to the imposter syndrome I feel in every area of my life, I also read about the incongruency between being an empath and having self-confidence. Perhaps as my superpower or my downfall, I have a hypersensitive awareness of the feelings of others and this awareness dictates how I conduct myself around and toward others. While this quality may be great for honing interpersonal relationships, it has hindered me in my professional pursuits. For me, and something I recently found out is not a universal reaction, when I receive a bad grade, or negative feedback on a presentation, or lose a position, I tend to translate it all back to the idea that I didn’t succeed because someone doesn’t like me personally or I did something that would cause them to dislike me.
I can draw back, once again, to the moot competition for the most recent example of this (though it’s a daily occurrence from being convinced my professor hates me if I get below an A- to telling a joke right after I take a strong stance on an issue in conversation to ensure everyone around me will still like me even if they don’t agree with me). After facing an extremally challenging panel of questioning, the judges went around to each mooter to give individual feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of our performances. Having already felt defeated and upset by the difficulty of the questioning, coupled with the exhaustion that comes from four rounds of mooting, the feedback I received from the judges was enough to send me to the verge of tears, convinced that I was an awful oral advocate and would probably not succeed in my chosen profession. I was allowing the judges’ view on my performance, a view that upon reflection was not as harsh as I perceived it on the day of, to diminish my self-worth and prove to me that any confidence I had in this extra-curricular was baseless and should be quickly done away with.
I know I am not alone in these feelings. While not exclusively a gendered issue, women are the most common victims to these feelings of inadequacy. It is women who are too afraid to apply for jobs for which they don’t have all of the qualifications. It is women who are too afraid to run in elections for fear that loss means they are disliked. It is women who don’t speak up in the classroom or the boardroom for fear that they may be perceived as bossy, bitchy, or dumb. I know these things because I face them every day and I have heard countless examples of my female friends and family members feeling them all the time, whether they know it or not.
So, when I hear people ask me how I’m so confident, while I may smile and laundry list tips to picture the audience in their underwear when they public speak, or to point out the ridiculousness of your outfit before anyone else can, I am actually hiding behind a misty wall of smoke and mirrors. My brain is racked with thoughts of second guessing myself and worrying about how others perceive my intelligence. I’m plagued with constantly thinking about how I can prove to everyone around me that I really am as capable as they are perceiving while simultaneously not believing in myself.
As I write this, I am trying to figure out to what end I am hoping to reach through this blog post. Admittedly, I don’t have a quick 10 tips to overcome these feelings because I am nowhere near overcoming them myself. I suspect that as I continue to further advance in my professional life, through law school and eventually entering the legal field, these feelings may only intensify. I’m writing this, rather, to bring to light these issues and hopefully make others who experience them feel less alone. It’s my hope that in writing this I can re-read the foolishness of my thoughts and work toward a headspace in which I can truly accept my right to be proud of my accomplishments and confident in my validity as a smart, capable, strong-minded woman.