Lawyers need to talk about their own insecurities and support others to do the same, says Pippa Allsop
In an interview several years ago, Baroness Hale admitted suffering from so-called imposter syndrome, or as she so aptly put it, “the fear of being found out”.
Her recent delivery of the Supreme Court’s judgment condemning Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s prorogation of parliament as unlawful, has led to her previous comments being brought back to the fore.
In my view, it is equally unbelievable and reassuring that a person so incredibly accomplished as Lady Hale could ever possibly be plagued with self-doubt.
Imposter syndrome is the widely recognised psychological phenomenon where someone does not believe in their own abilities despite the presence of tangible evidence to support those abilities. At best, imposter syndrome can cause the individual sporadic bouts of stress throughout the working week.
At worst, it can cause ongoing and acute periods of anxiety which, if not recognised and responded to, can result in significant detriment to an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.
Imposter syndrome is most prevalent among those in high-pressured professions so it is unsurprising that it is widespread within the legal sphere. Although arguably the most senior member of our profession to admit to experiencing self doubt, Lady Hale is not alone.
There is also a separate issue which is inextricably linked with imposter syndrome – people failing to appreciate their own accomplishments. It seems clear that a large number of us spend our careers either looking behind us, fearful that our achievements will be taken away; or focusing on the next goal ahead, without taking stock of our present situation.
It is an easy trap to fall into, particularly in ambitious individuals in a profession where there seems little time to stand still for fear of being overtaken by our peers. We achieve a milestone, only to then push on without giving ourselves an internal ‘pat on the back’ – something which benefits our mental wellbeing.
In the wake of World Mental Health Day (10 October 2019), there is no question that strident messages from the top play a crucial part in furthering the objective of “raising awareness of mental health issues…and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health”, as the World Health Organization states.
It is of course important that this message is reinforced on a smaller scale within individual workplaces. The presence of role models within an organisation who are open and unafraid to discuss the emotional struggles and stresses they face within the profession brings significant benefits for junior employees.
A multi-faceted approach is necessary to combat professional self-doubt and the anxiety and stress it causes. It requires both a widespread external effort and a focused internal effort. We know that the top down message is important.
Employers increasingly understand the need to discuss workplace stress and other mental health issues openly and positively within their organisations. A culture of acceptance is key. Individuals within the workplace can then feel empowered to share their own experiences, something that will unquestionably help both them and their colleagues.
Lady Hale’s willingness to be brave and upfront about her own insecurities highlights an important point – just talking about your own experiences can give others tremendous comfort in knowing they’re not alone.
It may also encourage them to support others in the same way. Each of us should take time to pause and take stock of our own accomplishments and give ourselves an occasional ‘pat on the back’. But it is also important to take the time to appreciate others.
Once we can openly acknowledge our own fears and insecurities, we can focus on overcoming them and supporting others in doing so.
As Lady Hale said, “you simply cannot let it stop you doing what you actually know you really can do, or at least, think you can do. Or, assume you can do it until someone does find you out – why not!”
Pippa Allsop is an associate at Michelmores michelmores.com