When You Feel Like You Don’t Belong

We were invited to celebrate. After 20 years of work, we finally made it—to the first day of law school. We started the day at the school, but the party was elsewhere. Five hundred of us were soon led outside, past the functional New York State Supreme Court building, past the castle housing Bankruptcy Court and the United States Postal Service, and into the glass slipper otherwise known as the Eastern District of New York. We walked into a large, open space (the staircase) and followed the crowd into the ceremonial courtroom. We looked up at the distant ceiling, then down, noting how easily the room held us. Up front, on the bench, sat the day’s speakers.

They wanted us to feel proud. After all, we were the few. The ones who made it through. We were to be lawyers. They pointed out how special we were: One of us had been an opera singer. One had spent two years living in Africa. One was a rocket scientist. Suddenly, it was midnight; we turned back into pumpkins. I looked to my left. She said, “They’re not talking about me.” I looked to my right. He said, “They’re not talking about me.” They weren’t talking about me either.

We had just experienced impostor phenomenon (popularized as impostor syndrome). Impostor phenomenon describes a sense of intellectual phoniness experienced by high-achieving persons. Despite markers of success such as high test scores, awards, and recognition from peers, someone experiencing impostor phenomenon doesn’t feel an internal sense of success. Instead, they credit luck or errors in their favor. Singling out our classmates who achieved the extraordinary made many of us feel that we didn’t belong “here with all these bright, competent people.”

We didn’t need help feeling that way. An estimated 70% of people feel like an impostor at some point in their career, and after that first day, opportunities to make negative comparisons were everywhere. The student whose parents are both lawyers. The student who knows all the answers. The students on scholarship. The student who’s always in the professors’ offices. The students you expect to do better than you because they have privileges you don’t. The students you expect to do better because they earned their way in. But on that first day, the very people who tried to make us feel like part of the community made us feel like outsiders.

A few weeks later, lured in by free pizza and a chance to meet people with similar interests, I walked into a meeting. We were treated to a comforting sales pitch: we were joining a national organization that would help us do well in law school and on the bar. As I sat there chewing on what I would later learn was the fourth-best pizza in the area, I started to notice a trend in the presentations: one speech was on how hard the speaker’s first year was. Another repeatedly mentioned how hard law school was for people like us. A third only spoke of factors beyond our control that might inhibit our progress. All the speakers told us to envision success. But they all emphasized failure.

None of the speakers zoomed out from their personal experience. If they had, they would have told us that the combination of our undergraduate GPA and LSAT score strongly predicted how well we would do in our first year. That the publicly available data on our entering class showed it was composed of people with similar ability. That the entire class is near the same skill level, and we should expect our grades to land in the middle of the pack. That we should only be concerned about failure if we don’t understand the material, choose not to work on our writing, or don’t study. That we are in the same boat as everyone else. That we belong. Instead, their personal difficulties framed law school as a place where success was out of reach.

In both cases, culture contributed to the sense that we didn’t fit in with the general student body. The administration celebrated rare accomplishments; members of the student body repeatedly told us we didn’t belong in the larger group. Eventually, when 90% of the class was disappointed that they didn’t get the As the professors weren’t allowed to give, some of the students influenced by the administration and their peers started to experience psychological phenomena other than impostor phenomenon. For example, one might experience helplessness, a protective passive response to uncontrollable negative events. Another might experience stereotype threat, which happens when someone performs at the level of a stereotype of a group they belong to, despite actively trying to repudiate it. These students might be well-trained and capable of doing what’s expected of them, but the belief that they don’t belong, or can’t compete, or belong to a group that simply will not do well, dominates their attention. This can lead to less effort and poorer work product.

The people in charge of schools, student organizations, law firms and other businesses are in the best position to shape their respective cultures. The first step is to look at whether someone listening to the organization’s messages hears what it intended to say. If not, redraft until it’s right. Another step an organization can take is to let its people know early and regularly that they belong. That if they put in the work, they should expect the same level of success as anyone else in the group. Taking steps such as these can help students and employees to feel less like impostors.

About the Author

Dwayne Allen Thomas is the senior court attorney to the Hon. Cenceria Edwards of the New York City Civil Court, Kings County, and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Applied Positive Psychology Program and Brooklyn Law School. Contact him on Twitter @equalresults.

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