On September 3rd, 2017, Rob Kahn slapped my back with a purple belt, immediately developing a deep sense of unworthiness in my soul. The immense joy I felt walking up to receive the belt quickly turned into angst, wondering if I had fooled him to believe me worthy of the promotion as I tricked many others into overestimating my capabilities in the past. I watched the rest of the day’s promotions in a panic, and since that moment, I have looked for ways to battle that feeling.
In 1978, psychologists Suzanna Imes and Pauline Rose Clance coined the term “Impostor Phenomenon” in their report entitled “The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention”. Impostor Syndrome (IS) can be best described as the intense feeling of being wrongfully perceived as more competent than we truly are.
People with IS feel like phonies and are constantly concerned with being unveiled as frauds. In their original report, Imes and Clance wrote: “Self-declared impostors fear that eventually some significant person will discover that they are indeed intellectual impostors. One woman stated, “I was convinced that I would be discovered as a phony when I took my comprehensive doctoral examination. I thought the final test had come. In one way, I was somewhat relieved at this prospect because the pretense would finally be over. I was shocked when my chairman told me that my answers were excellent and that my paper was one of the best he had seen in his entire career.”
Women who exhibit impostor syndrome do not fall into any one diagnostic category. “The clinical symptoms most frequently reported are generalized anxiety, lack of self-confidence, depression, and frustration related to inability to meet self-imposed standards of achievement”. When this concept was first introduced, it was believed to only affect women; However, in 1993, Clance reviewed and edited her findings and added that males also were susceptible to the impostor syndrome.
A KPMG report published in 2020, reveals that 75% of women in executives have experienced impostor syndrome in their careers. Moreover, they believe that 85% of women in corporate America have dealt with IS at one point or another.
Some studies have correlated the high occurrences of impostor syndrome in females on lack of opportunities for growth, sexism, racism, and socio-economical differences between the sexes.
But, looking back on that warm September afternoon, I decided not just to look at the concept as a whole but also to study how that crippling phenomenon affected my jiu-jitsu advancement.
The fear of being exposed as a fraud stopped me from rolling freely. I was terrified that my teammates would finally realize what I’d known all along. The crippling terror of not rising to the occasion made me lose joy.
I began to feel anxiety about wearing my uniform and no longer wanted to participate in certain drills. Masked with self-deprecation and poorly crafted jokes, I poked fun at my “Make-A-Wish” belt to signal others of my awareness of my inadequacies.
Then came the overachieving. I began to train obsessively. If I missed one training session, guilt would overtake me. What once was an enjoyable hobby turned into an every day (sometimes multiple times a day) obsession. I felt the need to study more, practice more, do more.
My leadership skills took a severe hit too. I was the first one to help any newcomer who stepped on the mats in the previous years. However, with the new belt around my waist, I started to second guess my value as a practitioner, decreasing my willingness to aid new students altogether.
I quickly began to assume that all my achievements in jiu-jitsu were the result of sheer luck and a hefty serving of being a con. Then I started questioning other aspects of my life for indications of fraudulent promotions and titles as well. Self-doubt rapidly took over, and I found myself dealing with anxiety and feelings of worthlessness. Who would have thought that the moment many strive for would send me spiraling out of control?
There isn’t a particular path to combating impostor syndrome. However, there are many steps you can take to minimize its effect.
-Don’t compare yourself to others. I know this is easier said than done, but you must make an educated effort to look at your progression instead of comparing them to your peers’ skills and advancement.
-Teach others. Whenever I start feeling IS crawling back into my psyche, I dedicate time to teaching others. Sometimes while teaching, you realize that you are much more knowledgeable than you give yourself credit for.
-Discuss your feelings with your coaches. Learn to vocalize your concern. But beware of how you present it. Explain your feelings and apprehensions and talk through your hang-ups until you can better understand the root of your issue.
-Objectively assess your abilities. Write down your accomplishments, chart your progress and analyze your unexplored potential.
-Trust your coach’s insight. While you may feel that no one knows you better than you know yourself, your coaches can objectively assess your progress better than you.
-Beware of the social media effect. Do not lean on the image certain social media figures portray as where you should be within your jiu-jitsu journey. Don’t let the picture-perfect imagery thwart you from your dreams.
-Be resilient. Even when you feel like a fraud, keep marching forth. Fake it till you make it.
I still find myself relapsing often. I still feel unworthy. I still use humor and self-deprecation to let folks know that I am aware of my shortcomings. However, struggling with impostor syndrome has given me the chance to discover my voice. I stopped emulating other people’s games and began developing my own jiu-jitsu style that resembles me in every way, a discernible mosaic of broken pieces unified into a weird presentation that oddly enough gets the job done.