Well, you did it! You put your hand to the plow and didn’t look back. You got your ribs popped and your knuckles swollen, and you survived. You passed the tests, calmed your nerves, and although you’re exhausted, you earned your new belt!.
If you are like me, the first person to congratulate you after your teammates and family might not be a stranger, but rather your old frenemy. He’s a broad-chested, loud-voiced hustler and his name is what I call imposter syndrome. Imposter Syndrome is an internal belief that you are not as competent as others perceive you to be, or that a status or achievement you have attained is not deserved. In Jiu Jitsu, it often takes the shape of deep inner doubt after a belt promotion or other recognition of progress.
Although I didn’t hear Mr. Imposter symdrome’s voice right away when I received my blue belt, you better believe he started snap chatting with me around the time my first blue belt stripe appeared.
“Better take that off – people will think you know sweeps.” He said, and I cringed. How did he know my sweep game was trash? While those around me seemed to lean back casually and flip their opponents with a flick of the wrist, I struggle on a daily basis with finding the moment for sweeps. All the textbook techniques I can find haven’t seemed to help me not feel like a blind monkey trying to find the next tree branch. My timing is just not there yet. I knew that already, and now here was this voice in my head reminding me on a daily basis. I started getting nervous that someone might ask me to demonstrate a sweep, or worse, ask for some sort of teaching or help. Then everyone would know. Some grave mistake had been made. I didn’t deserve this belt.
Having spent some time with this guy, Imposter Syndrome, I’ve decided that I really don’t like him and that not only my jiu jitsu, but just about every arena of my life suffers when he is around. I’ve been doing some talking, listening, and reading to see how to deal with this situation.Here’s the first thing I’ve found: listen to what you’re saying to yourself. Very tricky. We aren’t so aware of our own self-talk that we can immediately identify when it’s not real food, but a bologna sandwich given to us by Señor Imposter. Start with noticing your mood. When getting ready for class or after class, do you feel anxious?? Weepy? Defensive? If your thoughts follow along any similar trails to this, you might want to pull them out for further examination.
Next, separate fact from feeling as best as you can. All the things you are feeling are just feelings, not facts. You, my friend, are unfortunately never the person who can determine if you suck.
This is when we can pull out the old tried-and-true Count Your Blessings. Except this time, we’re going to count your techniques: your positions, submissions, your goals, your growth.
Last Saturday I had a crappy open mat and felt like a piece of you-know-what when I got home. Everyone had my number, and I mean everyone, even people who shouldn’t. People walking in off the street seemed to be able to use me to prove that jiu-jitsu was worthless. I was bummed. I needed an outlet.
I opened my journal and wrote: attacks from top. When I had to turn the page to keep writing, I had to shake my head a little. Although I couldn’t land one of these attacks on anyone that day, I certainly had a solid handful of BJJ knowledge.. I wrote about attacks from the bottom and escapes. Then I happened to open the page where I had notes to prepare for my blue belt test. At that moment, I felt much more confident in my ability to show all those techniques right now.
This is an important part of dealing with imposter syndrome. As much as I love the you can be anything you want to be mantra, it is important to set realistic goals in order to improve.. Imposter syndrome leaves a nagging itch that we can dull over, but never fully scratch if we don’t acknowledge this. Those lingering doubts will erupt one day if we don’t make some solid plans to meet our growth. Furthermore, if we take an honest look at our strengths and weaknesses , we won’t have that looking-over-our-shoulder feeling of being ‘found out’ – that someone is going to exploit our weaknesses. We don’t have to hide them. We can work on them in broad daylight and grow stronger for all to see.
Now comes some of the trippier, trickier, existential work–Imposter Syndrome’s deep dark roots. He gets at questions of worth and identity. He keeps us on pinpricks by asking things like who do you think you are? and how dare you? Because there is some kernel deep inside, a hurt – from our pasts, from our present – that doesn’t feel deserving enough
Every single one of us has had to do it wrong, had to fake it sometimes. Every single one of us has been the recipient of words that burnt us to our very core. We have a little soul-searching to do here. Do you feel not worthy because your sister was the smart one? Because your first boyfriend was emotionally abusive? Because you have credit card debt that you try to hide from your friends? This work will take time, but maybe the following words can help jumpstart it. None of those things define you. In life or in jiu-jitsu. And you are here to be the only jiu-jiteria that YOU can be, and no one else.
I say no one else, because another convenient foothold for Imposter Syndrome is comparison. My friend who has been training less than a year and can sweep me seven ways til Sunday is a white belt, and is decidedly better than me. If I suddenly let that skill become the most important thing,I will feel like a fake all over again.
Finally, bring this fight to others. Share with friends, in person or online – there are some great online support groups for female grapplers out there – and bring those questions out into the light. Your friends can help you see clearly on what makes you amazing and help you pinpoint where you need to grow. It can be hard to let their words sink in, to not think they’re just trying to make you feel better, but you need the balance that you’re not able to achieve on your own right now. Set aside your own feeling of inadequacy long enough to listen to others and to listen to the facts. You have gifts and you need to stubbornly cling to them and impose them on the world! If that sounds both encouraging and ominous it’s because that is what I have found jiu jitsu to be.
As you work your way away from feeling like a phony, keep a quick eye on your cultural diet. What are you watching, what are you listening to? What are the goals of the people surrounding you? Are they voices that help you be the best version of you, or voices that subtly pressure you to be one type of woman over another?
A voice I’ve had to root out is the podcast/meme/hobby-lobby-wall-sign of being a Super Woman. Cute hair and nails and Black Widow fighting skills AND scrubbed children, a well-paying job, and subtly sophisticated home décor. Many women can do all this, but I have identified that I cannot. And I have so much more peace with this. I don’t feel as much like an imposter because I don’t feel like I’m presenting someone to the world that I am not. I’m a messy, stubborn, slow-to-learn person in all areas of my life, I never paint my nails, my dishes don’t match, my sweeps are solidly mediocre – but I love my family beyond any natural thing and I strive to arrive each night on the mat with an open mind and an eager heart. And that has been the best way I can keep Imposter Syndrome outside the walls – he will never completely go away, but if I keep him outside I can’t hear his sneaky little voice. I can hear my own.
Kate Madore ties her blue belt with the incredible crew at Brunswick Martial Arts Academy in Topsham, Maine. Off the mats, Kate works, writes, and lives the wild adventures that come with five children, which include lots of singing, coffee, walks in the woods, and everyone always asking for a snack. IG: @starry_kate_