Impostor Syndrome: Why and How to Neutralize It

Recently I was invited to create a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructional. This was actually the second time I got the invitation. The first was probably about two years ago, and my response to that first invitation was, “What do I possibly have to share that hasn’t already been shared countless times?” I reasoned that everything I had learned had been taught to me by teachers who knew the movements better than I did and had more experience teaching. Why not ask them?

When it comes to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I have a chronic case of Impostor Syndrome. (Who am I fooling? I have Impostor Syndrome in most areas of my life.) I assume everybody at my level knows much more than I do and that it is just a matter of time before everyone finds out that I have been faking it all along. This has been true since I was a new practitioner just trying to get moves down, and as I take on more of a leadership role in my corner of the jiu-jitsu world, the Syndrome has spread to my beliefs about my teaching and coaching ability as well.

This is a problem for many reasons. First, it makes me miserable. Second, it makes it difficult for me to accurately gauge where I need to improve—if I believe I stink at everything, which is not true, then I cannot target my true weaknesses. Third, it sets a bad example for people who might look to me for leadership, and I have learned that when you wear a black belt, you are in a leadership position whether you want to be or not. Fourth, if I buy into the beliefs that Impostor Syndrome instills in me, I will not have the confidence to contribute as much to the jiu-jitsu world as I am capable of.

In recent years, therefore, I have worked hard on living up to the responsibilities I believe the black belt confers, which means combating Impostor Syndrome, particularly when it comes to leadership. One thing in particular has helped me with this. It is something everyone tells you all the time, from nursery school on, but it was in the context of teaching jiu-jitsu that I finally started to internalize the message: No one has the same constellation of experiences, personality, and influences that I do, and this results in a unique person known as me. In addition to being the subject of many Sesame Street-type songs, this has also been useful information as I work toward being the kind of practitioner and leader I want to be and that I believe my students and colleagues deserve. Here are a few ways it has helped me:

  • My body structure and comfort level with various movements have contributed to the development of my jiu-jitsu “signature,” which is evident to people who train with me. For instance, I use a lot of hooks and staples, and I have become effective at dropping my weight.

  • My world view inspires me to look constantly for the humor in any situation, and I incorporate that perspective into my drilling, teaching, and coaching, where appropriate, of course.

  • The types of ideas, perspectives, and people I have been exposed to influence the types of analogies and examples I use to enhance my teaching, and the ways I interact with teammates.

  • One of my explicit goals is to make people in classes I teach believe they can learn and that they belong, and to be a supportive and encouraging training partner. I believe positive energy has a positive effect, and I hope that belief comes through in how people feel when they learn and train with me.

The point of all of this is: I bring a unique perspective to jiu-jitsu simply by being who I am, and more and more, I am coming to believe that it is a perspective that makes a positive contribution. My Impostor Syndrome is a chronic condition, but through a combination of methods, I am managing it.

Want to combat your own Impostor Syndrome? Here are some suggestions for working on it:

  • Observe what your training partners tell you. As you develop a jiu-jitsu personality, your training partners will give you feedback, particularly when you are shutting down their games, and you will start to see patterns in that feedback. That is how I learned I feel heavy and that my hooks are annoying: enough people said so that I started to notice when it happened, which made it easier for me to cultivate it.

  • Notice that different jiu-jitsu leaders lead differently, and that that is okay. Think of some jiu-jitsu leaders you respect and resonate with. The next time you see them in leadership roles (e.g., teaching, coaching), notice specifics about what they do and say, what resonates with you about their leadership and what does not, and, most importantly, how their approaches differ.

  • Notice that different practitioners have different energy, and that that is okay. Conduct the same type of observation with your favorite training partners. What do you like about training with them? What do they have in common, and where do they differ? What do you have in common with them, and what is different about you?

I am still nervous about it, but the second time I got invited to do an instructional, earlier this year, I said yes. I remembered that the jiu-jitsu practitioner I have become is the culmination of a huge amount of work, experience, and learning, and that it will be valuable to someone. Who knows: Maybe the way I explain a technique will be exactly what a practitioner needs to finally internalize it. And if I did not learn to manage my Impostor Syndrome, then I would not have been able to help that person.

Do you have Impostor Syndrome? (I hope you do not, but I also hope I am not the only one.) How do you handle it? Post your strategies to comments.