Black Belt and Imposter Syndrome

Tonight during training, we were doing simple drills. Such simple, simple drills. Receive, deflect, attack. Receive, deflect, attack. What I meant to do, and how it actually looked, are two vastly different things. Now that I wear a black belt, those mistakes seem unforgivable.

This is probably one of the best books ever written, and she feels like an imposter? Tina Fey is my spirit guide.
This is probably one of the best books ever written, and she feels like an imposter? Tina Fey is my spirit guide.

That such simple things still flummox me reminds me of something that is increasingly popping up in my internet forays: the idea of imposter syndrome. The internet is full of quizzes and articles (you can try a quiz here) and there’s plenty of advice on how to deal with it. And everyone has it – Sheryl Sandberg, Tina Fey, Maya Angelou – people who are at the very top of their game and still think they’re frauds. That any minute now, everyone else will cotton on to the true inadequacy of the sufferer and out them.

It is also, it seems, a syndrome that is particularly prevalent in women:

Research that began in 1978 with the work of psychotherapists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes found that many women with notable achievements also had high levels of self-doubt. This deep lack of confidence–which couldn’t be equated with anxiety or other disorders–appeared to involve a deep sense of inauthenticity and an inability to internalize their successes. – Feeling Like a Fraud: Living With Imposter Syndrome

There are days when it feels like I stole my black belt, that it was given to me out of pity because I’ve been around so long and always help out, and not because I have any actual skill. I am pretty sure that pity gradings are a thing.  And yet in most things, there is nothing as clear-cut and neat as a black belt. It is physical, the whole bloody world recognises it as a certain standard, and twelve Senseis sat in a row and discussed it and thought “welp, she can have one, she makes the grade.” And I’m not even remotely in a McDojo organisation – there’s lineage and tradition and respect for the art (truly, KDISA is an excellent federation), so the belt means something. It’s just that it feels like I didn’t really earn it. After all, lots of people have black belts. It can’t be that hard to get one.

Admittedly, this spreads to most parts of my life (except running, because crossing a finish line and getting a medal is a really straightforward form of achievement) but it hits particularly hard in the dojo. Even tonight I thought “someday, Sensei is going to hand me a yellow belt and say ‘I think you dropped this'” and then I will put it on and I will feel like I deserved that. And no one is even trying to take away my accomplishment – most of my family seems to be proud of me, and my friends were excited for me when the grading weekend rolled around.

I think what makes it particularly hard for martial artists to make peace with sucking is because there is only one easy way to see progress, and that’s gradings. In between that, though…only I can truly measure my progress, and its so hard to see. It is ultimately a creative endeavour, and deeply subjective, and therefore difficult to measure and incredibly easy to feel embarrassed about. But as the wise Jesse (of Karate by Jesse fame) says:

But the moments of glory will be few and far between, compared to the daily grind of hard practice. Between the occasional moments of greatness, there will be longer moments of despair.

These periods of suckiness are NOT “optional”.


And the real problem is not that you will have ups and downs.

The problem is YOUR ATTITUDE about it.

How you handle it.

Because if you always walk around feeling bad about being bad, you will constantly have a hard time motivating yourself to keep improving!

Get it?

All I can really do is try not to obsess over failure. I do it with my writing (since my blog posts maybe get shared once or twice on Twitter, they must be shitty articles), I do it with my karate, with my work (every email or phone call from a store feels like an indictment of my work ethic) and pretty much most things. And despite the fact that I have the framed degrees (with distinction and full academic colours), that I have run a marathon, that I have placed nationally in creative writing competitions, that I have a black belt when so many have quit, that I still get things done, it is very difficult to shake off the feeling that its due to luck, or that a lobotomised sloth could do what I do.

To be fair, they are cute though.
To be fair, they are cute though.

In any case, I am pretty sure that I’m not the only martial artist out there that struggles with this, and that it probably feels more acute for new black belts. Apparently writing therapy is one way of dealing with it, and I do feel better having taken the time to sit and write this out. It seems like such a stupid thing on paper, but like most fears, it isn’t rational and nearly impossible to explain or wish away. It does get a bit easier every year, and I can only hope that one day I will truly run out of fucks to give and just get on with my life. Until then, well, there are always friends. And cake.

Further reading:

– The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention by Pauline Rose Clance & Suzanne Imes

How to banish imposter syndrome once and for all – The Telegraph 

3 thoughts on “Black Belt and Imposter Syndrome

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