We’ve all felt it before – that sense of “I don’t belong here.” If you’ve ever stepped up to a startline feeling like you somehow faked your way there and you don’t actually have what it takes to get this thing done, then you’ve experienced imposter syndrome. As with many dysfunctional thought patterns like this, it can be helpful to start by recognizing you’re not the only one who feels this way. Normalizing the experience allows you to approach the issue with self-compassion, acceptance, and a desire to change the behavior rather than with shame and frustration that you’re experiencing it in the first place.
There are many tools available to combat the presence of imposter syndrome. But, before we get there let’s dive a little deeper into what imposter syndrome is and how it negatively affects performance.
What is imposter syndrome?
The imposter phenomenon was first defined in the 1970s by two psychologists. Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes. In their research they identified three major components. The first was the feeling that others had an inaccurate and inflated view of your abilities. The second was that eventually you would be “found out” and others would realize that you’re not as smart/fast/good as they thought. The last component they uncovered was the tendency of people with imposter syndrome to uncontrollable factors like luck as the main contributors to their success.
I see this mental routine play out in my work with athletes all the time. An athlete can be headed into a race after a great block of training and with positive feedback from their coach about what they’re capable of, yet their confidence is still shaken by the fear that they aren’t actually that good. Yeah, maybe the training went well and they put in the work, but they often feel like they faked their way through and the real them isn’t ready. Once race day comes and goes, a poor race just figure solidifies that belief. See, I’m really not that good. On the other hand, the same athlete can have a great race, run a PR and beat their local rival, but attribute the win to luck or the other person just having an “off” day. Rather than viewing their success as confirmation of their abilities, they see it as just another fluke or happenstance. Regardless of the way the race shakes out, imposter syndrome will stand in your way of being the best runner you can be.
How does imposter syndrome harm performance?
One of the biggest negative impacts of imposter syndrome relates to your perception of your ability. Even if you have tangible evidence suggesting that you’re capable of amazing results, imposter syndrome hinders your capacity to see it. It’s really difficult to find the edges of your potential when you attribute successes to being flukes, and challenges and shortcomings to being proof of your actual ability level. That mindset stands in the way of meaningful learning and growth as an athlete. Many athletes dealing with imposter syndrome will view any adversity or obstacle that they face in a race as a sign of their shortcomings and often struggle to adapt or pivot – something that is necessary in trail running and in life.
Without consciously realizing it, many athletes will self-handicap or self-sabotage their success. The fear is that if they are successful, they will have to continue that trend of success – which they feel they can’t possibly do because they are a fraud.
Another common negative side effect of imposter syndrome is self-handicapping. Without consciously realizing it, many athletes will self-handicap or self-sabotage their success. The fear is that if they are successful, they will have to continue that trend of success – which they feel they can’t possibly do because they are a fraud.
How can I work through imposter syndrome?
One of the most life-changing skills you can learn is how to separate thoughts and feelings from facts. Just because something enters your mind doesn’t mean it’s true. The first thing I tell every single athlete that reaches out to me for help with mental performance is that I can tell you (in fact, nobody can) how to avoid ever feeling doubt, fear, or lack of confidence. Those often unpleasant thoughts and feelings are simply just part of being human. But, the human superpower of self-awareness allows us to choose which thoughts and feelings to buy into.
There’s no vaccine for imposter syndrome.
Another life-changing skill is the ability to reframe what it means to fail. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – failure isn’t a sign that you aren’t enough. Failing is the necessary and inevitable byproduct of trying to do hard things. When you can take on that perspective, falling short doesn’t carry the same weight. Look at failure with curiosity – What went wrong? What went right? How can I do better next time? It’s also important to take stock of the wins and the successes. Celebrate the big wins. Celebrate the little wins. And, celebrate all the wins in between.
There’s no vaccine for imposter syndrome. It’s something that can come in and out of your life just like any other unwanted thought or feeling. But, you don’t have to succumb to its presence. You can identify it and treat it just like anything else. When you notice the symptoms, remember your powerful mental skills toolkit and reclaim your mind.