‘Impostor syndrome’ refers to feelings of doubting our ability, not being worthy of one’s achievements and the fear of being exposed as a fraud. This inherent failure to internalise success and accomplishments, shrugging them off towards luck or someone else’s credit, often stems from our childhood and is disproportionately common amongst high achievers in sport and business. It’s somewhat reassuring to know that even the champions, from Sir Bradley Wiggins to Serena Williams and Albert Einstein, feel the same self-doubts and inadequacies that we all do, whilst still managing to carve out history. Could this just be a necessary cost of high achievement?
I think we all experience this feeling on occasions in our personal, work and sporting lives. After lockdown, a lot of people will be finding themselves out of their comfort zones in new and unfamiliar situations where this impostor feeling is even more likely to rear its ugly head, be that starting a new job, moving to a new area, going back to education or even a switch to working from home that filters out the vagaries of office life. All these scenarios present an opportunity to doubt ourselves, to assume our counterparts are managing better than us, and appear to have their ducks in one row. What if they too could be experiencing the same suffocating feelings of doubt; kicking like mad underwater to keep afloat?
Maybe I win Olympic Gold for pretentiousness in even proposing myself as a high achiever – but this is something I too have suffered with. As a motivational speaker I often question the irony of giving advice that I don’t always follow myself, talking about resilience when I can’t get myself up on time, or self-care when I’m working past 11pm to catch up. As an author I can write pages and wonder whether the paper should have been spared for something useful instead. When announcing my 3 Peaks Run last year I felt I had truly put my head above the parapet, and I was about to get shot. This self-doubt was probably justified: I was a respective amateur, having never run an ultra-marathon before, let alone 9 in as many days. When accomplished ultra-runners took note and recognised my claims on social media, the reality hit home even harder. “What do they know that I don’t?” and, “who the hell do I think I am?!” quickly ambushed my mind. Despite pulling the feat off, albeit missing the record by an hour, I broke the fastest known time for noticing everything I got wrong and could have done better.
Even this experience in the kitty hasn’t stopped the nagging insecurities from crawling back in, but each challenge is unfamiliar in new ways. This week I’ll finally attempt my latest challenge – the Bob Graham Round. A 66 mile/42 peak run around the Lake District, with almost 27,000ft of ascent, all within 24 hours. It is named after Bob Graham (1889–1966), a Keswick hotelier who in June 1932 broke the Lakeland Fell record by traversing 42 fells within a 24-hour period
My last blog post wrote about ‘trusting the process’… this process should have come with a disclaimer! The last few weeks have given the self-doubt a field day, with a chronic knee injury since January, a bike crash and concussion, a Mountain Rescue incident on my longest recce run (not me – assisting others) and falling on my final training run with a likely intercostal muscle strain and a trip to A&E. Now I go through the usual pre-challenge motions. Can I really do this? Am I cut out for ultra-running? Is 60 miles a week enough?
Constantly living on guard and feeling like we’re not good enough can only undermine our self-worth and confidence, which both play a key part in our well-being. But it would be misleading to suggest that impostor syndrome is entirely to blame. Being injured brings its own mental health challenges from a simple loss of purpose, endorphins and coping strategies. After just a week of rest to let my ribs recover I noticed how suddenly my mood hit the ground too. It’s a hopelessly frustrating place to be. In the space of two weeks I had gone from willingly running 30 miles around the Lake District fells to napping in my car (whilst stationary, I might add); too mentally exhausted and overwhelmed to stay awake and drive home safely. So, is running really that good for us? I think the problem is more the other things we’re carrying, and simply losing our tool for managing them.
Maybe the biggest pressure comes from within. This internal driver to push ourselves to the brink in pursuit of excellence isn’t necessarily a bad trait in realising our potential – ultimately it got me to the position of attempting Mount Everest at just 18 years old – providing it doesn’t get out of hand. The opposite is also true, in that our lack of self-belief can stop us pursuing goals and opportunities in fear of failure. Modern society has failed to teach us the bigger picture, and when our identity becomes completely entangled in the wires of success and achievement, then we are treading a dangerous line when the proverbial hits the fan, which they inevitably will.
Our Olympic champions are no less vulnerable to the consequences, either. Adding the pressures of funding, full-time training, coaches, sponsorship, a regimented lifestyle and family expectations doesn’t even bear thinking about.
A couple of weeks ago, US gymnast Simone Biles made the headlines as she withdrew from her team event at Tokyo 2020 to put her mental health first, saying “We’re not just athletes or entertainment, we’re human too”. Simone withdrew from five of her six events before returning to win bronze in her final individual event.
This move was probably her most powerful and inspiring performance to date, and one that has opened the door for other young athletes to speak up when they’re struggling. If an Olympic athlete can dare to put their wellbeing before the Olympic medal they had spent four years training towards, with the whole world watching and their countries pride weighing down on their shoulders, it opens the door on a global scale for others to do the same.
The urgency of this was even more apparent when New Zealand cyclist Olivia Podmore, a 2016 Rio medallist, tragically took her own life last week, citing the pressures of elite sport. She was also just 24 years old.
It’s already agreed that elite performance isn’t exactly mentally healthy, and that sustaining it is about finding ways to manage these factors in a healthier way.
Perhaps the most frightening part of depression is that it can be much easier to shut yourself away than ask for help, and to feel so detached from the world that we forget anyone cares at all. Our loved ones, however well-intended, can often do or say little to help. But sometimes even talking about these feelings can help us to normalise them. Others can remind us of the strengths and successes that can seem blindingly obvious to everyone but ourselves. We all need those positive people around us.
Setting realistic expectations can stop us falling short. I’ve had a pretty rubbish year of running with injury setbacks. Expecting to hit my peak, increase my mileage and break my personal records was an unrealistic goal that would probably keep me injured even longer. Travelling the world during a global pandemic would also be destined to fall short. We can only make decisions with the situation and information we have available at the time. Setting clear intentions beforehand can avoid the frustrations. On my 3 Peaks Run I missed the record time by just over an hour, but I’d hit my £10,000 fundraising target, completed the route, and ran further than I had ever ran before. Three of four boxes were ticked, which isn’t bad at all. We can’t realistically be on our A-Game all the time – an Olympic sprinter spends years training to perform at their utmost peak for a few seconds, which isn’t sustainable all the time.
Watch your narrative. I attended an online immersion course earlier this year which explored our personal narratives (i.e. the stories we tell ourselves) and how we carry an antagonist and protagonist character on our shoulders. Mine were aptly named the Sergeant Major and the Underdog (politer than the initial suggestions). Learning to identify these characters and their language is a powerful way of taking control and stepping in before the Sergeant Major knocks us down with taunts and cries of incompetence and past mistakes. Sometimes actually telling Sergeant Major where to stuff it out loud can be empowering. Unless you’re speaking on stage to hundreds of people.
It’s also helpful to gather some evidence. Keep a log of all the positive and meaningful comments you receive, from people you respect and admire, to deliver a boost of confidence when needed. Surely ALL these people can’t be wrong? I have a document full of testimonials from my speaking clients, book reviews and the messages I’ve received. In truth, being told you’ve done well by your grandma is lovely but it’s not likely to convince you. Genuine praise can be hard to come by but even harder to believe. In the tough moments, think of even tougher moments and how you found a way through. On the 3 Peaks I painfully remember falling asleep in a bus stop in Capel Curig, hobbling down Scafell Pike and the shin pain that stopped me running more than 10 metres at a time using stiles to prop me up.
At the end of each week, try writing a list of everything you’ve achieved, big or small, and it may surprise you. Don’t expect it to exceed or even match the week before, either.
Comparison is the thief of joy. For injured athletes, the successes of others and their training diaries are only amplified further. Our yardstick starts to slap us in the face as we look for something to set us apart. It’s like when you get a new dog and suddenly everyone else in your town appears to have the same. If you can’t stop yourself, then disconnect from social media or Strava. Accept that you can’t see the full iceberg and what others may be going through. They probably had the same frustration when you were out running and they were injured.
My original plan was to run entirely self-supported, but this is a different beast now. I’m still running without pacers but have arranged some back-up road support in case my ribs flare up. Whether in ultra-running or low moments close to home, there’s no shame in asking for help when we need it. I’d love a friendly cheer on route, but please don’t bring me any food/drink. Especially not Hobnobs – I’ll be too knackered to refuse…
Being injured has reminded me why I’m doing this to raise £1,000 for Mind Over Mountains. In just a few weeks of not being able to do what I loved most, my mental health hit the ground equally hard. I realise how much it keeps my life in balance and pulls me out of the troughs. Going for a local wild camp recently brought me home like a new man. But sadly not everyone has the same access to these benefits. Everything raised will enable us to run our walks and residentials across the UK, with bursaries for those in most need to attend.
Whether it’s winning Olympic gold, getting your dream job or running 42 peaks under 24 hours, if our motivation is simply to feel ‘worthy’ then we will almost always fall short. I think the greatest challenge is to accept that good is good enough. That’s no excuse for aiming small and letting the impostor syndrome stop us from showing up as the best version of ourselves, either. I can’t deny Sergeant Major won’t tag along for the 42 peaks, or crash the after-party when I’m struggling to walk. But I’ve got the map. We have to keep moving forwards, enjoying the process and discovering what good enough means for us. Most importantly, in the words of Simone Biles; remember that we’re all human, too.
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