Impostor Syndrome and Milestones

The mats were full, as they always are on promotion day. People from all of our gym’s franchises, and their instructors, had gathered for the biannual seminar/promotions. A friend of mine asked if my wife was coming.

“Why would she?” I asked. “I’m not getting promoted. I just got my fourth stripe a few weeks ago, and I wouldn’t ask her to come deal with the baby here at the gym to watch people she doesn’t know get promoted.” He shrugged. “You never know.”

He was right, that you never know. But I was pretty sure. As stated above, I had just gotten the fourth stripe on my white belt. I figured I would have a few more months, and a few more competitions at white belt, before I made the leap into blue belt.

I will admit that I was a little disappointed when my peers were being called up. Not in them, of course– they earned their promotions, and rightly so, and I knew I hadn’t yet earned mine. Then my professor pulled out one more blue belt.

“One more”, he said, pulling out a blue belt.


I blanched. I think I asked “Me?” as if to clarify. After confirming that he did, in fact, mean me, I got up and, still stunned, had a blue belt tied on me. With a bow, a hug, and an admonishment with a cutting motion across the hand of “no more swords“, I shook the other black belts’ hands, and sat back down. My moment was over.

My dread was just beginning.

Wikipedia defines Impostor Syndrome as a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a “fraud”. Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved.” I first experienced Impostor Syndrome when I was in school to become a nurse: I knew nothing, and knew I knew nothing. I was certain my instructors and patients would figure it out. Amazingly, they didn’t. A decade later, I’m a critical care certified registered nurse with a pretty good resume and clinical skills.

The lesson, of course, is that you need to trust your instructors and trust your training. Intellectually, I did trust my instructors and training in nursing school. Intellectually, I trust my professor not to promote someone he doesn’t feel is ready. A friend of mine who’s a purple belt in another state told me “Enjoy impostor syndrome and the higher belts going less easy on you and the white belts trying to prove something. You’ll grow into it just in time to be promoted again.”

I understand all of these things intellectually. But knowing something in your head and knowing something in your heart are two different things. So I did what I always did– I went to class to see where I stood.

The answer is unsurprising and, frankly, uninteresting.

I’m exactly where I was. I tapped some people rolling. I got tapped by some people rolling. I did well against some people. I did badly against others. The only noticeable difference is that the intensity seems to have been turned up a little bit: white belts wanted to tap me just a little more, and upper belts wanted to work me just a little more. I left class exhausted but not disheartened. Maybe I didn’t deserve the rank. But I was damn going to fool everyone into believing I did, myself included.

So at the end of the day, my thoughts about rank are basically unchanged. Saturday I reached a milestone: but milestones merely mark where you are on your journey. Strapping a new belt around my waist didn’t give me magic powers. It didn’t make my jiu jitsu any better. It merely reflected the commitment that I’ve made over the last eighteen months. I’m still not 100% convinced that I deserve the promotion but I intend to spend the next few years, both in competition and in class, earning that belt every day.

Until, of course, it’s time for the next one and I can begin feeling like an impostor all over again.

My Professor, Bruno Frazatto, and myself

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