Black Belt Thinking | Imposter Syndrome
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Imposter Syndrome

Feel a fraud? Feel you might get found out? Feel you don’t deserve the success you want to enjoy?

You could be experiencing imposter syndrome.

People with imposter syndrome feel they do not deserve success, or praise. They haven’t earned the rewards they are trying to enjoy, so their success is hollow, lacking real feeling.

We do well in an exam, perhaps even receiving a prize, but regard it as a fluke. We achieve our sales target, or we get promoted at work, but convince ourselves we just happened to be in the right place at the right time, through no efforts of our own.

In an attempt to overcome imposter syndrome, we adopt habits and behaviours that do not serve us well. We aim for perfection, constantly, in an attempt to prove that we are good enough. We overwork, making us tired and stressed and unable to perform to our best, and we develop a paranoid fear of failure, which prevents us from giving 100%. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One concept that can be of help here is to be aware of the difference between internalising and externalising.

Let me explain.

I once taught karate to an actor from Harry Potter. He appeared in background scenes in three of the movies. He had been learning karate for four years and was due to take his Black Belt exam. At the end of the exam there is one minute free fighting. No mitts, no pads, just one minute to show some techniques and, most importantly, fighting spirit.

But although his techniques were good, when it came to free fighting he was afraid of getting hit. So his posture went very defensive, making it difficult for him to move freely and perform some of the techniques. And most importantly, unable to show true spirit.

He was destined to fail.

I had tried everything to get him to show spirit, but nothing had worked.

Then, with just six weeks to go till the exam, it just came to me while he was sparring with one of my Black Belts. I shouted “It’s not what they will do to you, it’s what you can do to them.”

And that was the trigger. He stopped focusing on them, and what they could do to him, and instead focused on himself. His posture changed, he could show true fighting spirit, and six weeks later he passed his Black Belt.

When he was focusing on them he was externalising, just waiting for the next thing to happen to him, for the next attack to come in. When he focused on himself, he was internalising, aware of what he could do to block, to move and to counter-attack at the right moment.

This concept of internalising or externalising is also referred to as Locus of Control. People with a high Locus of Control take full personal responsibility when they succeed, and when they fail. When they succeed they give themselves credit, they reward themselves, so they are happier and more motivated. When they fail, they take responsibility and they learn from their mistakes, so they are more likely to succeed next time.

People with imposter syndrome are externalising their success, they have a low Locus of Control. They are attributing the cause of their success to factors that are outside of their control.

Black Belts internalise anything and everything they can. They take personal responsibility for things that go wrong, so that they can learn and make changes, and they take personal responsibility for things that go right.

The ‘kara’ of karate means empty. It means there is just me. Just me to look after myself. So there is no-one to externalise to, because there is just me. My faults, my shortcomings, my successes, my achievements, they are down to me.

I have just been awarded my 5th Dan Black Belt. The imposter syndrome was there immediately! I know other 5th Dans, experienced Black Belts who are far superior to me. How could I be worthy?

Whoa!

Hang on a minute. I have been doing karate for 30 years, usually twice a week during that time, sometimes more (my ‘record’ was six times in a week), sometimes less. I have taught people who have gone on to achieve their 3rd Dan, I am still teaching, practising, attending courses and judging competitions. I even won a competition once. I am more passionate about karate than I have ever been, and I was awarded 5th Dan from someone who I know and trust, with a certificate from an international karate organisation based in Japan that I didn’t even know existed.

Phew!

Yeah, 5th Dan, that’s OK!

But it was close.

What got me through that period of self-doubt was to use some of the concepts and strategies that are in my book, where I share the mindset of a Black belt, and in my coaching programmes.

If you would like to discuss any aspect of imposter syndrome, please get in touch.

Action point – to start with something that is relatively straight-forward, the next time someone gives you a compliment, take it. Ask yourself why they went out of their way to give you this compliment? What quality does this show about you? What did YOU do that led to this happening?