Why its normal to feel unworthy of your belt promotion?
From faking it to making it. An older grapplers account of dealing with impostor syndrome. By Caston Nathaniel
In 2015, after several years of training, I was promoted to brown belt. While this should have been a cause for celebration, I was filled with existential dread. It was a crisis that had been looming over me for several years unnamed. Right then and there, at the moment of my promotion, it landed on me with crushing weight. I was suddenly overpowered by feelings in inadequacy and self-doubt. I’m speaking, of course, about Impostor Syndrome.
Impostor Syndrome is a phenomenon – phenomenon, not a mental disorder - that occurs because an individual doubts their skills, abilities, intelligence, etc., which results in an intense fear of being exposed as a fraud. The inability to accept the success of a belt promotion is quite common in BJJ, and many jiujiteiros – especially those who start training later in life - have experienced it at some point in their time on the mats. In the moment of promotion, many of us have felt like fakes.
Right then, right there I definitely felt like a fake and I’ll tell you why.
I started training jiu-jitsu when I was thirty years old. At that time, every one of my teammates was much younger than me. They were mostly in their late teens and early twenties, with a few even being high school age. From the get-go the age disparity made me feel very out of place. They were lean and strong, had cool haircuts, and tattoos. They looked like athletes, fighters. I looked like someone’s dad; after all, I was married and had a child. They were all students while I’d been working in my career field for nearly ten years. For me, I think this is where my struggle with Impostor Syndrome started.
Additionally, most of them had grappling experience whereas I did not. Training was especially tough for me in those times and it did a lot to reinforce the out-of-place feeling I was constantly trying to deal with. I mean, after all, I was an adult. A grown man with grown man responsibilities like career and family. I should’ve been doing grown man things like golf, or fishing, or even lifting weights. Grown men don’t roll around on the floor, wearing murder pajamas and trying to choke people. It isn’t normal. This was my inner dialogue almost daily, trying to convince me that I should quit and forget the crazy dream I had of someday being a jiu-jitsu fighter. Then, of course, there were competitions, which I didn’t do very well. My teammates had far better results than I did, and it took me a long time to start winning matches.
This is trap that many of us older grapplers fall into, comparing ourselves to our younger teammates. In my case, BJJ was skeletal sport back then. There weren’t very many competitions and even fewer competitors, most of whom were much younger than me. Trust me, no matter how much we talk about technique and all of that, a match between a 20 year-old kid and a 30 year-old dad with 6 months of jiu-jitsu isn’t an accurate comparison of skill set. Strength, endurance, and athleticism (which most young people have in abundance) figure in much more than any of us want to admit as well. None of that occurred to me though; I just thought I was awful, terrible, and irredeemably bad at jiu-jitsu. What’s worse is that I never spoke to anyone about how I was feeling because I didn’t want anyone to know how hard I was trying. Since I didn’t ask anyone, no one told me different and I suffered alone. Looking back, this was a foolish thing to do.
Despite everything, I stuck with it, but after my blue belt promotion, I realized the belt didn’t give me magical ‘level up’ powers to dominate the competition, and the quasi soul-crushing cycle of losing matches began anew. It was here that I made a critical mistake and one that, as a 45 year-old black belt, I regret to this day: I convinced myself that I was too old for such a thing and stopped competing.
For the next 7 years – yes, 7 years to go from blue belt to brown belt – I maybe competed three times. I avoided it like the plague. I rationalized and told myself that I was taking time off to develop my technique and a sound strategy, that I’d be back eventually but I wasn’t doing that at all and had no intention of ever competing again. I spent those years collecting techniques, but never testing them in competition or even against the tough people in the gym. I wasted a lot of time looking for shortcuts when everyone knows there are no shortcuts to success in BJJ!
I feel compelled to tell you all that, years later, I am deeply ashamed of my attitude towards training during that time. Like I said, I wasted A LOT of time. Not just mine, but my coaches’ and teammates’ too. I dodged opportunities to grow and develop, and only half-heartedly listened to the good advice I was given. Yet, probably in spite of myself, during those seven years I did manage to develop a modest skillset and was promoted to brown belt.
One of my teammates remarked afterward that I was on deck for a black belt, and that’s when it really hit me. I had a duty, an obligation to help my less-experienced teammates. Lower belts would be asking questions…and I might not know the answers because I had not truly tested myself! I might not be able to help them, or worse, give them terrible advice that caused them to doubt their own selves and quit jiu-jitsu! The thought was too much to bear. I would surely be exposed as a fraud and outed as a fake then. I simply couldn’t live with that. I wanted to be a good black belt, so I resolved to train hard, start competing again, and earn my place as a brown belt.
So…did I achieve my goal? Well, I worked very hard, no doubt about that, and pretty much had to learn jiu-jitsu all over again from the ground up. It took me nearly 6 years to go from brown to black belt, and it was a grueling process. I’m not going to tell you I felt good about my decision all the time. As a matter of fact there were many times I doubted whether I could take that final step. I struggled in training and I lost a ton of matches in competition. The feeling of being a fraud and a fake hovered over me like impending danger. Yet slowly, very slowly, I realized that despite the immense difficulty it could be done; I could make the transition from a brown belt who felt like an impostor to a true black belt. Things started to come together for me. Things started to click, as they say, and I began to improve.
My efforts didn’t go unnoticed; one evening, after a tough training session, my coach sent me a message telling me that he was happy to see me improving. Reading those words was a reassurance, a validation that I was actually good at jiu-jitsu, and that I did deserve my brown belt. I never told my coach how much that meant to me. Someday, maybe.
I’m happy to say – although by now you already know – that I received my black belt shortly thereafter. I don’t remember any doubt or feelings of inadequacy/incompetence; only happiness, satisfaction. I’d worked hard, earned my place among the other brown belts and the right to now wear a black belt. Most importantly I felt like I’d gone about it honestly, wholeheartedly. No coasting, no phoning it in. Only effort and the sweat of my brow. It took me many years and I wasn’t a perfect student, I wasn’t a world champion or even a great competitor, but baby I was the genuine article.
I could live with that.
About the Author:. Caston Nathaniel is currently a black belt in bjj, training out of Pablo Silva Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. He has 15 years on the mats and was a regular contributor to the Gracie Barra online magazine. IG Handle: @raconteur_el_oso give him a follow.