How to Deal with Impostor Syndrome
And what to do when your fitness level doesn’t match your adventure partner’s
Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My friend Ricky and I are planning an intense backpacking trip for later this summer with significant elevation gain and loss. We have another close friend, I’ll call him Joe, who we often travel and hike with. When Joe found out about the trip, he basically invited himself, although to be fair maybe he thought he was invited. The problem is that Ricky and I are very active and Joe isn’t really in shape. I doubt he could keep up with the itinerary we have been looking forward to, and Ricky and I don’t want to change our plans, because the point of the trip was to push ourselves. How do we un-invite Joe without being insulting?
I don’t think you have to un-invite Joe, and I also don’t think you have to change your plans for him. I think you should sit down and explain the situation. The issue in question isn’t Joe’s fitness level; it’s making sure that everyone going on the trip has the same expectations, so there’s no disappointment or frustration.
You could try telling Joe something like this: “I want to talk to you about the trip that Ricky and I have been planning. We wanted to do something pretty intense, hiking twenty miles a day with minimal stops [or whatever your plan actually is]. I originally assumed you wouldn’t be interested, but I shouldn’t have made that assumption. Is that a schedule you’d be comfortable with? If not, Ricky and I would still like to do it, but maybe we could plan another trip that works for all three of us.” You could also suggest going on a day hike together that approximates the difficulty of the backpacking trip, which would give all three of you a good sense of where you stand and what you’re prepared for.
Once Joe understands what the backpacking trip will actually entail, let him decide whether to come or not. Most people have a pretty good sense of their bodies and what they’re capable of, and aren’t interested in trips that are way past their limits. (Plus, it’s possible that Joe could surprise you. He might not be or look athletic in the same way you are, but he could still be comfortable with serious mileage.) If Joe chooses to come, knowing the full plan, great. If not, find something else that the three of you can do together—not instead of your backpacking trip, but in addition to it.
Do you have any advice for someone working their first season as a guide and dealing with impostor syndrome? I’ve wanted this job for a long time, but I have much less experience than my fellow guides. I’m trying not to let it get to me but it’s not always easy.
Congrats on your first summer as a guide! Here’s the thing about guiding, in whichever outdoor field you’ve happened to land: your job isn’t to have the most experience, but to give your visitors a good experience. All you need to know, in fact, are the things you’re sharing with them (plus appropriate safety precautions, of course). So if you’re leading three-mile naturalist walks, it doesn’t matter how many mountains you’ve climbed; it matters that you’re able to bring people into nature and help them care about it. If you’re guiding float trips, it doesn’t matter if you’ve rafted the Grand Canyon; it matters that you help people get out of their comfort zones and have fun on the river. More than anything else, being an excellent guide is about being an excellent teacher. Think about what your visitors need, and how you can help provide that, and you’ll be miles ahead of any guide who coasts on experience alone.
You didn’t mention whether your fellow guides are the ones making you feel like you don’t belong. If they’re not, that’s great, and you can ignore the rest of this paragraph. But I wouldn’t be shocked if they are, because guiding can be an insular job without a lot of stability or security, steeped in varying degrees of idealism that may or may not match the reality of the work. In other words, a lot of guides are dealing with fundamental insecurity, and may reassure themselves that they belong by finding someone who they can tell themselves belongs less than they do. If you’re feeling like an impostor because your peers make you feel like one, I want you to know that that’s on them, not you. You can’t change their attitudes, but you can find your people, the ones who make you feel welcome, and you can make efforts to be that person for other newcomers, too.
When in doubt, turn to whatever it is that brought you to this place: the nature you care so much about that you wanted to help other people care about it, too. That feeling, the feeling that made you want this job for so long, is also what’s going to make you great at it. And it’s something that anyone would be lucky to learn from you.