Impostor Syndrome: Where are Women on Race Day?
Cover photography courtesy of Laura Heisinger
*Inspired by ShredWorthy contributor, Kritsi J. If you’d like to contribute or suggest a topic to be covered by ShredWorthy, please navigate to our contributor page and become a part of the discussion. *
“I'm quite illiterate, but I read a lot.” - J.D. Salinger as Holden Caulfield
At some point in your life, no matter your gender, I bet you’ve felt like an impostor before.
Molly: For me, it all started when I was in grade school. The other kids in class would refer to a select group as the “smart kids” when they wanted to copy homework answers, and I remember feeling both delight and fear when I found myself included in this group. Sure, I made good marks in class, but in my mind, it was only because I overcompensated with reading and excessive studying in order to keep up with the really gifted students. While the other kids in class may have considered me as one of the smart kids, I certainly didn’t.
Michelle: It took a really long time for me to self-identify as a mountain biker. When I bought my first full suspension bike in 2017, I definitely didn’t feel like a rider. Not a real one, at least. I thought to myself, Just because I have a bike doesn’t mean I can ride it. I internalized that and let it eat at me for a while. Then, I decided to take that mindset and turn it into a challenge. I started riding my bike, a lot. That year, I signed up for this local race called the Dakota Five-0. I immediately regretted it once I hit the “submit” button. I imagined myself having to call someone to pick me up at the halfway point. I was certain there was no way I could finish, and when I would inevitably bail out of the race, everyone would think, Yeah, I didn’t think she would make it.
As it turned out, I did just fine.
Crossing the finish line felt amazing. I was incredibly proud of this achievement—but I still didn’t consider myself a mountain biker.
Fast forward to this year’s Dakota Five-0 race, where I shaved an hour off of last years time and took second place in my age group for women. I had been on the podium twice already in 2018, yet the mental negativity and self-doubt were just as prevalent and self-deprecating as the day I started riding. No matter how other people viewed me, in my head I still didn’t have any business calling myself a mountain biker, let alone signing up for races.
When people congratulated me, I storm clouded all over their kindness, saying something like, “I got really lucky this year that Erin wasn’t racing,” or “Thanks, but I compete in the least competitive age group, so it really doesn’t count.”
I wish I could go back to September and slap some sense into me. Not only was I being totally unfair to myself, but much worse, I was being unfair to the amazing women that I was racing against and riding with. It took everything I had to hang on to the girl who took first place, and saying that we “weren’t in a competitive group” was like saying she wasn’t real competition—which is absolutely false.
So what was going on inside my head that made me so quick to throw away my accomplishments? Finally, I can assign a word to the experience: the Impostor Syndrome.
The Impostor Syndrome
If you listen to NPR, you might have heard about a study conducted by Hewlett-Packard on the gap between women/men and confidence in applying for jobs. The research found that women were less likely than men to apply for a job they didn’t meet 100% of the qualifications for.
The results read,
“Women working at HP applied for a promotion only when they believed they met 100 percent of the qualifications listed for the job. Men were happy to apply when they thought they could meet 60 percent of the job requirements.”
Researcher Tara Sophia Mohr decided to dive further into that gap.
She found that the main reason why both women and men won’t apply for a job they aren’t 100% qualified for is that they are afraid of wasting their time. That result makes sense. Who has time to spare on applications they don’t think they’ll hear back from?
The second biggest reason (and the reason that had the largest gender gap, with more women choosing this option than men) was that women didn’t want to fail at the job.
This is where it gets interesting, and begs the question, why are men so much more cavalier than women when it comes to applying for a job? Why are they more confident in their ability to perform even when they only meet 60% of the qualifications?
Obviously that question transcends business, easily lends itself to riding, and sheds light on a different question: “Why does it seem like men are more quick to identify as a mountain biker than women?” and “How does that impact race-day turnout?”
As you might have guessed from the intro, we are both chronic sufferers of the Impostor Syndrome. Based on studies like the one done by HP and anecdotal evidence, we firmly believe the Impostor Syndrome affects women disproportionately to men.
The Impostor Syndrome is defined as “a psychological pattern in which an individual doubts their accomplishments and has a persistent internalized fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud.’”
Sheesh. How about a raise of hands?
The definition continues, “Despite external evidence of their competence, those experiencing this phenomenon remain convinced that they are frauds, and do not deserve all they have achieved. Individuals with impostorism incorrectly attribute their success to luck, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent than they perceive themselves to be.”
How often do you reach a milestone on your bike and call it “luck” or “a good day”? How often do you consider the achievements of others as more significant than your own?
Molly: It’s impossible to see oneself outside oneself. This is, perhaps, the human condition. What’s ridiculous is that as the ‘thinking ape,’ knowing that we are limited to our own perception doesn’t stop us from tearing ourselves apart. I, in particular, am really good at breaking down my achievements into surrounding circumstances and giving those the credit for what I’ve done, as if some sort of formula of events was capable of producing good results, not my own body. It’s funny to me how when I remove myself from the equation, the difficult things that I’ve accomplished start seeming all the more feasible. When I add myself back in, they again seem impossible.
Michelle: I think what fuels the Impostor Syndrome are titles, both self-imposed and put on us by others. For example, I’ve always been “creative,” sometimes “smart,” but never the “athlete.” Never ever the athlete. In some ways, not identifying with that title gave me a little more freedom in the beginning. Because I didn’t self-identify, I could play around more, test the waters, dip a toe in before deciding whether or not riding was something I wanted to pursue.
However, not self-identifying right away creates a problem of degree. At what point can a person identify with their desired title? How does the milestone get decided, and by whom?
This creates a situation where people constantly check back in with themselves to see if they meet whatever the established criteria may be; either imposed by themselves or others, both real and imagined.
Molly: For a long time, my milestones were determined by my cycling idols—people I would ride with and get left in the dust by, people who were light years ahead of me because they had been riding for much longer. Anything they deemed a challenge, I would make my challenge in hopes of pushing myself closer to their level. This worked well for me from a fitness standpoint, but always left me feeling inadequate since their goals were usually much loftier and unachievable for me.
“Accomplishment is socially judged by ill defined criteria so that one has to rely on others to find out how one is doing.” - Albert Bandura
The issue with a Milestone Mindset is as soon as a person checks off a metaphorical box, they’re likely to increase their own expectations by adding more challenging items to their checklist. In this schema, a person will never truly feel like they meet their own criteria.
For the sake of paralleling the study from Hewlett-Packard, let’s lay out a list of “qualifications” that we believe most women feel like they must meet before they self-identify as a Mountain Biker.
The “right” bike
The “right” gear
The “right” body
Many years of riding under your belt
A high level of devotion to the sport / # of days per week to prove it
We’ll concede that to some degree, every one of these bullet points makes a Mountain Biker. A decent bike improves your ability to ride and increases the amount of fun you’ll have on that ride. Good gear keeps you warm when it’s cold, cool when it’s hot, and dry when it’s wet, and therefore directly impacts when you can ride and for how long. You do need to have a body that is healthy enough to ride a bike. You do need to have the skills to ride that bike, and it does take some time to learn those skills. Finally, in order to make all of those other bullet points worth your time and effort, you have to be devoted enough to the sport to put in the time and effort to meet that criteria.
Here’s the rub: As a general trend, we see women crank up the degree to which they meet these qualifications in order to feel confident enough to metaphorically apply for that position, or to literally sign up for that race.
(Obviously, there are outliers and exceptions, and we are making generalizations based on anecdotal observations.)
A friend of ours is a race director. Out of the three events she manages, she says the ratio of women to men who show up on race day is about 1:5, 20% women, 80% men. The percent of female to male riders in her local area, however, is about 30% women, 70% men. The impetus for this post came from her. On contemplating the low female turn out, she let out a heavy sigh and mused, “Where are all the women on race day?”
Some women think they need to have been popping wheelies on an S-Works for the last ten years to compete. Or they’ve convinced themselves that to enter a race they have to be “fast.” Maybe they feel that unless they are ready to suffer on a bike, they aren’t really a rider. Or, they don’t think their body fits the “ideal” picture of a shredder that’s in their head. Thanks, naked women on Instagram posing on bikes, you’re really empowering us.
It’s counter-productive to cloud our minds with self-deprecating thoughts while riding, like If only I were 10 pounds lighter, I’d be able to climb this hill better. The mere thought while on trail is distracting, even debilitating. Allowing those ideas into the forefront of our mind takes our full attention off of riding aggressively, and that can keep us from making strides as technical riders.
Even worse, when we fall into this cycle of doubt, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we let ourselves and others perceive us as “not enough,” the less we ride and the less fun we have while riding. Eventually we leave the sport not knowing what we’re capable of. And that’s truly sad.
Negative thoughts overpower the positive ones in what’s called the Negativity Bias. Those negative thoughts root and plant a seed of inferiority—and to what end? A struggle for an ideal, fabricated self?
Isn’t an ideal fabrication paradoxical?
When we cut ourselves short and leave a productive ride feeling insufficient, we become our own biggest detractors.
Sometimes, our own lofty (often impossible) goals and versions of ourselves end up making us perpetual self-perceived impostors who feel like they aren’t worthy of any title. As humans, the more we love something the more attached we become to the idea of being “successful” at it, and the higher and higher our standards and expectations grow for ourselves. In that way, we fuel our own inferiority complexes.
All of this begs the question, how do we begin to break down the mental barriers that hold us back from achieving our potential? How do we become the people who say “Yes” when we’re 60% qualified, instead of 100%? How do we start playing the same game as everyone else?
Michelle: It’s late September, about a month after the Dakota Five-O race. I’m sitting in the back room of my favorite restaurant, talking with a local female shredder rider whom I’ve been inspired by for as long as I’ve been riding.
“Want to do JayP’s Backyard Fat Pursuit with me?” she asks.
My jaw goes slack. I look at her, dumbfounded.
I was in total disbelief that she imagined me to be capable of that race—at the time, I certainly didn’t see myself that way. How could I possibly ride a 30+ hour race with a 50-pound fatbike through 125 miles of snow (200 km) in the backcountry of Yellowstone...in January? Don’t buffalo die from the cold there in the winter?
“Um, I’m not sure. Let me think about it.” I said cooly in response, while internally, my mind went crazy.
What if I don’t finish?
What if I fail?
Does anyone else even think I can do this?
Do I think I can do this?
How do I get back on my bike afterward if I can’t finish the race?
I had a choice: I could either give in to the fear of failure and never even try, or I could say yes and open the door not only to failure, but to possibility. For the chance to redefine myself and push the limits of my physical and mental ability. I could prove everyone who doesn’t think me capable right, by saying “no” without even trying, or I could slam the door in their faces and say “Hell yes!”
“Hell yes, I’ll go with you!”
I’m not trying to turn this into some sort of Lean In, motivational, woo-woo-ey sob-fest. What I am saying is that you will always face detractors—don’t allow yourself to be one of them.
Getting over the Impostor Syndrome
- Mark your progress -
The more time you spend on your bike, the more comfortable you become on trail. Once you acknowledge that you’ve progressed from point A to point B, and from point B to point C, it will be easier to view yourself objectively (which is almost always more generously).
Michelle: I’ve found that the more generous I am with other riders, the more generous I become to myself. When I first started riding, I would get so frustrated when I saw someone on the trail with a really nice bike that didn’t ride much. I’d immediately make unfair assumptions, like They just want to look like they ride bike, instead of the more likely reason, They must love to ride but don’t have much free time.
Molly: Giving verbal words of affirmation to others, like “Nice work on that technical section back there! That’s tricky stuff!” can help to develop a much more healthy and positive internal dialogue with yourself while riding. I have found that looking for aspects that I admire in other riders allows me to see more of the admirable qualities that I also carry, without needing to hear it from someone else to realize it. This can translate into more confident riding and bigger risk-taking, which has allowed me to feel like more of a mountain biker.
- Seriously evaluate what it means to fail -
Molly: This year at a local 50 mile race, the Dakota Five-O, I almost didn’t compete. I had suffered back muscle spasms a week before the race and was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t even walk comfortably and I was devastated: I had trained for this race all year and now I wouldn’t be able to do it. A few days passed and my back loosened up! I would be able to ride! Then, three days before the event, I stayed up through the night with food poisoning and puked for hours. Now my race was truly done, I thought. As sick as my stomach felt, my mind was even more sick with terrible thoughts about how pathetic I was for not being able to race. I nursed myself back to health as well as I could and when the day came, I lined up at the start line, determined to make the most of it. I didn’t get to race at full capacity, thanks to dehydration and an achy back, but I still managed to shave off a significant amount of time from last years race! I had a complete perspective shift. Not meeting my own expectations isn’t failing. Especially if my own expectations are ridiculously high! I had crossed the finish line of a hard 50 mile mountain biking race! The only way I could have failed would have been to not show up.
Michelle: After taking a hard look at this sport, you’ll likely find that the idea of failing as a rider is totally preposterous. Think about it. What does failing on a mountain bike look like? It’s not wrecking—that’s progress. Taking on risk or challenge is never a failure. All of those bruises and scrapes are proof of your tenacity and badass...ness.
- Challenge yourself -
Molly: Sign up for something big, but achievable. Show up on race day. Push your boundaries, plan a huge training ride leading up to the race and invite some friends to join you. You’ll often hear ultra-endurance athletes talk about how regularly they are surprised by what their bodies can do when they turn off that negative voice in their heads and just go for it. I find it’s much easier to turn off that voice in your head when you have friends to engage with instead.
Michelle: When you challenge yourself, I guarantee you will surprise yourself. I can’t guarantee you’ll finish a race or blow past your competition, but I can say with absolute certainty that you will be surprised at just how capable you are. You can go further and faster than you think you can. Our bodies are incredible machines—but only when we don’t let our minds get in the way.
- Develop Positive Self-Talk -
Michelle: I had no idea of the power of positive self-talk until I rode the Fat Pursuit (125 mile fat bike race in Yellowstone). It’s notorious for being one of the rowdiest fatbike races (of that distance) in the world. During the riders meeting I looked around the room. Staring back at me were these amazing faces—the faces of grizzled athletes. The faces of “true” riders. Tough riders. The kind of riders that would chew me up and spit me out. After the race, I realized that the difference between those riders and me was that despite them having long beards and huge muscles, not all of them had the mental fortitude to keep riding. A lot of that mental fortitude, in our opinion, comes from positive self-talk. All that doubt and negativity isn’t going to help you when it’s 15 degrees and you’re pushing your bike up to the continental divide in a blizzard, so why would you give it any credence?
Molly: On so many occasions, I have embarked on rides well outside of my comfort-ability zone with riders much stronger and faster than myself. Knowing that these sorts of rides have major potential to bring on all sorts of mental panic, I make a contract with myself the moment I agree to go out on them: Don’t entertain thoughts that include the word ‘can’t.’ I tell myself to ‘just keep spinning’ or I’ll break the ride up into 5-mile sections in my mind, just to provide check points at which I can renew my stoke.
Developing a cycling ‘mantra’ can really change the way you ride and help develop some mental fortitude to get you through even the gnarliest of pursuits.
Stay tuned to our Heavy Pedal page as we will soon be releasing a post about the value of ‘Riding Mantras.’
After going live with this post, ShredWorthy received some really valuable insight into other factors that play into low female turnout at races. All of these points will be turned into Heavy Pedal articles in the future.
Admittedly, a ShredWorthy blind spot is motherhood, due to where we are in our lives. A fellow rider pointed out that once a rider becomes a mother, everything else is low priority. For a beautifully written article on cycling, motherhood, and transformation, read i am mother. by Emily. It will blow you away.
Queen Bee Syndrome
Competition is part of our sport. Yet, where does competition end and rivalry begin? Why is it that without mindfulness and care our close-knit communities of women shredders can become so cut-throat? How can we start to build each other up, instead of tearing each other down? For further reading, check out Female rivalry: why all women get stung by the queen bee syndrome.
It’s a Bro’s World
Sometimes intentionally, more often unintentionally, male riders make it really difficult to get into our sport. They can make it nearly impossible to compete in it. Stay tuned for a ShredWorthy article on Bikes, Sexism, and Bros.
Notes and Further Reading
Langford, Joe; Clance, Pauline Rose (Fall 1993). "The impostor phenomenon: recent research findings regarding dynamics, personality and family patterns and their implications for treatment" (PDF). Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training. 30 (3): 495–501.
Sakulku, J.; Alexander, J. (2011). "The Impostor Phenomenon". International Journal of Behavioral Science.
"The Impostor Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention" (PDF). Psychotherapy Theory, Research and Practice.
Corkindale, Gill. "Overcoming Imposter Syndrome". Harvard Business Review. Retrieved April 18, 2017.
Lewicka, Maria; Czapinski, Janusz; Peeters, Guido (1992). "Positive-negative asymmetry or "When the heart needs a reason"". European Journal of Social Psychology.