Imposter Sydrome in the Outdoors

Imposter Syndrome. Defined by the Harvard Business Review as “feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success,” this mental trap can rein in our natural curiosity and hold us back from exploring new hobbies and goals. It can make us feel undeserving of our successes and unequipped to take on new challenges. Imposter Syndrome can be found in the job-seeking process, the office, and with the existence of gatekeeping and cliques, it can, unfortunately, be found in the outdoor community.

This dynamic makes newcomers wanting to explore outdoor recreation feel like they are unable to do so because they aren’t “outdoorsy enough.” The syndrome makes a strong mother of 3 debate turning around at every break on the trail because she isn’t “fit enough”. It makes a retired man who recently lost his wife pass up a solo sit at their favorite sunset spot on the beach because he is “not cut out for it anymore.” The common thread is a lie we tell ourselves- we are not enough and we are undeserving of experiencing the land around us.

Talking with my fellow outdoor-enthusiasts about approachability in the outdoors spured the question- what made the Patagonia-wrapped, Clif-bar munching champion, easily and regularly summiting peaks earn the term, “Outdoorsy”? This person started by going outside just like anyone else. Perhaps in feeble tennis shoes, unprepared, and unknowledgeable in all of their beginner beauty. Home dwellers can become outdoor enthusiasts by walking outside, folks who are “out of shape” become more strong by exercising outside, even the old man sitting by the beachside, watching the sunset instead of staying home, and watching the news all started from a simple decision to do so. How can we make this lifestyle more approachable, bridging the gap between the successes we see and the first step to explore the journey?

Comparison is the Thief of Joy

When we see images of pro surfers holding their board and champion medal with glee- we don’t see the hundreds of wipeouts, exhausting days, and inhaled salt water that got them there. When we engage with hiker’s posts enjoying their perfectly placed campsite and fireside dinner at the top of a mountain, we fail to consider the sweat, pain, and debilitation that even expert climbers face every time. It hurts all the way to this place of victory for many outdoor activities and doesn’t go away once you are “enough” of anything. This comparison of our beginnings to someone else’s neglects the process and can hold us back from taking little steps toward being able.

Embracing the Beginning

Folks who already have been the “new guy” when it comes to recreating can help with this crippling issue by simply inviting everyone to experience outdoor spaces, and helping give newcomers a place to start. For hiking, downloading the AllTrails app gave me easy access to local hikes near me, the opportunity to read trip reports and reviews, and even track my navigation on top of previous hiker’s routes. There are apps, programs, and books on everything from Audubon to snowboarding- built by passionate communities of experts that started exactly where a beginner sits. To plug into these communities, I recommend visiting Facebook Groups and tying in a few keywords of the type of outdoor adventure you are looking to learn more about. There are private and public local and even global groups of online communities to ask questions, share photos, exchange tips, and meet new friends to experience it all with. If you are feeling alone and out of the loop, odds are there are other people within these groups that feel the same way.

Lets Cancel Gear-Shaming

Another reason why home-dwellers don’t feel comfortable stepping outdoors is that they feel like they don’t have the correct equipment. Good news for you, it costs $0 to go outside. Outdoor enthusiasts that are protective over “their land” may try to convince us that you need certain materials to get outside, which is nothing further from the truth as long as we are comfortable and safe. This last summer, I went on a 15-mile hike in the pouring rain with a friend and on our lunch break, pulled out my $15 dehydrated meal and jetboil to start cooking. As I regretted the extra weight and tried to assemble my mechanism on the mud, my friend pulled out a ziplock bag with some cold pizza and started munching. The rain made my dramatic lunch scene hard to conduct so I grabbed a slice of heavenly leftover pizza for myself. We tend to complicate things, don’t we?

This Land is Your Land

Outdoors for all begins by developing an inclusive, approachable community around outdoor recreation. Historically, diverse groups of people from all backgrounds and descendants have built their lives hand in hand with the outdoors and recreated amongst it, but unfortunately, the media has reinforced a definition of the outdoors that’s overwhelmingly white, male, and achievement-oriented. Like almost every industry and sector in today’s world, this false projection of our segregated history subconsciously affects our comfort level around recreation unless we “fit the image”, and it is long overdue that we work harder than ever to shift this narrative.

The truth is, our outdoor spaces, especially here in the PNW, are protected by passionate communities that were connected to the land long before we invented high tech gear and energy gels. Let us market destinations and gear in a representative way that makes each person feel confident. Let us structure our wayfinding systems in more easily navigable ways. Let us expand the definition of the outdoors to include small urban parks, and remove the stigma that you have to be Joe Rogan- level dedicated to enjoy this gorgeous earth. Let us tell the stories of our outdoor spaces and their history, leading to more connection to our beautiful, diverse human race and the natural world that’s been waiting for each one of us all along.

How do you experience outdoor Imposter Syndrome? Connect with me on Instagram at @exploredbymadisonford and let’s have a conversation.

Thanks for reading, 

Madison Ford

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