Fighting impostor syndrome after a hike
SAt the top of Mount Katahdin, I knew I was capable of anything. My legs were burning, my chest was heaving, but at that point, standing atop the northern terminus of the AT, I felt a surge of confidence that I had never experienced. This sense of pride swelled as I walked through the rocks on the descent inside Baxter State Park.
This wave of triumph continued over the following days on my trip back to my home state of North Carolina. After traveling nearly 2,200 miles and living in the woods for almost six months, I was convinced that I could handle whatever life threw at me. I felt arrogant and legitimate as I settled into my new hiker identity.
One is never enough
After posting an article about my TA completion on Facebook, a new reality set in. Among the congratulations from friends and family was a resounding comment. “So what’s the next step? This same question was also asked in person whenever someone found out about my recent hike. “It’s so awesome, but what are you going to do now?” “
I had just walked from Georgia to Maine. What did they mean, “what’s next? Wasn’t this lifelong accomplishment enough for the wheelchair adventurers who practically followed my hike? Wasn’t this feat satisfying enough for my dentist, the waiter in a fancy restaurant, or my grandmother?
During my hike, I rediscovered who I was, connected with myself in ways I never imagined, and learned to find beauty in the mundane adventures of everyday life. Even though I felt like I had been bitten by the legendary hiking bug and wanted to check out another trail, I needed the time and space away from the trail. I needed to relearn how to exist in the world outside of my tent and focus on preserving everything the trail taught me.
In search of solace, I turned to other long distance hikers on social media. Surely others took the time to rest after completing a hike? My hopes were dashed when I found post after post about what the other hiking trails were planning to tackle. It seemed like one hike was never enough.
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I quickly started to feel like I didn’t blend in with the “real world” after living as a wanderer for several months, but with only one long-distance trail under my belt, I hadn’t been there either. feel like I belong in the hiking community. I had accomplished something that most people only dreamed of doing, and yet it still seemed like my credentials weren’t enough to earn the title “Bag of Dirt”.
What makes me special?
Flashback to the start of 2021. I had toyed with the idea of hiking for years, reading countless books and blogs about other people’s adventures on the trails and living vicariously through vlogs on Youtube. It wasn’t until I was laid off that I started to consider the possibility that I might be able to hike after all. I said to myself, if these other people can do it, why can’t I?
With this idea ingrained in my head, I became my worst critic. What makes me think I can accomplish something like this? My longest backpacking trip was three days. How can you hope to live in the woods for six months? I was scared, I was skeptical, and I doubted myself both physically and mentally. It wasn’t until I laid eyes on the Katahdin sign that I was able to silence those voices, but only momentarily.
My own worst enemy
On my trip north, I spent a lot of time thinking about my inner discourse. Why is it that despite being proving to myself that I can do anything, I still feel like I’m out of place? After some research on Google, I was able to label what I was feeling: Impostor Syndrome. “Impostor Syndrome… involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.”
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I was here doing the damn thing, and yet I still felt like I was out of place. I worked tirelessly day in and day out, not only to cover the miles, but also to dispel those doubts. My motivation for hiking was to prove to myself that I can do tough things, and walking from Springer to Katahdin was HARD, but I did.
So why is it that after I finished my hike, I still felt incomplete? I found two culprits to blame: 1) social media and 2) dissatisfaction in me.
I hate you i love you
It’s no secret that I have a difficult relationship with social media. When it comes to outdoor and hiking content, I am so inspired by other members of the hiking community.
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The problem I have found is that there is always more that can be done. More trails to cover, more kilometers to cover, more peaks to cover. It is as if we are dissatisfied with an experience and constantly have to push ourselves towards the next “once in a lifetime” adventure. I wondered whether or not I belonged to hiking culture because I only did TA.
Only a four letter word
I must stop at the word “only”. This is the secret I found to fight impostor syndrome. “Only” implies that this accomplishment is not good enough, significant or magnificent enough. I spent 169 days on a trail trekking in the snow, dodging bear droppings, hiding under trees, sleeping in shelters, climbing mountains, and making lifelong friendships. A hike is more than the miles traveled or the views seen. It is the sense of camaraderie between hikers, a shared motive, a community that is unlike anything else experienced.
Comparison is the thief of joy
Sometimes when I find myself browsing the pages of other top hikers, I wonder if I am of the same caliber as them. It’s as if, unless you want to compromise your comfortable lifestyle off the trail, such as working multiple part-time jobs or living in a van, you aren’t considered a serious hiker or serious.
I think an important tool in silencing the voice of impostor syndrome is to stop comparing yourself to others. When I can step back and appreciate the accomplishments of others while acknowledging my own victories, I feel like I can exist in my happiest and most harmonious state.
There will always be people who have traveled more miles than you. There will always be people who walk faster and farther than you. There will always be people who wish they had the ability to do the things you have, both on and off the track.
Do you have what it takes?
I worked a traditional 9-5 for years, got laid off, hiked, and now am back to being a weekend warrior while working full time. Was my experience less inspiring than someone who was willing / able to transform their life to go hiking full time?
No one else walked to Maine for me, I did. No one else pitched my tent in the rain, scared bears away from the camp, or loaded mountains during thunderstorms. Remembering these things gives me the confidence to accept a sense of belonging.
What are you going to do?
So when someone asks you “what’s next,” how do you respond? Are you sarcastic in response, or do you discredit yourself by viewing it as fluke or an outlier?
Wherever you are, I encourage you to take space and accept that you are in your place. No one can take away from you what you have worked and accomplished. Wear the title or identity that you proudly give yourself. Challenge yourself and question your motivations, but never doubt that you belong and what you are capable of.
Featured Image: Photo via Anna McKinney. Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourtrulyjillian).