"I Think I Can": Combating Imposter Syndrome at Camp

Makela Elvy, M Ed
May 2022

As camp people, we know that camp magic is real. It exists not only in the joyful moments and meaningful connections that we form at camp, but also in our ability to successfully deliver a program through which authenticity, creativity, and the magical feeling of camp can be experienced by all. This altruistic nature of camp can promote ingenuity and evoke a sense of purpose for camp professionals — but it can also be exhausting for those who do it well and a petri dish for imposter syndrome for those who may struggle to meet these high expectations.

In addition to being youth development professionals, program experts, and operations specialists, camp people are also expected to bring positive energy and an open mindset — and become masters of fun. Running camp is a lot of work. The work is rewarding and heroic, but, let’s be honest, it’s hard. As the saying goes, a jack-of-all-trades is a master at none — and it sure does feel like that sometimes.

Imposter syndrome was first described in 1978 by psychologists Suzanne Imes and Pauline Rose Clance as a “phenomenon [which] occurs among high achievers who are unable to internalize and accept their success” (Weir, n.d.). This phenomenon reportedly affects 70 percent of the population (Abrams, 2018) and is often paired with atelophobia, the fear of imperfection, or atychiphobia, the fear of failure. According to psychiatrist Carole Lieberman, those who experience imposter syndrome also cope with “an all-encompassing fear of being found out to not have what it takes” (Weir, n.d.), which is very stress-inducing and can impact one’s ability to perform their best. Despite its prevalence among professionals in the workforce, it does not impact members of the entire population equally.

Originally, imposter syndrome was thought to be unique to highly achieving women, because that was the population being centered on when the concept took shape (Tulshyan & Burey, 2021). After abundant research, we know that men and women alike experience feeling like frauds, and systems of oppression make marginalized communities more susceptible to imposter syndrome (Tulshyan & Burey, 2021). One study that explicitly looked at the correlation between one’s racial identity and feelings of being an imposter concluded that Asian-Americans and Blacks are most likely to experience imposter syndrome (Cokley et al., 2012). This can be attributed to the lack of representation for highly achieving Asian-American and Black people in the media and political and corporate sectors in the United States. This may also be true for the lack of representation in summer camp leadership. And for those who have multiple marginalized identities around socioeconomic status, race and gender, physical ability, and neurodivergence, this phenomenon is exacerbated even further.

As you navigate this season, here are some ways to help you access support should you experience moments of imposter syndrome:

  • Ask for help. Society puts pressure on all of us to achieve, but an old African proverb says, “If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. Often when we have many tasks to accomplish, or when a lot of responsibility is tied to our role, the weight of the pressure can be overwhelming. In these moments, remember that at camp you are part of a team. Share your strengths, be honest about what you don’t know, and ask for help. In addition to building deeper connections with your team, asking for assistance can help you gain more skills over time and prevent unnecessary mistakes.
  • Seek a mentor. We know that representation matters so that folks can see themselves in positions of leadership and success. To illuminate why people with marginalized identities feel imposter syndrome disproportionately, Professor Tina Opie asserts, “Who is deemed ‘professional’ is an assessment process that’s culturally biased and skewed” (Tulshyan & Burey, 2021). The complex history of society’s limitations on which behaviors and careers were deemed appropriate makes it challenging for some people to achieve success. However, a good mentor who shares your identity can be a roadmap to success. The idea — If someone who shares my cultural identity can become an industry leader, so can I — can both motivate those who are entering a new career and validate the experience of individuals who are already successful in their careers. You have the right to be a successful camp professional. So do exactly that.
  • Reflect on accomplishments. Over the course of the summer it is easy to get caught up in the routine of camp and never take a moment between sessions to appreciate the little accomplishments that string together to form a successful summer. Whether you choose to reflect by saying an affirmation out loud or writing down a list of accomplishments, make time to appreciate the little things. It’s the small victories that can motivate you to persist through the challenges and remind you of your talents and why you chose to be at camp in the first place.
  • Prioritize your mental and physical health. Imposter syndrome is often paired with an anxiety or depression diagnosis (Weir, n.d.). A high-stress role or environment, such as a secluded summer camp where one is responsible for dozens of lives, adds to the weight of negative feelings. To help combat these feelings, make a list of activities that bring you peace, keep you physically active, and reduce stress. Try to engage in these activities routinely. Without caring for yourself, you cannot care for others.

As you prepare for a summer that is equal parts challenging, rewarding, amazing, and fun, let me be the first to tell you — you've got this. Writer and civil rights activist Audre Lorde said, “When I dare to be powerful — to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” While feelings of imposter syndrome come and go, they do not last forever. And they do not define you.

Kindling Connections

This section of Trail Mixed was written by Monia Johnson, founding camp director for Camp Beyond, a camp affiliate of Change Summer. Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology, and a Master of Science in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She has worked in numerous industries across sectors (finance, learning and organization development, education, and youth development and advocacy). Through her work at Change Summer, Johnson aspires to build robust social-emotional learning opportunities through which campers can discover their strengths, test their limits, and learn new skills while having fun.

Camp has always served as a sacred space and place for my development, curiosity, and sense of belonging.

Flashback

I remember boarding the bus my very first summer off to camp. I was filled with a whirlwind of human emotions. I felt excited, anxious, proud, insecure — fearless. I will never forget the look on my mother’s face; relief and agony of letting her offspring go off into the wild, into the world.

When I arrived at the campgrounds, the sweetness of the redwood trees filled my nostrils. I disembarked the bus and was greeted by a sea of white faces. I reflected, as much as my 11-year-old frontal cortex could process: Do I belong here? An immediate tinge of doom dropped from the sky and landed in the pit of my stomach. I wanted to go home. I didn’t see anyone who looked like me in power and in place to take care of me. I recoiled quickly into myself, afraid to show up, say much, or interact with others.

I was later delighted to meet my counselor, a Black young woman by the name of Mary. I will never forget her. All the tender moments she held my hand when I felt homesick, the way she brushed my hair into a neat ponytail so I wouldn’t look “like a lost child” (we can unpack that comment in another time and space). Mary felt like home; she felt like my big rock in the midst of the great wild, a white world. Having a trusted leader of color at camp, someone I could trust, helped alleviate those feelings of being an imposter at camp.

Fast-Forward

Joining the summer camp profession in June of 2021, I quickly learned that this was not a space built for or by Black, Indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). Entering event after event, conferences here and over there, felt like getting off the bus all over again. I am constantly the only or one of a few shades of color in a group of non-BIPOC. I was met yet again with these questions of belonging: Am I good enough? Do I belong here?

The ever-elusive cloak of my imposter syndrome continues to show up and take over. Two things happen: one is emotional, the other is purely instinctual and autonomic.

Emotionally, I struggle with feelings of self-doubt, fear, and worry. I’m constantly questioning my worthiness to the world and my sense of belonging. It can be debilitating and self-destructive. Then comes the wave of physical reactions: poor digestion from tension in the intestine, sweaty palms, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. Both the physical and emotional struggles of imposter syndrome are rooted in survival. It is the mind’s trick to convince the body that they are either unsafe or unwelcome. Even if you’ve done the work, the cloak is still there — waiting in the shadows.

I believe that people are inherently grand and uniquely positioned to contribute some form of greatness to humanity. We all have our wounds to unpack and heal to get to the other side of fear. Fear of rejection, disconnection, and failure to live up to one’s true potential. I’ve done the work, earned the degrees, read all of the books, and had all of the coaches cheering for me. My hope for the future is that we turn that need inward, we face our fears, and come out on the other side — our super powerful selves. Goodbye, cloak.

We thank you, Monia.

For More Information

Here are some additional resources to help you better understand and combat imposter syndrome:

  • Watch the TEDx talk Imposter Syndrome by Deena Brown, PhD: youtube.com/watch?v=01IJV39mM-c
  • Read “Stop Telling Women They Have Imposter Syndrome” by Ruchika Tulshyan and Jodi-Ann Burey: hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome
  • Listen to the NPR Life Kit episode “5 Steps to Shake the Feeling that You’re an Imposter,” hosted by Diana Opong: npr.org/transcripts/959656202

References

  • Abrams, A. (2018, June 20). Yes, impostor syndrome is real: Here’s how to deal with it. Time Magazine. time.com/5312483/how-to-deal-with-impostor-syndrome/ 
  • Brown, D. (2021, June 14). Imposter syndrome. TEDx Talks. youtube.com/watch?v=01IJV39mM-c
  • Cokley, K., McClain, S., Enciso, A., & Martinez, M. (2012). An examination of the impact of minority status stress and impostor feelings on the mental health of diverse ethnic minority college students. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 41(2), 82–95.
  • Tulshyan, R., & Burey, J. A. (2021, November 22). Stop telling women they have imposter syndrome. Harvard Business Review. hbr.org/2021/02/stop-telling-women-they-have-imposter-syndrome
  • Weir, K. (n.d.). Feel like a fraud? American Psychological Association. apa.org/gradpsych/2013/11/fraud

Makela Elvy, M Ed, is an environmental educator and camp enthusiast. She is a co-founder of Smore Melanin — a platform dedicated to providing resources for BIPOC camp professionals. Over the course of her career, Makela has held camp positions ranging from head counselor to summer program director. Her experience includes nature interpretation, curriculum development, and the creation of a 10-week venture program rooted in experiential learning.

 


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