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Exercise & Feeling Like An Imposter

Before college, I rarely worked out. So when I finally walked into my university’s gigantic gym, I instantly felt like I had rookie exerciser written all over me.

I felt completely out of place.

I’m not an athlete, I’d say to myself. I’m too big. I’m totally not muscular. I can barely run a lap without my shins hurting and my lungs losing too much air. My clothes are all wrong. And I’m certainly not as cute and slim as these other girls. I can barely make it to seven minutes on the elliptical.

I dreaded going to the gym, but I still went a handful of times. (I was convinced that I needed to be skinny in order to have the perfect life, and working out would certainly get me there.) I had this sinking, in-the-pit-of-my-stomach feeling every time I’d go. I just knew that other people were naturally judging me and my disgraceful newbie ways.

I was reminded of how deep and intense these feelings were this week after reading Caitlin’s post on Healthy Tipping Point. (Caitlin’s also the editor of Operation Beautiful). She wrote:

This morning, I went to the pool to swim a few laps. All of the lanes were full so I jumped in a lane that wasn’t doubly occupied, next to this guy in his 40s who was wearing swim trunks, no cap, and goggles.  I nodded at him and began to swim.  During my second lap,  I noticed that he was struggling up and down the lane, so when we met at the end of the lane, I smiled and said, “Hey, thanks for letting me share the lane.”

He smiled back and then said, “Thanks.  I’m so sorry.  I really don’t belong here.”

I knew immediately what he meant – I’ve felt like I didn’t ‘belong’ before, too.  I felt like I didn’t belong at the starting line of my first 10K, the weight room at the gym, the yoga studio, the pool.  I know what it’s like to struggle up and down the lanes, feeling like all the other people in their professional-looking swimsuits and fancy goggles are staring at me, wondering why the heck I’m taking up valuable lane space.  In fact, every time I try a new physical activity, I kind of feel like an imposter!

Honestly, this almost brought me to tears, because I’ve been there. so. many. times. Feeling lost, out of place and like I didn’t deserve to be taking up a machine at the gym because I wasn’t a real gym goer. Because I wasn’t an athlete. Because I was just starting out and clearly already sucking.

I’ve also felt these feelings whenever I’ve tried anything new in my life. My default reaction is that I suck at something, even though I’m only trying it for the first time or the first few times.

So often we compare ourselves to people who’ve been moving their bodies (or doing other activities) for a very long time. Somehow we assume that they were just born amazing (and we weren’t) or they mastered their skills faster (and we didn’t). That it took them just one try, and they aced it.

And we get discouraged. Really discouraged. Maybe we even stop before we really started. We let those feelings of not belonging direct what we do.

We’re not immune to comparing ourselves to others and having negative thoughts. And that’s OK.

But it’s what we do with those thoughts that counts. What helps me now is to accept that I feel like a fish out of water and then to tell myself that it’ll be OK, to continue trying, regardless of the results. To be my own cheerleader. To take it easy, and remember what I’d say if a friend was trying something new.

I’d encourage her. I’d root for her. And I’d tell her to keep going if this is something she wanted to do.

So whether it’s going to the gym, trying yoga, taking a walk, riding your bike, whatever…know that you deserve to be there.

Maybe this week you might take the first or second step and try something new or go somewhere you didn’t think you fit in.

And kept rooting for yourself the entire time. Maybe all of us could do that.

I’ll leave you with Caitlin’s words:

So I said back to the guy what I always tell myself, “You belong here!  Just because you haven’t figured out your stroke yet doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be in the pool.  It took me ages to figure out swimming, and I’m still learning!”  We talked a little bit about swim classes and YouTube videos, as well as how to breathe through the stroke, and then we both got back to our workouts.  He kept at it for at least another 20 minutes; I don’t even know the guy and I was SO proud of him.

In honor of the newbie in swim trunks and no goggles, next time I’m at the pool, I’m going to try to tackle one of the pool’s Swim Workouts.    I always look at the board and think, “This board doesn’t apply to me. I could never swim those distances.”  But now I realize that I’m doing what I always did before – selling myself and my abilities short just because I’m scared.  Next time – I’ll attempt one of the workouts! Hold me to it, okay?

When did you feel like you didn’t belong? How did you turn that around? 

Exercise & Feeling Like An Imposter

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2020). Exercise & Feeling Like An Imposter. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 13 Jul 2020
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