Downgrading and Imposter Syndrome

Recently I have had a lot of quick success bouldering on problems that I previously wouldn’t have felt capable of touching. This is coming off of years of continued and measured improvement and a recent uptick in the days I’ve spent dedicated to projecting outside. I am not physically stronger than I was, which is throwing me off a little. I recognize, that even though I don’t feel like I deserve my success, I have created the environment that has led me to where I am by improving tactics etc. Cool. That’s what we are all working for.

However, it is really hard for me to fight the urge to downgrade everything I send. When I start logging my climbs, writing it in my notebook, talking to friends, or even just thinking about a boulder I’ve done, I find myself automatically knocking a grade off. I’m doing this with outdoor boulders, board climbs, and gym climbs.

On many levels this feels like the natural result of imposter syndrome, but it’s making me feel like I’m kind of an asshole. I don’t want to be a chronic downgrader. I don’t really like it when other people are, but I feel like this is the way a lot of other people in my life have portrayed “humble”. On some level I feel like I can’t talk about my accomplishments without qualifying them first.

Anyone else have this problem? And how do you stop it? I have a lovely partner who reminds me regularly that I’m full of shit and that I am stronger than I think I am, but maybe some strategies to work on with self talk or tracking perceived effort? Or is every boulder in the world actually just soft?


There’s another component here that doesn’t necessarily align with imposter syndrome, but maybe I’m missing your point. Specifically, why can’t you trust the grade that others set before you? What does it matter if your notebook contains the grade they set or your downgraded number?

Rather than learning how to stop it, try to learn how to manage it. Unfortunately, something like imposter syndrome probably won’t go away… but you can get really good at dealing with it!

I think you are already well on your way because you have a clear understanding of what is going on, including your thought patterns. The questions you’ll have to start asking yourself are:

  • How is your behaviour and thought patterns making you feel?
  • Is this how you want to feel? How would you like to feel instead?
  • Which behaviour and thought patterns could help you feel this way?

I don’t know you well enough to give you advice, but it sounds like you should cut off the thought patterns as quickly as possible. Currently: You do the climb. Your imposter syndrome kicks in. It makes you doubt the grade. This makes you down grade it. This makes you feel like an asshole. How do you think you could change this line of thought?


Congratulations on your recent success! I feel like climbing can be such a weird sport. Grades are based on our perception of difficulty but that can be so variable and so flawed. Especially when memory is involved

There are v4’s that I still think of as being really really hard because I can remember trying them for years before I was strong enough. I think of them as harder than the climbs I do now even though the grades I’m doing are higher.

Sometimes I even go back, easily repeat climbs and it still doesn’t erase that perception of challenge I have.

I tend to undervalue my strengths and one thing that really helped me was climbing with a partner who was at a similar V grade but has really different strengths and weaknesses.

It felt absurd to do a boulder and call it soft when my friend couldn’t do a single move on it. Over time as I stopped vocalizing what I thought was soft I started to just appreciate my own progress more.

With a lot of my internal, negative self talk I imagine how I would feel if a friend was going through what I’m going through. I feel like I’m way more kind to my partners than I am to myself.

I do tend to feel like every boulder is incredibly sandbagged until the moment I do it at which point it becomes soft…. But I’m pretty sure that’s not the case


It’s true that my journal entry, being private, doesn’t really matter as far as being a good friend and climbing partner. More than anything, I don’t want to be the sort of person who diminishes others accomplishments by constantly downgrading climbs out of habit. And I feel like I’m always doing that because I don’t feel like I deserve to be climbing the grades that I am. I guess I’m kind of wondering if this is just inevitable and an unavoidable end for anyone entering a new grade. Because of the system we have, it’s impossible to be objective, and my own complicated self esteem issues feels like it tangles the issue even more.

And as far as, do the grades even matter? They do to me and I know they matter to many of my climbing partners.


Great perspective. I wish I had a climbing partner counter balance that’s equal good at everything I’m bad at. It would be fun to compare notes. I bet our perception of difficulty would be all over the place.

I generally go the keeping it to yourself route as well, but sometimes when discussing beta or boulder problems I catch myself being a sandbagger as an almost automatic setting. I kinda wonder if that’s a result of my early climbing partners.

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Lovely actionable advice, thank you.

This doesn’t really affect me in a totally negative way, mostly because I have a lot of sources of self worth outside of climbing and other sources of self worth beyond grades within climbing, but it is a tendency that I’ve been noticing and trying to be mindful of. I don’t think it serves me to internally and/or externally downplay my success as a matter of habit, but I’m sure there’s an argument to be made that it is actually healthy to do this. I wonder if there’s a version of this thought process that’s healthy and doesn’t end at “I’m not good enough” and instead ends at “I can still get better”.

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For me, imposter syndrome is just recognition that I still have things to learn, that I’m still exploring. That may be a default setting for me that goes deeper than climbing though.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about grades and trying to understand them or find a better system. The more I try to understand, the less I know, and I think that’s actually a great place to be. Once I started to realize that the whole system is built on ridiculously shaky and subjective ground, it became much easier to not take the grades personal. So I just don’t. The thing I take more personal is the level to which I’m challenging myself or giving myself a chance to do things.

Like @maxdtaylor mentioned, grades are often given as a comparison to a past feeling of difficulty, and our memories are so flawed and entirely based on us. When you are particularly good at a skill (like you are at crimping), or bad at a skill (like I am at crimping) your scale gets thrown off of the average - if there even is such a thing, since many of the skills we use now didn’t even exist when the scale was imagined.

I know I went on a grade detour there, but we give them too much airtime not to interrogate them a little.


The grades detour is inevitable. Personally grades matter to me, to an extent that usually feels pretty healthy. I like grades and I like thinking about them. I know they’re dumb, but most things in rock climbing are (like we’ve discussed). Rock climbing is definitely whose line is it anyway, but that’s ok.

Recently I’ve been trying/ coming very close on a climb that Alex cannot do for the life of him which is a new experience for me. Even watching a super strong climber fall on something doesn’t get it through my brain that the boulder is hard. Maybe I’ll get it through my thick skull eventually.

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Grades matter to me as well - I just try hard not to take them personal, whether or not they line up with my expectations.

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This is admirable. I genuinely like this. It shows that you are compassionate. Would I be correct to understand this as if you, for one, does not use climbing grades as a measuring stick to compare yourself against other people?

I’m a little bit embarrassed, because I feel as if my first reply was maybe a bit stand-off-ish and not as sympathetic as I would have liked. Is it this feeling that made you reference Imposter Syndrome? That sounds like a very tough place to be.

Interesting. English isn’t my first language, so I started wondering if maybe they were just being “modest” and I came away learning that the two are synonymous. But, as I searched I came across this,

What’s another word for being humble?

lowly. Having a low esteem of one’s own worth; humble ; meek; free from pride.

I thought that was interesting.

To me, being humble isn’t having low self-esteem. It’s about not having to shove your success down other people’s throat. One of the ways I envision humble is the behaviour a good climber in my city exhibits. He’s sympathetic to that others are climbing at their level through-out. He’s genuinely curious as to how things are going for me, despite grabbing harder stuff than what I do at my limit for his warm-ups. He’s a showman, he’ll do a front-flip after dropping of the top of a boulder at finals, but it appears as if he’s doing it more for the enjoyment of the audience than belittling his competition.

I think it is avoidable. I’d be more curious to learn as to why you think this,

Because I don’t have the thought that I don’t deserve my sends. I get psyched that I’m moving forward as I’ve put in work to make those strides.

I think there is. I haven’t fully formed the idea, but I think this might relate back to karma, or if you are less spiritually inclined, I think it was James Clear that said “First we make our habits, then our habits make us”. So, practice the words “I’m not good enough” less, and practice something a bit more self-compassionate instead.

@maxdtaylor inspired me not only to highlight your recent success (congrats), but I’d like to highlight that you have tremendous insight here into your inner workings so I have a lot of faith that you’ll be able to look back at this years from now and have the practice firmly in your rear-view mirror.

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