Imposter Syndrome is commonly spoken of in our community but I believe it can be easily managed if not overcome by participating in meetups and regional WordCamps.Being involved in the WordPress ecosystem fairly heavily over the last year, I’ve heard a term repeated over and over: imposter syndrome. Being a psych minor, I had never come across this term elsewhere. And it’s a curious thing.

Is this a function of environment, our subculture, or is it greater in impacting our generation?

“We are social animals and we respond to the environment we’re in — always.” Simon Sinek

Of course, environment matters and so does our predisposition to depression and mental illness. By no means am I intending to discount imposter syndrome; rather, why does it seem to disproportionately affect the WordPress community?

The Man Behind the Curtain

As a self-taught social media manager, I always felt that — at some point — a little dog was going to pull the curtain back, and people would see me simply as a witty secretary. And, because of that, I felt stuck in my career for a very long time. Is this imposter syndrome? Maybe. Well, looking back, it probably was.

“Impostor syndrome (also known as impostor phenomenon or fraud syndrome) is a term coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes referring to high-achieving individuals marked by an inability to internalize their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’. Despite external evidence of their competence, those exhibiting the syndrome remain convinced that they are frauds and do not deserve the success they have achieved. Proof of success is dismissed as luck, timing, or as a result of deceiving others into thinking they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Some studies suggest that impostor syndrome is particularly common among high-achieving women.” Wikipedia

In my core being, I believe that the feeling — that you’re a fraud, that someone will find out you’re not qualified for your job, not qualified to be CEO, not qualified to be a leader — is more of a function of a break in the feedback loop than anything else.

The Natural Validation Process

My experience becoming a social media and marketing manager was initially in isolation. I learned by doing — without any courses — by my natural instinct to know and understand people, write persuasive content, and to form human connections.

But how did I know I was right? I would tell people my personal working theories, execute them, and see what I deemed success. But was I believed? Not always.

And so, I started watching videos and reading books by Scott Stratten, Gary Vaynerchuk, Ted Rubin, Brian Solis, and Simon Sinek. And as I read and heard their words, I exclaimed “YES!” with my whole being. Why? Because I was being validated in what I believed.

I met friends and deepened those connections and fostered them into true relationships both online and offline. I created my own community — curating people — who mentored me and whom I mentored. Why?

The truth is this: anything online changes so frequently, there is no degree that proves who you are. If you have an MBA, you can get a managerial job in a heartbeat. If you passed your CPA exam, you can get corporate clients. A doctor passes board exams. A laywer passes the Bar. These are externally regulated and certified positions. Fortunately and unfortunately, there are no certificates in our world. There are only accomplishments. In tech, we’re continually-evolving, self-made men and women.

The Self-Made Person

Being a self-made person is an important part of the power of WordPress. That inner drive to contribute, make a difference, and commit is what makes WordPress so powerful as a platform.

And, in many ways, the concept of being able to be “all that you can be” or to level up is an American Ideal. In every revolution we’ve experienced, we were led by self-made people. The American Revolution had Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. The Industrial Revolution with Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford. Tech had Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and even our beloved Matt Mullenweg.

These men didn’t necessarily have their impact because of their family position or status in birth. They didn’t have degrees. Hamilton was a fatherless son who shaped our financial institution, Musk was a poor immigrant who lived under his desk. Yet every single day, our lives are affected by their innovations.

And in the ever-changing world of technology, being self-made is the only path. We learn as we go. With every project, we level up.

Praising the Self-Taught

We’ve discussed the reverence the tech space has for the self-taught in my article about mentorship. And being a lifelong learner is a required skill for anyone in technology. You should be driven to learn — to press forward when facing challenges — to overcome and succeed.

That said, being self-taught shouldn’t be a sentence to a life in isolation. You should have a few close people who you can chat with about your projects. Self-taught doesn’t mean you have to prove yourself to your peers as much as you should be able to celebrate your victories and brainstorm over your challenges with your peers. But that requires vulnerability.

Vulnerability and Imposter Syndrome

Being vulnerable is terrifying. Some people would probably rather stand naked in front of their middle school than to share their code. For me, this is a problem which needs solutions.

“It’s dangerous to feel vulnerable.” Simon Sinek

Vulnerability shouldn’t be seen as a failure or as weakness. Rather, it demonstrates an internal courage that isn’t quickly rivaled. But that courage comes from being encouraged. It comes from being in an environment that we trust. We feel trust when we collaborate. We feel courageous when we feel part of a tribe.

The courage to be vulnerable comes from feeling safe to fall.

Feeling Safe to Fall

When hearing the word “cancer,” Simon Sinek said at his Live Talk in Los Angeles this week, he always thinks of “liver cancer.” Meaning, even though some forms of cancer are easily overcome, all cancer feels like a two-month death sentence. In that same vein, he feels that failure has that same impact. Instead of honoring “fail,” he prefers the word “fall.”

Simon Sinek equates true leadership with parenting. So, those in the company who aren’t performing, aren’t disinherited; rather, they are coached. Any child learning to ride a bicycle is going to fall. A kid learning tricks on his skateboard is going to break bones. No success can happen within a team unless there is a feeling of safety — essentially trust — that if they do fall, there will not be catastrophic consequences. Therefore, there is the freedom to fall, knowing you will be coached, encouraged, corrected — accepted.

Uncompany Culture

So how can you experience this amazing ideal company culture when you’re a freelancer? Who created your tribe when you’re part of a distributed workforce? Where are your high-fives?

Where do you learn empathy? Where do you hear other people’s struggles? Where can you sit in a room where the discussion not only doesn’t make us feel alone, but connected?

Does video chat help the disconnection? How about Slack channel GIF wars? Can company culture be built with lunch once a week? And who are your coworkers? Who are the people you trust?

Surrogate Family

A large part of the human experience is human connection. And for thousands of years, really until the last 30-50, we lived in the same village, town, or city as our family. Our grandmothers lived with us. We attended family events and had Sunday evening dinners. We knew our people. We had a tribe.

Ships and trains made it easier for people to move away from their families in hopes of a bright future and, even, the American Dream. Planes and automobiles increased this ability to relocate or commute for financial opportunity without consideration of stability of our personal tribes.

But with the fluidity of the job market, and people changing jobs every two to four years, we not only don’t have connection with our family, but we lose it with our coworkers. And we find ourselves in the middle of a crisis: death, divorce, illness, insecurity — whatever it may be — without emotional or even practical support.

Do you bond with your coworkers when your five year plan means you’re leaving? Maybe. What if your plan is a two year plan? Why bother making close friends when you’re only going to move? And we distance ourselves. We isolate ourselves.

Why is WordPress Special?

I believe that the WordPress Community is special because it addresses these issues — maybe not outright — but it functions as a surrogate family. If you don’t have coworkers, you have friends at a WordPress meetup. You meet people at WordCamp. Heck, your local WordPress people may even throw a picnic over Labor Day weekend. You’re not alone. We’re alone — together.

If you don’t participate in some way with the WordPress community, then you miss out on the goodness of it. You miss out on the giving. You miss out on the smiles. You miss high fives, fistbumps, hugs — human touch. You miss learning. You miss being inspired. You miss being encouraged, having accountability partners, collaboration even in a business sense.

How do we Overcome Imposter Syndrome?

I believe imposter syndrome is a result of isolation. There is no way we can feel confident and safe without any external input. We are social beings. We are biologically wired to be connected — to feel connected — to protect and be protected.

So, how do we overcome this secret feeling?

  1. We acknowledge it. You’re not alone. Everyone feels this way. Because tech is ever-evolving, we are always learning.
  2. Be part of the solution, not the problem. Encourage others. A front-end dev is not less than a back-end dev. A person who uses Divi is not inferior to one who builds with Beaver Builder. It’s not a competition.
  3. Attend meetups. Be helpful. Find someone to talk to. Build relationships.
  4. Join Slack channels. Be encouraging.
  5. Reply to tweets. Ask people questions. Develop relationships.
  6. Write about your experiences in blog posts on your site, guest posts, or on LinkedIn, Medium, et al.
  7. Learn skills. Attend classes in person or online. Share your experiences.
  8. Apply to speak at WordCamps. Stories of how you overcame your challenges are the most beneficial to our community.
  9. Take ownership. Use “our,” “us,” and “we.” A community is what you make of it.
  10. Press forward. Don’t stop. Continue on. We believe in you.

Bridget is co-host of WPblab, co-organizer of Women Who WP Meetup, and Team Rep for the Marketing Team for WordPress.org.

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11 Responses to “Breaking Out of Imposter Syndrome and Isolation”

  1. Justine

    I am self made as well, so I can totally relate to this blog post! I started off years ago taking an HTML class and that was the beginning of my new adventure! I learned about WordPress at work which lead me to my first WordCamp and I was hooked! I am proud to be a part of the WordPress community and agree with all of your suggestions to fight off the imposter syndrome!

    Reply
    • Bridget Willard

      Thank you, Justine, for taking the time to read and comment as well as share on social networks. I think that being an encourager is the first step to mentorship. That feedback is so important to all of us. I’m sure the WordPress Community is proud of you!

      Reply
  2. Joseph Dickson

    Interesting, I didn’t realize it but I was actually experiencing this today. It’s important to reflect on what we can learn and avoid dwelling on what we don’t yet know.

    Reply
  3. Ginger Coolidge

    So well written, thank you for putting into words what I’ve always known to be true, but had a hard time articulating even in my head. I do not miss the office-trekking 9 to 5 but I did develop some close friendships at a decade and a half long cubicle gig. I get weirded out in my head with too much along time — it definitely shakes your confidence. Whereas one quick Skype or Slack call with someone I trust and all its well again, I’m ready to take on the world. Its up to me to make sure I have those folks on the other end and vice versa to pep up the next person.

    Reply
  4. Adam Fout

    So maybe I’m just crazy (there’s a lot of evidence backing up that possibility), but I swing from this, “I’m an imposter I’m a loser I don’t know what I’m doing nobody likes me they’re all just saying nice things to make me feel better,” to “I know better than all of them they’re all idiots nobody knows what they’re doing except me I’m the best I’m the brightest—”

    Well, you get the idea.

    The more I think about it, the more I realize that seeing the truth, just generally, just about life and things in life, is incredibly difficult. Maybe human beings aren’t made to be able to see the truth, but we sure seem to miss it a lot.

    When it comes to ourselves… boy, then we’re REALLY in trouble. We can’t see the truth about who or what we are.

    And the weird thing about the truth is — we usually fall somewhere in the middle.

    I’d like to fall in the middle more.

    Thanks for the article Bridget — I’m proud of you for having the courage to write this.

    Reply
    • Bridget Willard

      Adam, I’m very familiar with this swing you refer to and I think this is why your writing resonates with me.

      Swinging from extremes is what happens when we lack feedback. I think our industry works alone so often — or independently — that we’re always trying to see where we fit in.

      I’m with you on the middle — that’s probably our reality.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment; I appreciate you.

      Reply
  5. Carol Stephen

    This: “I believe imposter syndrome is a result of isolation. There is no way we can feel confident and safe without any external input. We are social beings. We are biologically wired to be connected — to feel connected — to protect and be protected.”

    The idea of us losing the feedback loop is so important. We need to feel we’re not working in isolation. Thank you for this post–and for always reaching out and being part of MY community!

    Carol

    Reply

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