Impostor Syndrome, The WordPress Community, and Me

I have spent some time this year thinking about what impostor syndrome is and how it impacts me and those around me in the WordPress community. Turns out it can be crippling. Trust me, I know.

I have been on a journey of change and growth for the last few years, both personally and professionally. I went back to school to pursue another degree while working full-time. It wasn’t easy, but I pulled off a 4.0 GPA over 43 credits in 21 months, all while staying very busy at work and not letting my home life miss a beat. You would think that would make me feel like I was worthy of any acclaim that came my way. Well, it didn’t. No matter how much success I achieve (and I have done pretty good in the last year), I still feel like a total fraud and that I do not belong.

Shouldn’t being asked to come back and teach the very classes I had just completed be enough to make me feel like I was a competent professional? The answer is yes, but the internal perspective I have of myself said no. I was now responsible for teaching students that did not have any experience in web development about the basics of web development.

Professor Dog I Have No Idea What I Am Doing

What right did I have to be up there in front of ten or twenty or even thirty impressionable minds telling them this is how you create for the web? In my mind, I kept thinking that they would figure out I had no clue and I was just some kind of robot reading a script. The classes I have taught were actually successful, and I even have a few students have told me it was the best class they have ever taken.

I still don’t think I should be up there. They must be wrong about me, they will figure it out.

What I am describing here is called impostor syndrome. It is where the reality of your abilities is no where near your perception of them, and you think you are perpetrating the biggest crime since some great train heist from a bygone era. You doubt that any success you have is legitimate, somehow you just keep getting lucky. It makes it really hard to forge forward with any kind of real goals because you don’t think you can repeat your success.

So what does this have to do with the WordPress community you might ask? Well, for those of you that do not follow my trials, tribulations, success, and failures (oh wait, I never talk about the failures because I believe that will convince everyone without doubt, that I am a fraud!)…

Well, I have been involved with WordPress for the last year and a half. It all started with my first WordCamp, WordCamp North Canton in May 2014. That was my first exposure to “my” community. I say “my” because that is where I was introduced to the first of many WordPress developers, users, podcasters, agency owners, etc. I have gotten to know pretty well. One thing they all had in common was they took care of each other. Now don’t get me wrong, no one is perfect. No one always thinks of others. But my community is full of people that look after each other, check in on each other, help each other, laugh together, cry together…like one big family. Dysfunctional and all!

After WordCamp North Canton, I decided to get more involved in the WordPress community. I wasn’t sure what it would do for me, but I was sure that the people were just great people. What was a one day event got me started on a journey that is only just starting to blossom.

I started going to Meetups, local meetings that usually occur once a month with a handful of people, sometimes 5, sometimes 20. I regularly attend the North East Ohio WordPress Meetup even though it is about an hour away from my house. I also attend the much closer Cleveland WordPress Meetup. What a great group of people….just regular people like you and I, with one thing in common over anything else, WordPress.

I am not sure if it is the open source basis of WordPress, but the folks in this community are just amazingly caring, more than “the average group of people.” It was my friend Angie in the NEO Meetup that encouraged me to speak about WordPress. The first time was at our meetup. Then I applied to speak at WordCamp Orlando 2014…and shocking to me, was accepted. It was a great session with lots of great feedback.

Combine the teaching experience with the speaking experience and you get someone that loves to share (learning and teaching simultaneously). I had become a WordCamp junkie.

That was how I closed 2014, feeling on top of the world. That led me to write a simple post about not letting anything stop me. But something did! ME! I stopped myself!

Impostor syndrome was something that I learned about last year as I traversed the community, listening to many people talk about all kinds of topics related to WordPress.

One such talk that was about WordPress, but not really about WordPress was when Chris Lema spoke about impostor syndrome at WordCamp Phoenix 2014. He wrote about that talk, and I watched the video several times. Chris helped me see that I suffer from impostor syndrome. Chris was even generous enough to talk to me one on one about it, and motivated me to start talking about impostor syndrome out loud. Wow, CHRIS LEMA!!!! I got to talk to Chris Lema. I had met him briefly at WordCamp San Francisco 2014, after he had just spoken. I knew he needed time to decompress, but I had to go up to him to shake his hand and thank him for speaking about topics that helped the entire community.

So during our Skype chat, he had to stop me from totally freaking out that I was talking to Chris Lema….and remind me that he puts his pants on one leg at a time just like me, just like everyone. You see, Chris suffers from impostor syndrome too, and he understood what I was going through.

Let me back up a moment and reflect on the day that I connected with Chris through some friends on Twitter. We had been chatting in our Slack room, one we call the WP Morning Crew (more on that later). I mentioned how “I wonder what Chris would think about this or that about impostor syndrome.” Several people told me to ask him, but I said “Why would Chris want to talk to me?” I was being an impostor about being an impostor. After a few sub-tweets (you know who you are), Chris and I connected. I still laugh thinking about the facial reactions I could not see on the other side of the screens for my Morning Crew. It was very meta.

Moving on from my hero-worship of Chris, it was about this same time that I was working on some opportunities that would have changed my life. The details do not matter, but I had two great opportunities that were about to completely reinvent my professional life, SIMULTANEOUSLY. Wow, success was in abundance, I just had to dot the i’s, cross the t’s.

Then, the bottom fell out. Neither opportunity panned out. I let myself get so excited, I forgot that nothing is sure in life. Honestly, neither opportunity 1 nor opportunity 2 were that big of a deal on their own, but the two of them at the same time made me forget about being an impostor. JACKPOT!

On the other hand, having both fizzle out SIMULTANEOUSLY shook me. It made me question my abilities, professionally and personally. Uh-oh, the world figured out I was a fraud, no one would want me. I sank into a funk, a major funk, the worst funk I can remember in a long time. I stopped trying to do anything that could make me successful because I was sure I would fail. Why do something that you know you are not qualified for?

I put up all kinds of walls around me, pulling back both from the WordPress community and also from my friends and family. I stopped interacting on Twitter and signed out of Slack (chat tool used by the WordPress community, think of it as a modern type of AOL Chat). It was easier than taking a chance and being discovered as the ultimate fraud.

But I wasn’t completely out. I was down, it was almost a TKO (let’s not forget, this was self-imposed, no one did this to me but me), but I had one fight left in me. That was to talk about impostor syndrome. Ohio had three WordCamps in 2015, Dayton, North Canton, and Columbus. I spoke at all three about impostor syndrome. Actually, I moderated a panel of experts discussing impostor syndrome. Experts you ask? Yep, other impostors.

While I felt so discouraged about everything else, my funk never could extinguish the spark in me about being an impostor and wanting to spread the word about impostor syndrome. I knew I needed to talk about it and help others so they wouldn’t feel as bad as I did. It was my way of clawing my way out of this deep, dark hole I threw myself in earlier this year. The teacher in me (yes, I can finally call myself a teacher, but it is not easy) wanted to share what I knew, hoping I would help others.

Little did I know how much it would help me, to grow, to heal, to discover. I discovered that there are so many others in MY community that felt the same way. The first panel in Dayton was what could be considered a keynote panel for the event. We were first, right after the opening remarks. We had the ENTIRE CROWD in one big auditorium, I estimate 150-200 people. They were there to listen to us talk about something I was sure no one wanted to hear about. Turns out that they did want to hear what we had to say. I was so scared, scared someone would stand up and yell that I was full of it, get off the stage. That I didn’t know what I was talking about. But that didn’t happen. The panel was great, you can watch it on WordPress.tv and see for yourself.

What was even more amazing was the amount of time I spent talking to quite a few people for the rest of the day, even at the after party that night. WHOA!! People were asking me advice. It was intimidating, much like standing in front of my classroom talking to future web developers about how to create dynamic and stunning websites! But I was helping friends and strangers in MY community. And it felt great!

Now the panel in Dayton felt great, but it did not rescue me from my own torment, one filled with doubt, hesitation, and fear. That was in March 2015, and my next chance to talk about it again was at North Canton in May 2015. There is no video of that session, and it was much smaller. Just a room full of people, a classroom actually. It was great to talk about it. My wife sat in for that one. She had heard me talk about the talk, talk about impostor syndrome, talk about my fears, and my disappointments, but having her there when I talked about it out loud to others instead of just when we sit on the sofa chatting was intense. As an imposter, I often feel like my emotions aren’t worthy of sharing with her (or anyone else for that matter). Having her in the audience exposed those emotions and led to my ability to just let loose with my emotions that night in somewhat of a minor breakdown, or break through as the case may be! She had to remind me that I am not a superhero and I don’t have to always be so strong. Those words have echoed in my head ever since and reminded me that talking is key to keeping things balanced in marriage, life, work, and whatever.

My journey through the WordPress community was still stalled. While the two discussion panels were great, I still didn’t believe in myself. That is what impostor syndrome does, it makes you believe you are not worthy.

We're Not Worthy!

Even though the panels were a success, and I had so many people thank me for helping them, I didn’t think I should talk about it. I had to be convinced to attend WordCamp Columbus by a couple of the people on the panel, my friends Angie and Steve, members of MY WordPress community.

OK OK, stop nagging I will attend, but I won’t like it. Jeez, am I six years old??? But that was how I felt. No, they weren’t nagging me, but that was my defensive reaction.

WordCamp Columbus was a little over a week ago, and happened to fall on my birthday. That was my original objection to going, that it was my birthday and I wouldn’t want to “work” on my birthday. Honestly, that was just a good, oh let’s face it, bad excuse. While I had started coming out of this funk, it still was overwhelming me. I almost backed out of Columbus at the last minute because I didn’t want to have to “fake it.”

But guess what…I AM SO GLAD I WENT TO WordCamp Columbus!

While there was nothing extraordinary about it, it was what I needed. Was it the fact that I was talking about impostor syndrome again? Was it that I secretly wanted to be around 100-200 of my closest friends on my birthday (I jest, that is how many people were there, I knew about 30 of them)? Was it that I got to hang out with a handful of my really good friends and play card games and share meals and beverages. You know what, it was all of those, and it was me finally saying it was time to beat impostor syndrome.

Does that mean I do not suffer from it anymore? Hell no, it is a battle I face every day, but I will not give in. Columbus was a great time and both my wife and I wish we could go to every WordCamp, every weekend, in every city. Why you ask?

Because of MY community. OUR community. Now I know not everyone that reads this is in the WordPress world and some of you do not even know what WordPress is (ask me, I can help!), but let me tell you, it is a great place to “work.” No, I do not work in the WordPress community in the traditional sense, I have not made a penny off of the community. Speaking at and organizing WordCamps is all volunteer. I do it because I love helping and being helped by this community. But I do work in the community. I consider myself an advocate, a champion even, of the community.

I now realize how important it is that I do everything I can to make this community better. It started with WordCamp North Canton, which I helped organize in 2015. Taking that committment a step further, I recently agreed to be a Community Deputy. I help ALL THE WORDCAMPS! As a deputy with WordCamp Central, I will be part of a team that makes sure each and every WordCamp around the world is the best event it can be. That is the least I can do to give back to a group of people that give and give and expect nothing in return!

The WordPress community is made up of people of different backgrounds and ethnicities, from many different countries. Diverse Community

While the one thing we all have in common is WordPress, we have a wide range of other interests. That is what makes the personal side of our community fun! We can sit for hours talking shop, but then stories and experiences about the rest of our lives start flowing and we all learn more about life as seen through other eyes.

Adam Silver WordCamp Columbus 2015 Session "Truth, Trust and Technology: How WordPress is The Best Community Ever"
Adam Silver WordCamp Columbus 2015 Session “Truth, Trust and Technology: How WordPress is The Best Community Ever”

Our community comes together when we have someone in need. Whether it be raising money to send someone several states away from home to gain some valuable training or send a vocal advocate of the international WordPress community to WordCamp Pune.

Our community also finds the strength to hold each other up when we lose someone who believed in it more than you can ever know. When Kim Parsell passed away in December 2014, we were all dumbstruck and awash with grief. While I chatted with Kim regularly on Twitter, I was lucky to finally meet her at WordCamp San Francisco 2014. After getting a Kim hug (she was never lacking in hugs, you didn’t need to ask, you just got one), we had a great chat about our community, especially what she was trying to accomplish in the area of documentation. She was passionate, she cared so much about everything WordPress, especially the people. She even had her own hashtag, #wpmom. She took care of all her children, even reminding us to eat lunch (or breakfast) if we had not gotten up from our desk for many hours. She meant the world to many of us.

It was Kim’s passing that motivated several us to start a Slack chat group called WPMorningCrew. It was based on daily Twitter chats where everyone that was “an early bird” would check in and say hey, trade jokes, gripe about their woes, and just hang out for a bit before the day started. Think about a virtual coffee table where everyone is sipping their coffee, or tea, or diet soda, and just chatting before punching into WordPress. It was a dozen or so of us that just made a point to check in on the others. It was the fact that no one had heard from Kim for a few days that led to the discovery that she had passed away at home. So the official WPMorningCrew “team” was created on Slack, and trust me, you had better check in every day! We talk, we laugh, we support, we dig into issues (not just about WordPress) to help each other. Some days it is goofy and fun, some days everyone is stressed. But the Crew looks after it’s members.

It was great to hang out with two of my Crew at Columbus, and many a laugh were shared with Ryan & Andrea. In fact, Andrea gave the keynote on Saturday afternoon. Guess what that keynote was about…COMMUNITY!

Andrea Rennick WordCamp Columbus 2015 Keynote with photo of Kim Parsell
Andrea Rennick WordCamp Columbus 2015 Keynote with photo of Kim Parsell

I think there were a few tears shed, especially when the photo of Kim came across the screen. In fact, Andrea had pinned something I said one day in Slack to our Crew wall “If we want to be true to Kim, every day should be no negativity day. Because it could be your last.” I said that one day when everyone was having a particularly snarky day, and someone chimed in that we should be nice at least once a year, on the day Kim passed.

So you see, my Crew means a lot to me. I chat with them daily. Well, I do not, I had wandered away from them for a while. But I came home. That merry band of goofballs are usually part of how I start my day. Whether it is Ryan talking about BBQ or Jesse and his third monitor he cannot wait to setup. And so many other stories we share. They are just a small subset of MY community that has so many different stories, gripes, and triumphs on a daily basis.

One thing that has started becoming important lately is the discussion of mental health. Many people in the WordPress community are self-employed, while a great many work remotely. It is very easy to get lost in your work when you work alone, leading to feelings of isolation. It is easy to keep working all day and night since there is no defined workday. It is easy to feel like an impostor!!!!

I bet you wondered when I would tie all of this together. Our community works really hard to make WordPress a great platform, but that makes it easy to forget to take care of ourselves. Without #wpmom reminding us to eat or to step away from the screen for a bit, we need to do something for us. When you hear all about giving back to WordPress, you normally think of developing a plugin or creating the next best theme. You think of spending time in the forums or working on documentation. Yes, all of those are ways to give back to WordPress. There is no specific link I could place here to point you to the really important way to give back.

Reach out to someone in the community you haven’t spoken to in a while and just say hi. Make those dinner plans you keep putting off with that person you know that lives 30 minutes away and works from home, but you never see. Tweet about something good that someone in the community did for no reason than to just say “Wow, look at what my friend did!”

Or maybe it needs to go the other direction. Maybe you need to ask for help. My friend Cory Miller recently bared his soul in a post Everybody Hurts, Including Me, And It’s OK To Ask For Help. If you need help, ask for it. Odds are pretty darn good that you will get more support than you ever knew existed in OUR community. I wish I would have asked for help months ago, but I am lucky that I was able to shake it off eventually.

If you made it to this point, I thank you for taking time to listen to a story I feel is so important. As someone that is very private, I have never exposed myself as much as I have here. But it feels good, and I hope it helps you see that all of us have good days and bad days. It doesn’t matter if you are part of the WordPress community, or if you have impostor syndrome. What matters is that you realize that sometimes you just need to talk about it, as I have here.

I usually close the impostor syndrome panels with a statement along the lines of “share what we talked about today with someone that might have impostor syndrome and help them see they are not alone, that you are an impostor and that is ok.”

Don’t be afraid to ask for help and please don’t think someone doesn’t need help because they don’t ask!

If you are going to WordCamp US, please make sure to find me and we can talk. It can be a funny story or something serious. Let’s just talk.

10 Replies to “Impostor Syndrome, The WordPress Community, and Me”

  1. Great post, Rich! It feels good exposing and uncovering yourself like this, doesn’t it?

    Everyone is scared at first. Even those, like Chris, are still struck with some fear now and again. If you aren’t, you probably aren’t pushing yourself far enough. Keep on doing what you’re doing, you’re light years ahead of most.

    See you at WordCamp US — and nice theme 🙂

    1. Thanks Matt! Yeah, it feels really good just letting it all out. And I have gotten so much positive feedback about how reading my post made people feel better about themselves, whether WP related or not. That was my goal, to help others.
      I am good at pushing myself, but this was to a level I never knew I could…I like it. No one can stop me now, well, except me. 😉
      See you at #wcus! As far as the theme, I picked it up somewhere on the web, can’t remember where.

  2. Nice one Rich!
    When I first heard about Imposter Syndrome obviously from Chris Lema) I felt exposed, you see I thought that’s me. But with timeI have made several improvements. Since I am in Asia, I haven’t been able to attend any WordCamp by now, but I do have plans for next year.

    I love to speak and I believe in sharing/writing about all things WP. I have learnt WP like many of us on my own and this syndrome has haunted me to it best when I left my full-time job to start working with WordPress on my own. That was the time when I started building products and contributed at the core. I still fight with it.

    BTW I really like the idea of “My Community”.

    1. Thanks Ahmad. I truly believe that you can never completely shake that feeling as an impostor, but knowing and understanding it helps so much. Keep speaking, sharing, and believing in yourself and others.
      I love My Community!

  3. I needed this today. No seriously, I really really did. I haven’t finished reading it all (it’s a lot haha) but I’m going to and so far, this is hitting the nail on the head for me. Been having a lot of opportunities not fall through or taking too long to work out and was starting to question the few years of experience that got me here.

    I needed a reminder. I’m an impostor and that’s okay. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    1. Yes, I know it’s a lot to read, but I glad what you read so far helped give you a nudge. From the looks of it, you are doing fine, just keep moving forward.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. It’s nice to see how peoples brain internals work in such detail, particularly when the situation is so similar to my own.

    1. The thought of sharing this part of my story was so intimidating at first, but once the words started flowing, 3,800 more follower and I had to stop myself from making this a novel. I needed it to be said, and I wanted others to hear it. Like you.

      So many people have similar stories and never consider what and why their feelings are. I am so glad you could get something out of it and compare it to your own. That strengthens our community.

  5. Rich,

    Just wanted to let you know that I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It nailed exactly how I felt through most of my years as a project manager. I kept waiting to be found out !! Thanks for sharing

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