My friend the Impostor Syndrome

Four years ago I was working in New York on a project. It was a strategy project for a big media company. They got 10,000 visitors a day. Whereas all my previous projects would get 1,000 hits a day or less. So it was 10 times bigger than anything I’ve ever worked on.

One day I went to work, I approached the huge silver building in Midtown Manhattan, walked through the revolving door and into an empty elevator. Even before I reached the 46th floor I found myself crying. But I pulled myself together, walked into the office and started my day. A few days later the same thing happened again and only after I found myself crying in the elevator for the third time I knew I had to do something.

That day I asked a coworker of mine for a meeting to talk to her about it. She came to the meeting with a box of my favorite cupcakes. She wanted to celebrate the launch of phase one of the project that we were working on. She told me how she enjoyed working with me and that the department head was praising my work. But all I wanted to do was ask her, was “what am I doing here?”. I was so confused.

That night I was meeting a friend for drinks and I opened up to him. I told him I didn’t feel qualified enough for the job. I knew there were so many people out there that were more qualified than me. I was scared they’d figure that out any day and that they would fire me. I told him about how some days my anxiety felt so overwhelming that it effected my work. And that my inner struggle didn’t match the positive feedback I was getting from peers.

My friend smiled and said, Sonja, we all feel this way sometimes. These are all very clear symptoms. You’re suffering from the Impostor Syndrome.

So what is the Impostor Syndrome?

It’s that discouraging, judgmental, and disabling voice in your head that tells you, you’re not good enough. It’s your inner critic. You’re not good enough yet to apply for that job / take on that project / speak at that conference. You don’t know enough, yet. It tells you that you only got that project or job, because you were lucky. That it had nothing to do with your skills. It convinces you that you will fail. That you are a fraud and everyone is about to find out. It basically feeds your insecurities and discourages you to step up.

I sent out a survey leading up to this talk and asked a group of 12 well known members of the WordPress community about their experience with the Impostor Syndrome. Amongst them were core contributors, founders of big WordPress agencies, and Automatticians. 10 out of 12 admitted to having the Impostor Syndrome. Would you have expected that?

The Impostor Syndrome is irrational. It often communicates underlying fears, but the thoughts it puts into our heads are not a reflection of reality. Luckily you are not alone! The reality is that the majority of us have it, but we don’t really talk about it. We don’t want to admit that we feel this way. We don’t want to feel vulnerable.

Here are three ways that helped me overcome my Impostor Syndrome:

I found Community

When I first started working as a freelancer, I was working alone from home. I felt pretty disconnected from everyone. Most of my interactions with other designers and developers were online, but never met any of them in person. I decided to try go to networking events in New York City to connect with people in my industry. I met a lot of interesting people, I listened to them talk about the cool projects they were working on, they dropped big name clients. The more accomplished they seemed the smaller I became on the inside.

When they asked me what I was doing, a shy “I design websites, I’m a freelancer” came out, nothing more. I didn’t want to bore anyone talking about the small projects I worked on. I felt completely out of place, and nowhere in their league. I was convinced the people at corporate networking events like these, would not be interested in a small-time designer as myself. And being an introvert didn’t really help either. Those events would feed my Impostor Syndrome rather than help me grow. So I stopped going.

The local WordPress Community

It wasn’t until a friend introduced me to the local WordPress community. I remember clearly the first time I went to a local meetup in New York and people were so welcoming, down-to-earth, and many had the same questions I had. I didn’t feel small. At the beginning, I would mostly listen, given my experience. At other networking events, I was still hesitant to talk about my work and admit when I didn’t know something. Soon I realized that others weren’t afraid to share and no one judged them. Quite the opposite happened. People helped each other.

Then something beautiful and eye-opening happened. I, too, was able to help others with questions they had, and answers they needed. When I realized that, I started to really open up. I felt valued. The WordPress community has become my group, my tribe, my family. A lot of my closest friends are amongst you today and they keep inspiring and encouraging me.

Are you involved in your local community yet? Your local WordPress meetup is the closest point of contact and connecting to people is the first step to conquering your Impostor Syndrome. Local meetups are the cornerstone of our community. I encourage you to go to your local WordPress meetups. If there aren’t any in your city, become an organizer. Go to make.wordpress.org and have a look at the community team. You’ll find all the resources you need.

I am speaking to share with the community

Speaking to share my knowledge is another way that helped me conquer my Impostor Syndrome. Have you ever considered to speak at a local meetup or a WordCamp? How do you feel about the idea? What’s the first thought that comes into your mind? You might think you have nothing worth sharing? You might think you’re not an expert in your field? Maybe you are scared you won’t be any good.

At WordCamp Europe 2016, I’m speaking on a public stage for the 8th time. This time, I chose to speak about the Impostor Syndrome. I chose the topic, because my Impostor Syndrome was the reason, that I almost didn’t applied to speak at the event. I thought of many topics to submit, but every topic I considered, the voice in my head gave me a very “plausible” reason not to. I’m not an expert in this. I’m not accomplished enough. If I fail on such a big stage, people will loose all respect for me. I will be exposed as a fraud.

So just before speaker submissions closed, I submitted this talk, because I knew that I can’t be the only one who is facing this struggle and I wanted to inspire others. When I received the confirmation email that I was chosen to speak here, I was equally excited and terrified. Omg what if I fail miserably? This is the biggest stage I’ve ever spoken on. Coming here today and sharing my experience with my struggle in front of all of you felt like jumping out of a plane, but without a parachute, waiting to crash and burn.

Luckily I have amazing people in my life, who constantly encourage me and lend their support. They are my rock when my inner critic becomes the loudest. It’s funny how sometimes we believe the peers and friends in our lives more, when they criticize us, but when they praise our work or accomplishments, we play it down and think they’re just saying it because they like us, not because we deserve it. We do deserve it!

Speaking at events helps me to dismantle the false statements of the Impostor Syndrome. When I step off the stage after I give a talk, I feel one of two ways. If you have ever spoken at an event before, right after you were done with your talk, did you ever feel like it wasn’t good enough? It’s the way we measure ourselves subjectively. Don’t trust this feeling. Trust the feedback you get. It’s important to ask the right questions though. Don’t just ask how did I do? Ask people what they liked best and if there’s anything you could have improved. Unless you get negative feedback, it means you did a great job.

If you ever thought about speaking, but hesitated to apply. Just do it. Apply to speak at your next local meetup or WordCamp.

I started contributing to WordPress

Contributing to WordPress is another way to conquer your Impostor Syndrome. When you are part of the community and you work with WordPress, you will hear about people contributing to the Open Source project. I’m making my living using WordPress, I’m so grateful for that, so naturally I want to give back too. I’ve contributed in small ways here and there over the years. Mostly during contributor days at WordCamps. But for a long time, I didn’t contribute much outside of contributor days. What big contribution can I make anyway, popped into my head. I’m not a developer, so I can’t contribute to core. There are so many designers that are better than me and everyone will know I’m not good enough. The more I would compare myself to other designers and developers, the more discouraged I would get. I simply didn’t feel I was good enough yet to contribute. Recognize the patterns? It’s the Impostor Syndrome talking.

When you compare yourself to others, what you actually do is, you compare yourself to their biggest accomplishments and shiniest moments. And you compare that to all your shortcomings and mistakes. How is that being fair to yourself? Everybody makes mistakes. We all know it’s ok to make mistakes, because we learn something. But we are so afraid to “fail”. Failing feels so big, the implications so severe. Why don’t you start making mistakes. You will learn so much. And you will grow.

But then one day something shifted. It was in 2014 at WordCamp Seattle Contributor Day. Siobhan approached me and invited me to kick off a project she’s been thinking about for a while. She wanted to work on improving the image editing experience and put together a small group of us that day. I was excited to work on this project. Morton, Siobhan and I worked on scope and initial UX sketches. We started analyzing and documenting the issues. After Contributor Day was over we started a weekly meeting and added updates to the Make blog. We worked on it for many months and I was able to bring in ideas and I got great feedback. It gave me validation from my peers in the community and I instantly felt more confident to share my work and contribute more. It made me realize that, yes, my contributions are welcomed and valued.

Stop comparing yourself to others!

I realized that comparing myself to others doesn’t make any sense. We are made of the sum of our skills, our education (formal or self-taught), and our experience. In that sense, we are all unique and bring a very specific skill-set to the table. So we need to stop comparing ourselves to others. It’s like comparing Star Trek to Star Wars. They are both the same thing, right? The both have space ships, weird characters, and they’re always fighting. Right?! NOOOOO! They’re not even in the same genre. One is Science Fiction and the other is Fantasy. They are two completely different things. You can’t compare the two. Just like you can’t compare yourself to others.

And I realized something else. We all cook with water. Even the people you might look up to the most, they too sometimes just figure things out along the way, and that’s ok. The difference is, they take the first step and do the work.

Now, you might not be sure what team to contribute to, this decision could be quite selfish actually. Think about what you’re interested in. Let’s say you want to learn more about Accessibility. Why not join the Accessibility team, they are always looking for more people and you’ll learn a lot while contributing. I currently contribute to WordPress through Translations, helping out with events, speaking, and I want to get more involved in the design and UX team.

Overcoming your Impostor Syndrome is a journey, but you are not alone in this. Most of us have or are struggling because of it. Having joined the WordPress community, speaking at events, and contributing to WordPress, is helping me overcome my Impostor Syndrome.

And so can you! Start your journey today to overcome the Impostor Syndrome! Join the WordPress Slack and connect to the community.


I gave this talk at WordCamp Europe 2016. You can find my slides on speakerdeck.

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