Your comfort zone is a muscle. If you don’t stretch it, it will shrink.
It still feels unreal. Two days ago, I was standing on a stage, sharing my expertise. And not just any stage. One of the stages of WordCamp Europe 2019 in Berlin. A conference with over 3200 registrants, over 2700 attendees. A conference room with a capacity of 1100, 60-70% full. And lots of positive feedback.
Never judge by appearances
Getting to this point hasn’t been a walk in the park. Not even remotely. Had you asked me about something like this five years ago, I would have smirked. Statistically, I am much more likely to be depressed, chronically anxious or abusing substances. You see, I have been a victim of (relational) bullying several times during my elementary school years. I changed schools because of it, yet it happened again.
Bear with me here, this is not going to be a “I feel so sorry for myself” sob story. There is lots of hope, encouragement and empowerment in this story. Yes, I have struggled with feelings of insecurity and feelings of “not being worthwhile”. And yes, every time I think I have finally dealt with it, it does pop up again in another shape or form. But every single time, I have been able to turn it around into an opportunity to grow. I may still depend a bit more on validation than average. But people who know me, will confirm that I am known to be one to encourage others.
A little bit of context
I won’t wear you out with the whole back story. Instead, let me take you back about 5 years. Me, my husband, and my two kids had been living in the Caribbean for a number of years. Unfortunately, I had hit another rough patch. I had been working with a wonderful local psychologist, but I was not getting the results I hoped for. And then it hit me: I would not be growing without intentionally seeking out opportunities to grow. So I decided to send myself out on an experiment. And, thankfully we were able to afford an experiment like that.
Being intentional about personal development
One of the goals I set, was to be able to present myself as a digital marketing expert more comfortably. And I felt that it would be easier to do this outside my local area since I was running a pattern of playing small there. So I purchased a ticket to WordCamp Miami (a short flight away). As I started to freak out about what I had done, an email came in. The organization was looking for volunteers. Perfect timing. That would help me focus on helping others rather than feeling lost and not knowing whom to talk to. Or getting all hyper from butterflying around.
This turned out to be a great decision. I had never encountered a community more inviting and inclusive. I had a blast during the weekend. And even got invited over for a home-cooked dinner by one of my co-volunteers. Some first lasting friendships were born that weekend.
Having this first volunteer experience under my belt landed me several volunteer gigs in the US over the following years. Not only for WordCamps, but also for a much more expensive internet marketing conferences and coaching programs.
Starting all over again
Then, three years ago, we moved back to The Netherlands, and I had no professional network in my home country at all. So, once our family had found a new routine, I signed up as a volunteer for WordCamp Europe in Paris (2017). That made me stretch far out of my comfort zone since about 2000 people would attend, and I did not know one single soul. Signing up as a volunteer was a no-brainer already by that time. To help myself get over some anxiety about the number of people attending, I decided to sign up for contributors day for the first time. After all, “only” some 300 people would attend that event.
The friendly people at the marketing team adopted me right away and gave me something useful to do. I teamed up with another volunteer to set up several Trello boards to manage the many ongoing projects. Over the weekend I got connected to more warm, welcoming and encouraging people than I could ever imagine. Some of them noticed that I had a way of expressing myself that could point to a talent for speaking. They kept encouraging me to the point that I submitted my very first talk proposal. Looking back, I never really expected to be picked. You should have seen my face when I received the e-mail stating I had been selected…
Another leap of faith
So two months later, I was standing in front of some 50 people. At WordCamp Nijmegen, I shared my story about growing my self-confidence to a much healthier level by volunteering during WordCamps and other events. You can view the recording on WordPress.tv. I received some great feedback. This gave me the confidence to apply for the next WordCamp, this time with a topic within my field of expertise: How to create buyer persona.
Over the course of 2 years, one opportunity led to another: First, I became part of the organizing team of WordCamp Utrecht and helped organize that event twice. Then, I became a team rep for the #MakeWordPress marketing team. Next, I got to lead a workshop at WordCamp Europe 2018. And as a result of all of this, I landed several freelance gigs, training virtual assistants and writing copy for a renowned WordPress agency, Level Level. Ultimately, by making myself stretch my comfort zone a bit further out every single time, I ended up landing my dream job. I’m now in charge of marketing for Level Level.
Lessons learned along the way
Do I still have my moments of not feeling enough? Totally. But let me share some of the most valuable lessons I learned along the way.
People who were never bullied have the same insecurities
Ha, you didn’t see that one coming, right? And until you are ever ready to open up about your feelings of insecurity, others will probably not feel safe sharing their feelings about it, either. Because being vulnerable IS scary. And people may abuse it. But it can be amazingly empowering, too. Blaming the bullying and staying in my ever-shrinking comfort zone would probably have been easier, but I’m so happy I ended up discovering that it turned out I was telling myself a lie.
Your comfort zone is a muscle. It is made to stretch.
This has become one of my pet peeves. Work your comfort zone like a muscle. If you don’t, it will shrink right back. You’ll keep playing small. Stretching it will be painful at first. But imagine that feeling of victory, that intense satisfaction when you look back and notice how much you have grown. Needless to say, it takes quite a bit of energy. You will be exhausted at times, and your comfort zone muscles will be sore. It’s the circle of life, after all. You will survive and grow stronger every day, which is exactly what I want for you.
Find your kind of crazy
We WordPress people, as unique as we all are, have lots in common, too. When helping my son through a rough patch several years ago, I did a lot of online research. I took a deep dive into everything from ADD to giftedness, and from visual learning to being highly sensitive. The “symptoms” of all of these are very much alike. And the biggest lesson: if you’re able to focus for a long time on something that you really enjoy, it’s not ADD. You may recognize some of these “symptoms”:
- not being able to sit still;
- easily distracted when working on routine matters;
- being able to hyperfocus when working on something that intrigues you;
- having a wide variety of interests;
- tend to get into power struggles with authoritative personalities;
- highly creative;
- mastering new skills by understanding and applying a concept rather than mastering it step by step (Once you know the concept of addition in math, for instance, it doesn’t matter whether you add 2+4 or 19574+274503. This in contrast to others who need to start with 1 digit numbers, then to 2 digit numbers etc).
(see, https://www.sengifted.org/post/adhd-and-children-who-are-gifted and https://www.davidsongifted.org/Search-Database/entry/A10226 if you’d like to learn more about this.)
Over the past two years, I had lots of conversations with community members, and have learned along the way that many recognize these. I think this is one of the reasons we feel so connected. But whether this sounds like you, or not at all…. I strongly recommend you to find and connect to a group of people that you resonate with and who love you for who YOU are. Encourage each other.
Be ruthless about self-care
I can see a huge difference in how I feel, both physically and mentally, depending on how well I take care of myself. Purely in simple things like eating lots of fruits and veggies. Drinking no-sugar drinks like herbal infusions and water. Getting enough sleep. Being out in nature. Exercising regularly. Hanging out with friends and family instead of working all the time. This by itself won’t get you out of a depression, but I am confident it will help improve things. It helps me from getting burned out, for sure.
If you’re employing one of us
You may be reading this and leading a team of WordPress people. And you may, or may not recognize yourself in parts of my story. Either way, I may have some valuable tips for you, too.
We’re precious. We’re valuable. And, we need more validation than average
We may not always notice that we’re burning the midnight oil. We may need you, or our co-workers to notice. We’re sprinters, not marathon runners. So we’ll have bouts of brilliance, and bouts where nothing may seem to come out of our hands. Know that. Appreciate that. And help us know that it’s ok that we’re wired like that. We may need that wee bit more of validation, of encouragement. We need to know you believe in us and that we’re valuable. And we may need a hug every once in a while.
I’m not a psychologist. I’m just sharing what I what I learned while trying to turn my life around. Also, the highs and the lows keep coming and going. Over the past five years, though, the trend has been upwards. And getting through my lows has become easier as I have become more confident about my ability to get through.