Near the end of last year, I got a job working with English Language Learners in a public elementary school.
To be honest, I was a little surprised they hired me. On paper, I had all of the qualifications—but I had never worked in a school before, and although I had plenty of experience working with children, I felt unsure that my experience would seem relevant to the people interviewing me.
Yet hire me they did, and November found me walking into an elementary school for the first time since I was in third grade, the year before we moved to Nicaragua and started to homeschool.
The first week I worked was the week of Thanksgiving, a half-week. I was still getting to know the school, and I had just been introduced to the staff workroom. There was a wall covered in cubbyholes along one side of the room that served as “mailboxes” for envelopes or packages addressed to staff—including me.
And a couple of days before Thanksgiving, a little bag of snacks showed up in my mailbox.
It wasn’t for me specifically; identical bags of goodies showed up in every cubbyhole on that wall with little notes attached to them reading, “Thank you for all you do!” But for some reason, I was hesitant to take the one in my mailbox.
What if it wasn’t really meant for me? What if they intended it for the person who filled the job before me, the one whose name was still on the cubbyhole that would later be mine?
In the back of my mind, I knew that wasn’t the case; she had moved to another school and wouldn’t be coming back. The mailbox was now mine, and it was only a matter of time before they got around to putting my name on it.
But I still hesitated. I waited while the bags disappeared from every other mailbox in the room, and on the last day of school, I hesitated as I walked past my mailbox and outside into the crisp fall air—leaving the bag behind.
The following Monday, I slunk sheepishly into the workroom, retrieving the lone bag of goodies from my mailbox. I felt embarrassed at my foolishness in leaving the bag all weekend, and as I snuck the bag into my purse so no one would notice that I was only now taking it home, I asked myself, “Why did I hesitate?”
We are always the same age inside.Gertrude Stein
I hadn’t realized it until that day, but every time I showed up to work with my official-looking badge, I felt like a fraud.
I was certain that, sooner or later, I would be exposed for the imposter I was. Sooner or later—and I was petrified it would be sooner—someone would realize that I didn’t really belong there, that I was too young, too inexperienced to do the job I had undertaken.
Psychologists call this “imposter syndrome,” and I’m not the only one who feels this way—around 70% of people experience similar feelings at some point in their lives, feelings telling them that they don’t belong, that they’ve only made it this far by luck, that sooner or later everyone will realize that they’re really a fraud. On some level, we feel like children playing dress-up: one wrong move and the shoes that are too big for us will go flying off and we will come tumbling down, exposed for what we truly are.
The real problem
Here’s the thing: the bag of goodies wasn’t a big deal. It wasn’t like someone was offering me an award for excellence in teaching that I hadn’t earned—it was just a generic “thank you” gift for school staff as a whole, impersonally.
The only reason it felt like a big deal to me was because I was overthinking it. Instead of doing the logical thing—which was to think, “Oh, snacks, nice,” and to take the bag home—I let it become a symbol of my own perceived inadequacy. I’m the one who made a mountain out of a molehill, who decided I was too inexperienced at my job to “deserve” a thank-you gift.
I’m embarrassed to even admit that, but I think I need to confess it because I know I’m not the only one who overthinks things. Every now and then, even the most rational among us gets caught up in the question, “But what does it mean?”
This is what I realized the day I left the bag of goodies in my mailbox at work: it doesn’t have to mean anything.
Let it go
You’re gorgeous…and if I could give you just one gift ever for the rest of your life it would be this. Confidence. It would be the gift of confidence. Either that or a scented candle.David Nicholls, One Day
Next time you find yourself feeling like you don’t belong, like it’s only a matter of time before you’re “exposed” as a fraud—consider the fact that you might be overthinking it.
Maybe some people would recommend you tell yourself why you deserve to be where you are—and, to be honest, when I first outlined the idea for this blog post, my intention was to talk about confidence. I’ve always been hesitant about telling myself I “deserve” something—I don’t want to tip the scales the other way, toward arrogance and pride—but a healthy sense of being capable, a sense that I can do what I set out to do, is a positive thing.
And yet, if I hadn’t been overthinking the whole situation to begin with, my lack of confidence never would have become an issue.
Here’s what I’ve learned about confidence: it only occurs to me that I don’t have it when I’m thinking about it way too much. When I’m occupied with just living my life, I do just fine without needing to second-guess myself all the time.
Let’s face it: worrying about whether or not you “belong” is a waste of time. It doesn’t really matter anyway. Six months or a year from now, the vast majority of the things you’re obsessing over today will have faded into oblivion. Stop worrying about whether you’re “good enough” or even whether or not you’re “confident,” and try just living your life.
This is my advice for you today, such as it is:
Stop overthinking. You have a life to be living—so go live it.
“Why does everything have to mean something, though?” Jared asks. “Haven’t we got enough life to be living?
Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here
Are you an over thinker? Have you noticed “imposter syndrome” in yourself? Let me know in the comments!