Learning to Deal When You’re in over Your Head

Looking back, I wonder what I looked like sitting there. Was my attempt at mastering a “fake it ‘til you make it” mentality working? Or was the fact that I was nervously sweating through the only business suit I owned evident to everyone around me?

It was late August, just a few days before the start of the school year, and I was waiting in the office of a small charter school. I had recently started a job as a counselor for a college access program and I had an almost-impossible-to-secure afternoon meeting with a high up administrator. Waiting for the meeting to start, I was beginning to feel like I was in over my head.

I had just 30 minutes to review the program’s mission, provide sample curriculum, answer any and all of her questions, convince her to approve our requests for access to student databases, transcripts, the school’s network, our own furnished, rent-free office space, a phone line, and a whole laundry list of other things.

On top of it all, I had been out of college for less than three months and with this company for less than three weeks. To be quite honest, I had no idea what I was doing.

As I sat and psyched myself up for that meeting, there were three phrases that rotated through my head and kept me from bolting for the door. I carried them with me after I succeeded in getting the school onboarded with our program. To this day, I still go back to these mantras to help me stay on track when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

1. I am worthy

After years of reading and studying and more reading, I was well-versed in educational theory. Paired with the hands-on experience I had gained at part-time jobs, past internships, and volunteer programs, I understood what it took to help schools see results.

Reminding myself of the resume I had built for years and labored over for weeks, if not months, helped to shake the negativity and fear and focus on my strengths, rather than worrying about being a rookie to the work world.

Have you ever accepted a job you felt unqualified for?

2. I am in control (of what I can control)

High school students are an unpredictable bunch. Working in the education field, it’s absurd to think I have control over everything, big or small, that happens during my day. That unplanned fire drill during a big workshop? Not much I can do. The fight that broke out in the hallway? Didn’t see that coming.

However, there was plenty I could prepare for in advance to keep stress at bay. For instance, I kept myself organized and up to date with logging my notes from student meetings and tracking their progress on a daily basis, despite the temptation to wait until the end of the week. Sometimes it felt like a chore, but when that same administrator asked for me to pull and present an unreal amount of data for a meeting that same day, instead of panicking, I could smile and say, “Of course – what file format would you prefer?”

3. I am connected

If that meeting had gone poorly, would my supervisor have fired me on the spot? Probably not. Having sent me in the first place showed that he had faith in me and, more than likely, was willing to coach me through any challenges that arose.

In that job and every one since, much of the success I found was deeply rooted in the fact that someone else believed in me. When I was blinded by stress or anxiety, they saw a strength and ability that I couldn’t. They offered me opportunities to grow by pushing me to face my new responsibilities head-on and served as a resource when I stumbled.

From overwhelmed to empowered

Feeling overwhelmed can be a vicious cycle – the more overwhelmed you feel, the more you freeze up, the longer your to-do list gets. That’s where these three mantras can come into play. They can help you break the cycle by beating imposter syndrome, developing a plan, and identifying a source of support you already have in place. And they can be just as helpful outside of office walls. Whether it was a relationship coming to an end, a friendship in flux, or a struggle to settle into a new city, remembering these three things has helped me go from frozen in one spot to taking action time and time again.

Originally published on December 20, 2017. 

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