From as long as I can remember, if I’ve been in school, I’ve been concerned about my grades. No matter how much I just love learning and discussing academic topics I care about, there is always a looming cloud of anxiety and stress hanging overhead.
Growing up, I was one of the “smart kids.” Or nerds, or teacher’s pets, depending on how you see it. I’ve always worked hard to earn the best grades possible. The pressure to do so has come from others and, ultimately, myself.
As if we needed any other arbitrary means for determining our value and self-worth, grades and GPAs and everything else are just another set of numbers and letters that somehow have the ability to make or break those who care enough about them. For those select few, grades can even become an obsession.
Of course stemming from my OCD, perfectionist tendencies, growing up when I had very little self-esteem to stand firm and believe in myself, I used whatever labels and numbers and scales out there to determine my value for me. As I’ve mentioned before, a big portion of my attention went to pounds, inches and calories, but it also dominated by grades. Earning all A’s for every assignment and test. Keeping a 4.0 GPA for my entire educational career, or I would be deemed a failure. I would let my family down who believed so wholeheartedly in me, I would lose any purpose, and I would no longer be good at the one thing I knew I could do.
So academics became a big part of my identity. High school was especially competitive as students in my quite small school fought for top ranks, taking as many AP classes as possible, joining as many clubs and getting leadership positions in those, and trying to outrank each other on our ACT scores. Okay, day-to-day activities were not as directly cut-throat as this, but in my mind, it was a battleground. And when I compared myself to my very intelligent and talented peers, I realized that I didn’t stand out. I wasn’t on top. I was lost in the crowd, a realization which further fueled anxiety and obsession and self-destructive thoughts.
A lot of the problems I saw in my academics stemmed from my own perception. I grew up with an older brother who didn’t have to work too hard to be the top of his class, to receive honors and awards in every activity he did. I couldn’t do that, and even though I love my brother as my best friend, I was ridiculously jealous of how highly others saw him, someone who doesn’t need to study much to ace the test, who just knows so much knowledge, I feel like a dud. To my family, I felt like a disappointment, and despite my hours of work and studying, I still couldn’t be good enough.
I never really opened up about my inner battles every day, and it helped finding and having a good support system in high school (to my high school pals, I cannot thank you enough). I even ended up as the class secretary and graduated high school with a 4.0. I walked out those doors happy to close off that chapter of life, promising myself I wouldn’t pressure myself to that same degree in college like I had for years.
I don’t tend to listen to my own advice. Because yes, thus far I still have a 4.0 in college, an achievement in of itself, with only two semesters left. But I still see the competition around and within me. I see people going and achieving amazing accomplishments and prestige. And I see myself lagging behind. I feel my test anxiety getting worse and worse with every exam. If I receive back anything less than an A, my mind still wanders to regrets of not doing enough, not being better. Getting some points off on an assignment can easily turn a good day into a terrible one in an instant.
In this semester abroad, I find my mindset evolving. I see the end of my education in sight. And while I still care about working my hardest and achieving all I can, I see a lower grade on a test and it doesn’t completely break me. I see the idea of getting a B in a class as less earth-shattering than before. I care more about learning and growing (and of course passing all of my classes) and less about how it translate onto a transcript. It may not seem too crazy, but to me, that is a huge difference. I place higher value on my own health and others than a number that will lose relevance the minute I receive my diploma. That piece of paper doesn’t show the GPA I received. It says I earned the same document as so many others who worked more or less hard than I did to achieve the same thing. Maybe if I was rushing off to graduate school afterwards I would still feel that same tightness in my chest, but for now, that isn’t in the plans, and I cannot begin to describe what a relief that is.
Whether you’re in college or not, we’re all in the same boat. We’re just trying to do the best we can, working hard, living life. I should just be grateful for my intelligence, curiosity, determination, and work ethic. I should applaud others for their own accomplishments and not see those lessening the value of my own hard work. I should do my best in the context of balanced wellness. I should not strive for a fleeting, impossible level that is perfection. And neither should you.
Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie