Academic validation was a tool that helped me feel like I had more control of how I viewed myself. I thought the confidence and self-fulfillment after getting a good grade motivated me to put my best foot forward. I was enthusiastic to receive positive feedback from a teacher or parent about my schoolwork.
However, the consequences of obsessively maintaining good grades eventually outweighed the benefits.
I relied heavily on my grades to validate my work ethic in my sophomore year of high school. I wanted someone, or something, to indicate I was good enough.
It felt like it was the only aspect of my life I could control because I didn’t have power over other things, like boys not liking me. I could control how long I sat at my desk studying, the number of times I proofread and how long I read my textbook.
The validation I pursued wasn’t enough for me because I set such high expectations for myself. If I got a B+ rather than an A, I kicked myself for not being good enough. There was a heaviness I carried throughout high school as constant thoughts of “your best isn’t good enough,” and “you’re not that smart after all” spun circles in my mind.
My academic anxiety skyrocketed. I couldn’t take a single test without my leg bobbing, my palms sweating and my heart beating rapidly. The idea of getting a low grade was unnerving because I thought the grade reflected my self-worth. I began to assume the hard work I was putting in wasn’t enough and must’ve meant I was a failure.
Having negative thoughts about myself hurt my self-image and I found receiving positive feedback on my schoolwork made me feel horrible inside. I had no clue how to deal with the emotional pain the thoughts were causing me.
During the beginning of my junior year of high school, I avoided my uncomfortable feelings by doing everything I could to not take them seriously and focus on schoolwork. I was convinced that criticizing myself couldn’t be a bad thing because it was my motivator, but I began thinking in extremes. I was either successful and smart or a failure and dumb.
By the end of junior year, we transitioned to online classes as the COVID-19 pandemic began which caused negative feelings to uncontrollably bubble up to the surface. I stayed up all night to rework assignments because I needed every detail to be perfect. I wasn’t giving myself breaks when studying because I thought they would distract me from my current task.
The disparaging thoughts in my head were getting louder, I started having panic attacks when I thought too negatively about my schoolwork. While studying my geometry notes at my desk one afternoon, my heart rate increased, tears spilled from my eyes and I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
It was my first panic attack, and the physical sensations made me realize these thoughts were not normal. I neglected my mental health for the sake of getting a good grade, something had to change.
I began taking care of myself by prioritizing sleep again and ensuring I was giving myself breaks during homework. I also taught myself to rewire my thinking by noticing unkind thoughts and then making them more positive. I’d change a negative thought pattern from, “You’re just not good enough at this,” to, “I’m only human and I’m trying to show up in the best way I can.”
Now in my sophomore year at Temple University, I’m less pessimistic about my schoolwork because I use mindfulness and cognitive behavioral therapy as guides for more positive thinking. My grades still make me feel accomplished because I know I worked hard for them, but they no longer dictate how I see myself.
I was able to find validation by acknowledging my successes, while also being kind to myself when it came to my mistakes. I now know my grades are not always indications of how smart I am. My relationship with my grades is healthier now because I feel validated just knowing I can survive moments of low self-esteem.
I’ve found no amount of confidence after receiving a good grade is worth overworking myself. When I finally made the choice to take breaks from my work when it felt overwhelming and start practicing self-compassion, my mental health thanked me for it.