“Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”
– Henri Nouwen
Today I want to talk about a kind of failure. Because, honestly, I’m sure that we’ve all had to deal with that at some point in our lives. Failure comes in so many different forms, and affects people in a variety of different ways. I think, at the core of it, the more of yourself you put into something, the worse it feels when it doesn’t work out the way you were hoping that it would.
I want to talk specifically about university here, and feeling as though you’re failing to live up to the standards placed on you (both by others and by yourself). I know that, at least for my generation (i.e. students who are currently at university, or who have recently graduated), a huge amount of pressures and expectations were placed upon us from a very young age at school to excel academically. When you’re labelled from the age of six years old as ‘gifted and talented’, and are constantly praised for being ‘top of the class’, having an advanced reading age, getting 100% in all of your tests, etc., you come to expect that of yourself. Not only do you expect yourself to excel academically, but you also begin to place a whole lot of your self worth, of your personal value, into that. That’s where you stand out from the crowd, that’s where teachers and parents notice you above your peers. On top of this, you expect that to come naturally to you, because it always has done.
What happens when it doesn’t, though?
I guess I’ve been pretty lucky in that I was naturally able to breeze through high school, and sixth form, coming out with a whole of of A*’s and A’s (and being secretly disappointed with the A’s, wishing they were A*’s) and to some extent, university so far has followed suit. Until final year, at least. During my first and second years at university, I was able to keep up my streak of getting top grades, of being congratulated by my professors… But honestly, that has all flipped on its head in third year, and to be frank, I’m currently hanging on to my degree by the skin of my teeth. I’m having to fight the urge to drop out far too regularly, and with every day that passes and my deadlines get closer, I’m filled with more and more dread. Every mark I get back seems to be worse than the previous one, and I’m not going to lie, it’s getting to me way more than it should.
Logically, I know that my worth is not determined by the grades that I receive, and I will say that to anyone who is in my position – your worth is not valued by your grades, and your intelligence is not determined by them either. However, placing your value in how intelligent you are (which, of course, you interpret as ‘how good your grades are’), is a very difficult thing to unlearn. No matter how much I know logically that 1) I will be perfectly okay no matter what my final grade is, 2) there’s so much more to me than my intellect and 3) getting low grades in my final year of uni does not mean that I’m unintelligent, I cannot seem to make my emotional mental state accept that as true. I find it so difficult to accept that I can be intelligent, even if my grades aren’t currently reflecting that. To be honest, I find it so difficult to accept (and be okay with) the fact that maybe I’m not as intelligent as everyone told me I was growing up. That’s such a shame though, because if it were my friend in the same situation to me, of course I’d be telling them that getting bad grades doesn’t take away from the fact that I know that they’re intelligent because I know them. When you’re trying to convince yourself, though, it’s not as straightforward.
The thing is, I know that what grades I end up with in a couple of months time will not matter in the slightest this time next year. To be honest, I’ll probably forget all about how stressed and under pressure I’m feeling right now as soon as I’ve graduated. That being so, it doesn’t take away from the fact that what I’m, what we’re, currently going through as third year students is so difficult, and if you let it, it wreaks havoc on your sense of self. Despite the fact that I know there’s so much more to life, and I’m so excited for what is to come after university (I mean I’m getting married, living with my best friend, going on a honeymoon, and exploring what I want to do with my life! Not to mention future travels, pets and children!), university feels like my entire world right now; I’ve been in education since I was 4 years old, and it feels like it’s all been leading up to this point, to graduating and getting my degree. Well… what if I don’t want to use my degree? What if I don’t want to be this academic person anymore, what if I don’t want to have a high paying, busy and ‘intellectually stimulating’ job? What was all of the stress for, then?
I’m not 100% sure where I’m going with this blog post, I guess part of me just wanted to get it all off my chest! But I do want to say that if third year has taught me anything so far, it’s the importance of learning to go easier on myself, of learning to see myself receive grades that are below the standards that I would usually set for myself, and to not allow that to have an impact upon my own sense of self worth. I’m unlearning the message that I took up throughout my schooling – the message that because I’m clever, I’m somehow better than I would be if i wasn’t, and that I should keep getting top grades, get a degree from a top university, and get a well-paying, respectable job as soon as I graduate (just to be clear, I don’t have this opinion of anyone else – we are all our own worst critics). It’s such a shame that it took me this long to realise that isn’t true, and that my grades do not in any way define me, and that there’s so much more to being ‘talented’ and intelligent than just doing well on assessments. I guess the age old saying is true – if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its entire life thinking that it’s stupid. I guess if I’m the fish, third year has been my tree, and I’m slowly coming to realise that I am talented beyond whether or not i can write a first class essay. I am gifted in areas that cannot be graded by my university, and that is not of any less worth than a first class essay.
Part of me is annoyed at the fact that I’ve spent so long holding myself to a standard that, in the long run, is unnecessary. I’m proud of my accomplishments, but I also know that I don’t have to keep achieving top grades in order to be proud of myself. There’s so much more to me than my ability to analyse a piece of literature, or to discuss a philosophical theory, and I’m so excited to be done with uni, and to put my energy into exploring those sides of myself that have had to take a back seat over my years of higher education.
“My health may fail, and my spirit may grow weak, but God remains the strength of my heart, he is mine forever.”