Surviving: University, Anxiety & Trusting in My Capabilities

There was a point this semester, just a few weeks back actually, I was sat in a chair in my lecturer’s office and I couldn’t stop sobbing. The ugly, snot inducing kind of sobbing. The kind of sobbing that made it hard to get words out. I still cringe internally every time I think of this moment.

The reason I was so distraught and trying to fight off an anxiety attack – my grades.

Really, it’s amazing the amount of times I’ve gotten so distressed over grades since starting university. Before that moment – the one I just described in my lecturer’s office – I assumed that the reason I get so caught up in numbers and alphabets that describe the quality of my work was because I had a scholarship to maintain. However, while that might be part of the reason, it definitely was not the main cause.

After this breakdown and a very teary explanation of my stress from having to maintain a distinction average each semester, my lecturer (who is one of the loveliest person I’ve met in my time at Wollongong) told me that they will work on changing the scholarship policy to avoid being heavily dependent on grades and that other factors will also be considered; this policy has now been enacted and for the most part, I think it’s safe to say I won’t be losing my scholarship over the remainder of my course.

With this, things should be fine right? It’s all good, I can be calm and happy and focus on learning new things. Wrong – if anything my brain’s capacity to deal with grades got a whole lot worse.

This really forced me to think about my relationship with grades. I grew up in an education system where most of what matters are your grades: how well you scored in an exam, what was your overall position in class, what was your overall position in the standard. There was this rhetoric that you are only ever ‘smart’ if you were at the top. You had to be getting those straight A’s and top ten positions.

This was reflected in everything around you. After every standardized government exam, your family, friends, family friends who you haven’t seen in years, teachers in the following year at school will all ask how many A’s you got. The way you get into a good school, the way you get scholarships, the way your school celebrates you all depends on the letter ‘A’.

I was pretty lucky because my parents didn’t put too much pressure on me. They never pushed me too hard, they never put me down if I didn’t get those high grades. Obviously, they still wanted me to do well – they got me the help I needed, the extra classes and courses that can increase the chances of me getting that A. And I wanted that extra help. I wanted to get those A’s. I lived in a system that made me think my knowledge and my capacity to learn was only worthwhile if I produced good enough results to show for it.

This anxiety from always having to get good grades followed me into college and now into university.

I’m going to be honest and say that university is so difficult. It really, really is. I’m learning many new things and attempting to do things I haven’t done before. A lot of the time, I’m lost, confused and overwhelmed from all these new things. A lot of the time, I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.

There can be a lot of different factors on why I didn’t get a distinction on an assignment. I could’ve misunderstood the point of the assignment, I didn’t understand or fully analyse the sources I was using, it was my first attempt writing a news article and I didn’t know how to structure the information. All these things don’t mean that I’ve failed and turned in the worst thing ever, it just means I have more to learn. But nine times out of ten I never see it that way.

All I know is that some people managed to get a distinction in that assignment – and I was not one of them. I hate that I am not exceptional all the time.

There is just the constant loop of you are not good enough playing in my head. Before, it was easy to push the reason towards the scholarship. I had to be good enough to maintain that, I don’t want my parents having to pay more money for my education.

Now though I realise it wasn’t just the scholarship. I constantly seemed to equate my value as a learner and the extent of my capabilities to the grades that I get. This kind of thinking just feeds into the idea of not being good enough. I spend nights worrying that maybe I don’t deserve to be studying here, I don’t deserve the opportunities I am given, I don’t deserve to be learning. All because I’m not getting high grades.

It took a few long nights of not sleeping and some counselling for me to see how very unfair and toxic I was being to myself. Maybe I’ve always realised this, but I just never did anything about till now. I know that if anyone else told me any of the things I was thinking, I would have a million different reasons for why they were wrong.

It’s high time I stop doing that. I get so caught up trying to get high grades, I forget to actually learn. I keep thinking that if I do something, it has to be the best possible version the very first time I attempt it, which just leads to not attempting anything.

The ironic thing is, a lot of the times I am so proud of what I do. I am so delighted that I managed to write that report, that I managed to film and edit that interview, that I manage to learn how to play one of my favourite songs on the guitar. Even if the work is mediocre at best, I get so happy with myself – yas girl! Look at you go, you did a thing!

But that happiness is so short lived. If I don’t get high enough marks or people don’t care about the things I produce, I let that consume me and the weight of it crushes all that happiness I previously had.

I think as much as I want to say, I don’t care what other people think: I do, I care so much. Validation for my work is like a hard drug to me. It gives me a high, makes me delirious, makes my nails clench into my skin when I don’t get it; I don’t know how to stop myself from craving it all the damn time.

But with any addiction, I guess the first step is admitting you have one.

This semester, I learnt that I crave too much validation from other people for my work, my effort, my abilities to the point where it severely effects my mental health.

But really, your value, your worth is not determined by how other people view your work. You are doing good things, you are putting in effort to things you consider worthwhile, you are pushing yourself to be a capable person, you are trying.

That’s such a hard thing to remember, especially when we live in a society that judges us by abilities and outcomes.

Hopefully, I’ll remember it more often. I don’t know how exactly, but baby steps I guess. If you’re reading this, then at least I’ve started.

Next semester, I’m going to learn to take more chances. Create the things I’m proud of and actually post them without having people have to tell me multiple times that they think it’s great and they like it. Be ok with whatever grade I get and look at it as an opportunity to learn and push myself to do better.

Just thinking about it is making me feel anxious because I don’t know how to do this. But I’m definitely going to try.

Because I am so tired of feeling sad all the time, I’m tired of not being happy with myself and my efforts. I’m tired of dealing with anxiety/panic attacks that stem from not achieving the grades I want. I want to make good things and help people whenever I can. And it sucks because I’m blessed and privileged enough with the means to do them – but I stop myself because I’m so scared of failure before even attempting.

I’m 21 and I have so many things I want to achieve. Even if I can’t achieve them, I think it’s time I at least started trying too.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this, I hope maybe this helped you in some way too.

To end here is one of my favourite videos to get me through times when everything smells of failure to me:

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3 thoughts on “Surviving: University, Anxiety & Trusting in My Capabilities”

  1. Thank you for writing this, and for forming a new plan. Your intentions here are inspiring: to make good things, to help. This is exactly where to start.

    Grades are a sideshow, and they’re already slipping over the horizon. On what comes next, your focus on making the good thing to your own standard will hold you up.

    This is such good writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Although I just want to back up and say: the fact that grades will recede doesn’t negate at all the intensity of their impact in high school and now. My apologies, I didn’t mean at all that you were wrong to be affected by them. They’re a huge presence, very often harmfully.

      Liked by 1 person

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