In elementary school I prided myself in being a good student. I was consistently getting top grades in my class and because of that I felt good about myself. My peers respected me and I enjoyed the status my good grades brought me. The good feelings left abruptly after a cross-border move in Grade 10.
I couldn’t adapt to the completely different curriculum. From the start I was behind in every subject and never caught up. In some classes I started to fail miserably. I wanted to get good grades so badly. I wanted to re-establish my academic status but never did fully recover in high school.
My grades were once my pride and joy but became the source of my guilt and shame. Little did I understand how my interpretation of my grades were deeply influencing how I viewed myself and how I thought others viewed me. I didn’t just earn failing grades, I felt like a failure. Instead of pride in my academics, I lived in constant fear of failure, struggling just to meet basic requirements.
I started to fear I wouldn’t have sufficient grades to get into university. Anxiety snowballed. I worried that my career options were narrowing.
At the time, I didn’t understand why I was so stressed about my grades. Unfortunately for me, I never understood the direct correlation I was making between my grades and my self-worth. I assumed that my grades alone determined my status and future career success.
What was causing so much stress? I was holding onto an unspoken assumption at the core of my beliefs. Without being conscious of it, my grades became the ultimate measure of my status. The academic culture was grooming me to be an achiever. I believed any sense of positive self-worth was equated with academic success. My status was ultimately dependent on my grades.
I was caught in a vicious cycle, striving to feel good about myself by achieving good grades, but falling short. It was as if I was assigning myself a ‘human worth ranking’ when I interpreted my grades. It was at exam time that I felt the pressure to perform the most, and that is when panic hit hardest.
1. I didn’t realize how much my grades were impacting my self-worth.
Like most students, I never questioned what impact my grades were having on my view of self. I never even questioned why I was equating my grades with my status. It had always been implied because of the culture of valuing achievement and ‘production’ I grew up in. Even if people would have told me that my ultimate worth was not in my grades, the strength of my implicit beliefs overpowered and only served to magnify the stress.
The way I was interpreting my grades directly impacted my self-worth. My unexamined assumptions kept me anxious and striving to prove myself. My emotions were constantly in flux, going up and down. Even beyond school and grades, this mentality set me up for a life in which I was constantly equating my worth with my performance.
2. I thought my grades were an accurate measurement of my value as a human being.
I assumed this belief by observing and imitating classroom dynamics all my life. Both teachers and peers conveyed affirmation and approval for students with good marks but not for those with poor ones.
The takeaway? Students with good grades are more valuable. It was assumed they would have the most career opportunities and success. They would have the prestigious positions and a superior income. A life filled with respect, adventure, physical comfort, and financial ease. Somehow exempt from human limitations and failures.
By default I attached my self-worth to my grades, but this made me vulnerable to the two facets of pride. I was either inflated when I got a good grade or deflated when I didn’t do as well.
3. I thought I was ultimately defined by my successes or failures
Without a robust God and grace-based self-worth, I bought into the belief that my academic success was paramount to defining who I was. Why? At the core of my being I ultimately longed for respect and status in my community: peers, teachers, and parents. But in comparison to my peers I felt my appearance, athletic ability, sense of humor, and social savvy fell far short. My only hope for obtaining respect, status, and a good career was getting good grades.
My grades needed to rank high among my peers in order to earn and keep their respect and my status. My anxiety about grades revealed that I wasn’t finding my self-worth in what God said about me. I was more concerned about what people thought of me than Jesus. I failed to see that only Jesus could ultimately fill my longings for respect and status.
Seeking respect and ultimate status from my grades caused me a lot of anxiety and panic. I want to save you this unnecessary pain. I want you to learn from my self-examination.
Now it seems obvious that the three false beliefs I held were only serving to make me miserable. If I could go back, I would tell myself that I needed to unlock and believe the truth of what God says about me and make that the basis of my self-worth.
As I learn to examine and turn from these false beliefs, I have chosen to define myself by what God says about me instead. Yet I still notice a stubborn resistance (pride) in me that refuses grace and cons me into thinking I can make myself worthy through success. But my failures are a constant opportunity for me to turn from self-reliance and find my worth in Jesus.
Read more about NEXT, Power to Change’s initiative to help Grade 12s connect to a faith based community in college or university.