“Don’t be too hard on yourself”

I’ve returned to school after a lengthy study leave, only to realise during my first class that coming back means that it is results time. Ok, so this isn’t entirely true – I realised that whilst lying awake many nights before, but it didn’t quite hit home until that script was sitting on the desk in front of me. As always, I take one glance at the numbers on the top before flipping the paper face down as if they burn my eyes, and sometimes it feels like they almost do, my heart pounds and my eyes prick with tears. I glance around the room, making sure nobody has seen anything. But surely the end of prelims means, for the time being, that the pressure is gone? Oh no, not even close – not for me at least.

In my head, the pressure has only increased – it’s when the results come in that I begin to truly panic: what if I haven’t done well? what if I’ve let everybody down? what if I didn’t get a high enough mark? what if so-and-so has beaten me? Being simultaneously the stereotypical ‘Smart Asian’ and that kid, there is a certain rather uncomfortable pressure to keep up appearances. Add a generous helping of my own perfectionism and a dollop of self-loathing and scathing criticism and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s fair to say that I don’t cope with pressure very well.

The numbers on the front of the script are sharp and angular, I read 121/130 as 9 mistakes, frantically scanning the pages for my mishaps. I curse myself both for my foolish mistakes and for my lack of knowledge – I need to be more careful, I should have studied harder. These mistakes are all noted down, either mentally or written a little too hard in ink on that green sheet. I always over fill the comments box. Ninety-three percent is “good”, but is it really good enough? Could I have got a better mark? Almost certainly. There is always Room For Improvement.

My teacher is looking over my shoulder at the sheet in front of me. I have tried to hide my disappointment, but I can never quite manage to conceal it entirely. He fills in the “teacher comment” box and returns the piece of paper to me, looking me in the eye and telling me “I mean it”.

His comment does not read, “excellent” or “well done” or “fantastic” or “keep it up”. Instead it reads “don’t be too hard on yourself”. I bite my lip and blink back the burning tears that threaten to spill out.

A few days and too many thoughts later, I am beginning to understand why those words have haunted me so much. Perhaps it is the realisation that I am extremely cruel to myself, that I am my own worst enemy and the one that pushes me to the edge, although I’ve always known that. Perhaps it is the fact that as much as I hide it, people are noticing and picking up on this psychological bullying that I inflict on myself. Perhaps it is just the kindness and concern and reassurance – the precise things I tell myself I don’t deserve.

Perhaps it’s because deep down I know that he’s right, and I ought to treat myself better. Maybe it’s time to stop caring so much about what other people think, and stop giving myself such a hard time when I let myself down. A part of me knows that this is what I need to do, but a larger part of me is not ready to take my foot off the accelerator, even though I am headed straight towards a wall.

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