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Advice for High Achievers as School Starts

When it comes to academic achievement, many high achievers run into an annoying paradox -- they are highly motivated to succeed, but the resulting anxiety and pressure actually decreases their motivation and concentration, and ultimately causes problems with achievement.
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School, bag, backpack.
School, bag, backpack.

It's that time of year when students start returning to high school or university, and I thought it might be useful to offer some advice to a particular group of students -- the perfectionist high achiever. I've worked with many in therapy over the years, and while a simple blog post won't cure readers of their ills, I hope what follows might be of some use to this group.

Much of psychology has an element of paradox built into it, such as trying to suppress an unwanted thought, which only makes the thought stronger. Paradoxes are fairly common among adolescents and young adults. They want to look good in clothes but only if it looks like they're not trying to look good. They need to be liked by other people, but say they don't care what other people think.

And when it comes to academic achievement, many high achievers run into an annoying paradox -- they are highly motivated to succeed, but the resulting anxiety and pressure actually decreases their motivation and concentration, and ultimately causes problems with achievement.

So here are a few things to consider for those worried, high achieving students who are struggling to balance their ambition with the limits of life and mental health.

Nerd Superstition

First, as I alluded to above -- too much anxiety and worry tends to interfere with performance. But so many high-achieving students have gotten excellent grades after worrying over past exams. The constant pairing of anxiety and good grades starts to become almost superstitious (I call it 'nerd superstition'). You worry, worry, worry -- then get an A. Worry, worry, worry -- A+. And so on. It's like a football player who has a lucky sock -- convinced that a crappy performance is imminent if he opts for a new one.

If you ask a high achiever what would happen if he or she didn't stress and worry about an exam, they are likely to reply, "I don't know, and I'm not taking the risk to find out." Stressing out and worrying are almost part of the preparation and studying process. It should not be.

Having some level of anxiety and worry is fine but only if it motivates action. The student whose anxiety is mild to moderate (2 to 6 out of 10) in terms of intensity is more likely to study and prepare. If the anxiety is high (7+ out of 10) they are less likely to study because it is hard to concentrate when anxiety is high, and we tend to avoid the very things that cause anxiety (in this case, the study material).

Therapy for worry often involves learning to categorize worries. If your worry involves something that you can affect, then label it "active" and take control (e.g. study). If your worry is such that nothing can be done to address it (e.g. "if I do poorly, will that mean I won't get into medical school?"), categorize it as "passive" or "useless" and let it go. There is a big difference between healthy anxiety that leads to change and action, and unhealthy anxiety that is passive and leaves you spinning your wheels, and so it is important to be able to distinguish the two.

I am Responsible for Everything

Another factor to consider is sense of responsibility. Some people believe that worrying and fretting over something important is a reflection of their character -- it is what responsible people do. This will sometimes lead to conflict in therapy -- a person wants to reduce their anxiety, but they must reduce their need to be accountable and responsible for everything.

For example, when high achievers do poorly on an exam or something else goes wrong in life, they almost always take full blame for the outcome. There are many factors that determine events in our lives, some of which are due to us, and many of which are not. If I could pie-chart the factors that determine a typical student's grades, it might include:

• Level of study (65 per cent)

• Life stress (8 per cent)

• Fatigue/energy at time of exam (7 per cent)

• Testing taking skill (ex: strategies for how to complete a multiple choice exam) 5 per cent

• Anxiety and stress management ability (15 per cent)

Someone with this profile will be impacted by stressors at the time of the exam (e.g. breakup; time demands), problems with insomnia, and skills that are not yet fully developed (e.g. test-taking and stress management). A large portion of the outcome for an exam is determined by the person, but not all of it is fully within their control.

If something is not within your control, then your sense of responsibility should be changed accordingly. I don't care how intelligent you are, your performance will suffer when stress, energy, sleep, and/or mental health are causing problems.

Your brain is like a computer, and things like stress, anxiety and fatigue reduce its processing capacity. This is like having 6 GB of RAM and having it cut to 3 GB because too many programs are running at once.

It is expected that people take responsibility for things that are mostly within their control, but taking responsibility for things beyond your full control, and believing you should have control over everything, is foolhardy and unhealthy.

Don't Aim for A Hole-In-One

Finally, set goals that are flexible and within a range. Don't aim to get a 90/100 on an exam -- expect to get a grade somewhere in the range between 85 and 95. Allow for wiggle room with outcomes, which will make reaching goals simpler and more realistic. High achievers who fall short of a specific grade (e.g. 90) tend to have an all-or-nothing response -- "You either meet your goal or you fail." This is counter-productive thinking that causes needless self-criticism.

There is nothing wrong with holding high standards, as long as the standard is reasonable and flexible. Although some students do struggle with academic performance, most of the stress experienced by high achievers is due to worry about events that never occur (actual failure) and excessive self-criticism for very good performances. There is a tragedy to this fact, and it needs to change.

So, trust your abilities and work hard...and let the masochistic stress go.


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