How much is too much? Rachel Simmons explains academic stress

Photo courtesy of girlsleadership.org ||  Rachel Simmons is trying to help Smith students practice self-compassion in the face of growing academic intensity. 

Photo courtesy of girlsleadership.org || Rachel Simmons is trying to help Smith students practice self-compassion in the face of growing academic intensity. 

Emma Kemp ‘20
Contributing Writer

Matilda LaBranche ’21 began planning for college her first day of high school. “I came from a college prep school where your self-worth was measured by your grades,” she said. 

From a young age, many young people are programmed to think that their academic performance defines them. Growing academic intensity inspired New York Times bestselling author Rachel Simmons to investigate how to overcome the ramifications of academic pressures.

Simmons introduced self-compassion, a practice of self-care and self-empathy, in a September talk at the Campus Center Carroll Room. Students and professors attended the lunchtime event seated at round tables.

Maya Salvio ’18 said her anxiety about succeeding spurs from the desire to be enough. “What does it mean to be enough? Sometimes my professors determine enough, sometimes my parents determine enough,” she explained.

At her talk, Simmons said self-compassion is a practice which helps people acknowledge their self-worth, even in the face of failure. 

“Aspirational young people put themselves under a lot of pressure,” said Simmons. “They are achieving, but at what price and is it worth it?”

In LaBranche’s high school, there were two suicide attempts, during her four years, as a result of academic stress and countless nervous breakdowns. Reports like this are becoming more prevalent across the country.

Simmons worries about the high expectations and intense pressures on Smith College students prompted her to bring self-compassion to the community.

Salvio explained how academic pressure shows itself at Smith College. “Students think that, ‘I need to have a major, have a minor, have a concentration, be an amazing Res Life [staff member], take care of myself and get enough sleep,’” she said.

Simmons taught her audience three steps to achieving self-compassion. The first step is accepting one’s feelings without judgement.

Next, shut down the inner critic, a surprisingly difficult act, according to Simmons.

“We’re often inclined to be meaner to ourselves than we would be to anyone else,” Simmons said. 

The last step is recognizing that there are others in the world struggling with the same problem.

This can be challenging, Simmons said, when people claim they are the only one struggling with their issue: they can convince themselves that it is impossible for anyone else to understand it.

A mindset like this can isolate people, said Simmons. She explained that there is comfort in accepting that others in the world have been faced with similar difficulties.

For many, the search for perfectionism serves as a motivator, one which has produced results. The average high school GPA of the incoming class of 2016 at Smith College was a perfect 4.0, up from the class of 2015’s nearly-perfect 3.94.

What do these students sacrifice in return? According to the 2016 UCLA Freshman Survey, 42.1 percent of students at private colleges reported feeling overwhelmed by academics. This percentage increased more than 5 percent from 2015’s survey.

“Academics can get in the way of taking care of myself,” said art history major Sophie Richard ’20 at the event.

Rates of depression also showed significant growth from 2015 to 2016. The data suggest that people are sacrificing their mental health striving for perfection. 

Dean of the Faculty Patricia DiBartolo said she has worked with students afflicted with academic anxiety. “I’ve had students who have had to go on academic probation and/or leave because it has been so bad.”

DiBartolo adds that perfectionism does not stop with doing an assignment perfectly: perfectionists want to be perfect at everything and make it look effortless.

But many students fear that, without setting the high expectation of perfection, their performance will not be as strong.

LaBranche acknowledges that she is critical of herself. “Not because I don’t like myself,” she said. “But because I feel like being critical gives me the pressure needed to do the things that I want to do.”

Simmons said that those who practice self-compassion are statistically just as likely to do well as those who are hard on themselves. The difference is those who practice self-compassion are more self-reflective and balanced than their critical counterparts.

English and American Studies Professor Floyd Cheung has begun to implement self-compassion into his classroom. “I’d like to to normalize the idea that we’re often falling short when we’re learning something new and hard,” he said.

 

While seeking perfection may motivate some, it is impossible for anyone to keep up with relentless perfection. With such high expectations, mental, physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion is inevitable.

Some perfectionists, as DiBartolo said, face burnout while still in college. Others struggle from it later in life. Simmons herself recounted how she turned down a Rhodes Scholarship as a result of academic burnout.

Perfectionism emerged as a result of the increased intensity of the college application process, Simmons said. This process increased feelings of inadequacy among college students.

“Students [in my high school] were expected to go to really competitive colleges because of schools students had gone to in the past,” LaBranche said.

 

The college process creates the idea that students are only worthy when they succeed, Simmons elaborated. “College applications send the message to be amazing at everything you do. People are made to feel like they’re not enough.”

According to Simmons, extreme academic pressure and feelings of inadequacy can quickly digress, letting a person’s fears get out of hand. It may start with, ‘I’m going to fail this test’ but can end with, ‘I’m going to flunk out of college and live in my parent’s basement.’

Agus Bozzano ’21 looks at failure in a different way. “If I make a mistake, I’m actually learning. If I make a mistake, I’m learning more than if I hadn’t made it,“ she said.

Practicing self-compassion helps people take more risks because it sets a precedent for self-acceptance no matter the outcome, Simmons said.

DiBartolo said experiencing failure helps reduce people’s fear of it. “It’s okay to take risks and try your hardest even if you can’t control the outcome.” Experiencing failure helps people see that the world does not implode when they make an error. In fact, it can amplify the learning process.

Simmons closed by informing her audience that, “True success comes when you acknowledge that you are a flawed person; when you acknowledge that you’re enough.”