How often do you find yourself saying or thinking ‘I must get it right’? These five little words can pop up like gremlins at the most inconvenient times, adding a generous dose of extra pressure to whatever task you are currently applying yourself to.
It is an internal rule that I often hear from my midlife clients. Wanting to do a good job and work to a high standard is all perfectly fine but the feelings expressed behind those words are anxiety, a lack of trust in their abilities and sometimes panic. This shows up with many accomplished women who have proved time and again, how capable they are.
Trying to locate the source of this unhelpful thinking it became clear that there was a common denominator - school.
Despite school being many years ago the pressure to ‘get it right’ was just as much alive today as it was back then. Triggers could range from having their work reviewed, dealing with authority figures, giving presentations to retraining and more.
The Power of School Experiences
We spend crucial developmental years in school and during term time we see more of our classmates and teachers than we do our families. The success and failure we derive through academic work and peer relationships gives shape and form to our identity, our core sense of who we are and how we are valued in the world.
One emotion frequently associated with school is fear. It wasn’t until 1986 that corporal punishment was ruled out in English state schools, and it continued in the independent sector until 1999, in Scotland until 2000 and Northern Ireland until 2003.
In my primary school rumours abounded about the basting spoon which was used on naughty children. The instrument of terror was said to be a wooden spoon with a picture of a daisy on the reverse. Fortunately, I never saw it but an image of it remains strong in my mind.
If physical punishment, or the threat of it, wasn’t bad enough there were multiple ways in which you could be shamed and humiliated. A wrong answer might result in you being teased, laughed at, told to stand in the corner or to wear the dunce’s hat.
Shame is a distressing and painful emotion to experience as it strips us of our dignity, erodes our self-esteem and sews the seeds of self-loathing. By its very nature shame is difficult to talk about so we may isolate ourselves and never deal with the difficult feelings.
One of the messages drummed into me at secondary school was that if you didn’t do well at school you wouldn’t get a good job and your future would be bleak. Failure at school could make you a failure for life! Any bad grades could feel incredibly damning.
Add to that the binary nature of school assessments. If you weren’t right you were wrong, there is little room for nuance particularly in the early years. This kind of teaching gives little recognition to all our other qualities – whether it is being practical, imaginative, caring, enthusiastic, adventurous, playful, athletic, spiritual, humorous, resilient, passionate or resourceful.
School came with pressures but we coped in the best ways we could at the time. You might expect that so-called ‘good’ students would be spared much of this anxiety, but this isn’t necessarily the case as maintaining this standard could require persistent effort.
Failures and disappointments can motivate us to try harder, but equally we may choose to rebel, give up, over-work or blame others. We seek alternative routes to self-worth.
As children many of us go through school without reflecting on these experiences, it is simply our version of normal, and we may lack the ability to understand the impact at the time. The unexamined feelings and beliefs live within us, only to resurface at later dates and in unhelpful ways.
So, what can we do now?
Become aware. The first step to making a change is to notice when the feelings arise. Try to acknowledge them and be curious without getting caught up in them.
Use your agency. At school you have limited options but you have more power and choice as an adult. Remind yourself that you can take action to help yourself.
Not all anxiety is bad. Anxiety can be a warning that something isn’t quite right; maybe you don’t have enough time or you lack clear instructions and there is a real risk of something going wrong. This is helpful to know because you can then address the issues. However, stress and anxiety can also be amplified by critical thinking such as ‘I’m going to mess this up.’ If you find yourself feeling anxious take a few deep breaths and then evaluate what is causing it, your critical inner voice or a problem that can be managed.
Use self-compassion. The antidote to shame is compassion. If you are being harsh on yourself try to be kinder. If this is difficult try to imagine what you would say to a good friend who felt like you. Recognise when you are struggling and remind yourself that being good enough is enough. Learn to talk to yourself in a supportive way.
Draw on your successes.
Remind yourself of the things you have achieved that you are proud of – when you were brave, took a risk, produced a great piece of work, inspired loyalty from your team. Be specific about what you did well and allow yourself to feel good about it. Use it to remind yourself that you can trust yourself.
Reflect on your school experiences, write about it or talk to a friend
Here are some questions to get started:
Did you feel under pressure to get things right?
How did you cope with that? Did you talk to anyone about it at the time?
Is there a particularly painful experience that stayed with you? Describe it.
Now picture your younger self. What would you say to help and reassure them?