20 June 2015

The Pressure Perspective

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A week ago, something short of miraculous occurred. I woke up and didn't feel sick to my stomach. The context: Results day. Up until seven days ago, it has always been penned in my subconscious calendar as Doomsday, alongside trips to the dentist and the Game of Thrones series finale - what am I  supposed to do with my life now? (I'm being deadly serious, any TV suggestions would be much appreciated!)

As a lifelong perfectionist, all things exam-related leaves me fraught to say the least. I was the eleven-year-old panicking through past papers, right to the final percentages, all the while my sister was sitting GCSEs. Somehow I don't think memorising "uno, dos, tres" required quite the level of proficiency as her own Spanish oral, while at my age a bunsen burner pretty much could light itself. Still, I approached it as if my whole livelihood was at stake. 

        Source: tumblr.com
For as long as I can remember, I have heaped pressure on myself. Yet it reached a climax in the last three years of school; conveniently the period of public exams. During my GCSEs, I recall taking long walks simply to stop my legs and arms from jittering when I tried to sit down. 

After my A Level English exam I had what I now recognise as a panic attack, while standing in the middle of Starbucks.  Having barely lingered after the paper, for fear that hearing others talk would heighten my anxiety, I sobbed all the way down into town, utterly convinced I had messed up; that this one exam signalled the end of my University dream.

Turn away from Tunnel Vision

It all came back to Exeter - in that moment, it was the centre of my world. Whole in many ways this helped me, particularly in motivating my recovery, it did lead to a complete lack of perspective.

I have quite an inflexible personality, which stems back to perfectionism; the inability to do an Elsa… if only Frozen had been released many years ago, though on second thoughts they might not have invented Olaf, which would have been a travesty.

The world will always have more sandwiches - just ask Joey.
My early obsessions were often harmless, from the six-year old fossil hunter, to the six-going-on-sixteen (plus four and three quarters…) Harry Potter reader. Yet this single-mindedness can be more intense. Case in point being Exeter, and before that the "Oxbridge Dream" I have discussed in earlier posts. Having done everything I could to try and improve my chances, ultimately it did not even amount to an application. My health was too compromised; what I needed was to challenge this inherent drive, and channel it into recovery.

By and large, I did this. I changed tact, yet I did succumb to my default 'fixation strategy'. Along with the obvious reasons of family, my gorgeous new puppy and longer-term goals, Exeter topped the list of "things to recover for". As A Levels drew closer and I confirmed my offer, it became even more tangible - but not fixed. I  still placing one solitary egg in a fraying basket.

Seeing is Believing

Back to that English exam I felt so distraught over … I got full marks. To this day I am convinced there was a mistake, but it seems the only questionable part of my performance that day was judgement. I suppose I wasn't winning any prizes for calmness, either. Nevertheless, my response was my reality. I was utterly convinced I had messed up, and all summer could not for the life of me let it go. I couldn't change perspective.

source: mememaker.net

In that present moment, losing Exeter seemed as factual as the final grade declaring otherwise. In my mind, the cement surrounding the foundation stone of my recovery was melting fast… and it very well could have.  University joined the long list of unpredictability, from diabetes, university applications, to the seemingly inconsequential things. It is a reminder of how fleeting external things are, and thus no solid basis for true happiness; just as a painted smile cannot hold the same significance. 

Widening Horizons

The true irony was that, in the end,  the University pipe-dream itself became engulfed by pressure. It wasn't pressure on me though. It was pressure exerted by me, on this beautiful place, to be the pipe-dream I had pictured. University life has been, in many respects, wonderful, but the "time of your life" mantra can distort. However, it helped me to realise something important; not even the dream board is perfect. All that energy I threw into obtaining this goal, and for what? Exeter is amazing, but it is not some deity I needed to compromise my whole life for. Nor are exams. 
Shifting perspectives                                          Quoted by CS Lewis

Extra curricular involvement at University - Exeposé - has been integral to my change in perspective. Happiness can exist outside of academia too! Last term introduced the Exeposé Press Day, which though stressful was accompanied by an incredible sense of pride. I am currently focused on writing, from my little home here to the wider world web. On the day of results, Whittard retweeted my Iced Tea post. Confession: this almost excited me more than the Firsts for two papers… there's a first!

In the past two years I have gained the pressure perspective - experienced responsibilities and fulfilment outside of those percentages and letters. I have also ceased to place everything on a pedestal, with myself below. I did not get to Exeter solely on grades. That English paper was Year 7 Spanish, compared to the personal challenges I faced that year.

The Simple Things

After a hectic year with health, I was grateful to simply be sitting my exams last month. Moreover, though usually one to become so flustered right before, I walked into each one of three with this unfamiliar sense of calm. My strategy? As simple as a series of three small affirmations:
  • Writing: You are writing on a topic you feel passionately about. 
  • Exeter: are in a place you love. 
  • Literature: You are studying the subject you love.
  • Life: "you're not a sad story, you're alive" - had to get Chbosky in here somewhere! 
To quote the 'convenient' acronym and JK Rowling: all was well. Sitting in that exam hall, I didn't over-think it. Fittingly, the topic  I wrote on for Romanticism was Happiness.

This revelation is part of a new leaf. Having spent far too long buried under the pressure weight, I am trying to set the self-care pages free. From old stories (hi Matilda) and room rearranging, to coffee drinking and smelling the daisies (I've never understood the rose hype, plus Millie does love her daisy-chain crowns) it's a summer for the simple things

In any pressure situation, you can always find a perspective. Perspective is like my favourite "silver linings" analogy; it makes the air a bit less stifling. It allows you to step back and breathe, wear a daisy crown, build a snowman - it's entirely your call! After all, it is in the nature of happiness to be subjective. It cannot be reduced to a single letter on a page.

How do you cope under pressure? 

How do you rationalise bad feelings after exams?

What plans do you have to keep you distracted from results? 


1 comment

  1. I don’t know how should I give you thanks! I am totally stunned by your article. You saved my time. Thanks a million for sharing this article.


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