16 May Exams and the weight of expectation: it’s not yours, put it down!
In a conversation with a client approaching final exams at one of the country’s top Russell group universities, I realised once again how weight of expectation can appear to have enormous power over our thoughts and feelings.
An extremely able student – and I’m sure she’s not a alone – was referred for support, because she had got to the point where she’d decided she’d have to drop out, and not sit the exams. The pressure, stress and sheer exhaustion had just become too much. We explored the background to this situation, and it was clear that she’d been achieving good results, receiving really positive feedback from tutors and overall being pretty successful on the course. She’d done plenty of revision and was quite well-prepared. So why the melt-down now?
Perhaps it becomes clearer when we look into this young woman’s background. Originating from a remote area of the Scottish Highlands, not only was she the first person in her family to go to university (let alone THIS university!) she was the first from her entire village and local area. Everyone was watching her with interest and noting her every move. She is an extremely clever girl, as is self-evident, so they had high hopes for her achievement. So as time went on, and it came to the final test of her abilities…she felt the weight of expectation resting more and more heavily on her shoulders. So much so, that she felt she could not bear it…and the only way out was to leave the course, drop out, give up altogether.
What is the ‘weight of expectation’? It sounds and feels like a physical weight on our shoulders. It appears to be a burden that affects our ability to perform, our clarity of mind, our feelings of confidence (or lack of it!) But how does that work? Can our feelings really be influenced by what someone else (in this case 100s of miles away) is thinking? Is there some telepathic or telecommunications highway linking us to them, streaming their expectations into our brains? Of course not – so what is going on?
The ‘weight of expectation’ is a mental construct, created by us, moment to moment, through the power of thought.
Firstly, we cannot even be sure what other people are thinking – although sometimes we have a pretty clear indication from what they say. But even then, other people’s thoughts and expectations are not ours. We can decide to make up our own thinking about them, and take them on, which is what we often do. But we don’t have to. Other people’s disappointment, embarrassment, pain or even anger about what we do, is their own. We have no control over it, and it has no control over us. We may feel a certain way when they express those things, but these feelings are a result of OUR thinking about what they say, not the opinions themselves.
It often strikes me that, in the end, it always comes back to a feeling. ‘If I fail my exams, they will be gutted, then I will feel [ashamed/miserable/guilty/angry/whatever it is for you].’ And then? A feeling is just that – something we feel, the flip-side of the thinking we have around something – but not something intrinsically to be afraid of. If we can see that feeling for what it is, and as such, something that will pass, making way for another feeling, we don’t need to take it so seriously.
Allow others to carry their expectations – don’t feel you’ve got to share the burden. All you can do is live each moment – be it a moment of revision, relaxation, or writing an exam – as it comes, giving it your full and undivided attention, without the unnecessary thinking about others’ expectation cluttering your mind. Once our young student began to see that, and started to drop all this extra thinking, her mind began to clear, and she was just able to get on with what she had to do.
As Sydney Banks said ‘If the only thing people learned was not to be afraid of their experience, that alone would change the world.’
Or in the words of Nike ‘Just do it!’
Good luck in your exams. You’ll be OK – whatever happens.
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