Paris Andrew, TIP’s Director of Partnerships and Engagement, is here to help gifted students. She used to run the residential programming at TIP’s educational programs, and she is completing a PhD in related areas, so she knows what she’s talking about.
How can I not get so stressed out when I do something wrong or something like that?
I’m really stressed now. I have the end-of-the-year exams, geography bee, and my musical certification test. When I put it together with school, homework, and friends, everything seems to hate me. I don’t know what to start with. How do I balance everything and overcome my stress?
Dear Stress and Miss Busy,
Boy, do we feel your pain! And many of the other students reading this column will also know exactly how you feel. That’s because many academically talented kids put a lot of pressure on themselves (and sometimes, parents and teachers can as well!). They expect themselves to be perfect, they need to be great at everything they do, they often take on more work and activities than they really have time for, and they’re afraid to disappoint the people in their lives by making mistakes.
Here’s the thing: everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect. Repeat that as many times as it takes for you to cut yourself some slack and take a deep breath. Make it your mantra. A mantra is a saying or sound you repeat to yourself as you seek to relax or meditate. So memorize this mantra and say it to yourself often: Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect.
Now, let’s get down to some practical advice on giving yourself permission to be human. Let’s take the pressures we put on ourselves one by one and look into some ways to lessen their power:
When you expect yourself to be perfect
Striving for excellence is great! You should also try to do the best you can do in every situation. But expecting yourself to be perfect at everything you do? Not only is that impossible, it is self-defeating.
Trying to be perfect can cause you not to take certain academic risks, such as seeing how well you can do on an above-level test. It can cause you to stick only to the things you know or know how to do well—meaning you may never discover your true passion in life or new ways of having fun! Perfectionism also causes you to focus on your failures instead of celebrating your successes.
So start now. Accept that not being perfect is part of learning. Start giving yourself points for being brave when you take on something you’re not sure you can ace.
When you expect yourself to be great at everything you do
This is just applying perfectionism to the way you view yourself. Would you demand that your friends be perfect? I hope not, because you won’t have many friends if you do! Be your own friend. Give yourself permission to be bad at something. In fact, choose something you are terrible at, or that you think you would be terrible at, and do it anyway!
If you’re awful at singing, shut the bathroom door, hop in the shower, and belt out your favorite song. Let yourself have fun.
Can’t even draw a stick figure? Who cares?! Art is a form of expression and no one says you can’t color outside the lines or create a crazy mess that only you understand.
Give yourself permission to be bad at something and have fun while you are at it. Afraid to dance? Pull up some YouTube videos and practice along to the video in your room. (And if you can figure out how to moonwalk, please, please, please send us a video of you doing it!) But also see if can’t put your own spin on things and come up with a few signature dance moves of your own. That will help you understand that growing your abilities is far more important than being perfect at everything you do.
Taking on more than you can do
You are old enough now to understand that, to be your best, you need to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. But trying to do too much is a surefire way of depriving yourself of two very necessary things in life: getting enough rest and having fun! Don’t believe me? Just ask your dog! Do you have a dog or know someone with a dog? Look at that dog next time you see it. Sometimes they walk. Sometimes they play. But a whole lot of the time, they’re just hanging out and resting! Dogs understand the power of stillness. Of just being in the moment. Give yourself room to do the same thing. Build some downtime in your schedule to watch TV with friends or family, read a book, have a picnic, or hang out with friends without any plan in mind. You’d be amazed how much this refreshes your brain and leaves you ready to do even better when you get back to your schoolwork and other more planned activities. Now that I think about it, we’ve talked about how much dogs like to sleep before on this blog!
The best way to make sure you leave yourself downtime is to schedule it. Leave yourself an hour free before bedtime to do what you want. Give yourself an open morning or afternoon on the weekend. If that requires leaving some extracurricular activities behind, that’s okay. Choose the ones you enjoy the least and replace them with some free time instead. Free time gives you space to get to know yourself and to pay attention to your thoughts. In fact, meditation can help a lot when it comes to understanding the value of stillness and quiet. Here’s a good resource to get you started: https://www.verywellmind.com/relaxation-exercises-that-relieve-teens-stress-2608879. If you need more, try searching “relaxation techniques for teenagers who are stressed.” There are some great ideas out there to help you.
When others put pressure on you
This may be the hardest situation for you to deal with because it requires you talking to the adults in your life who are putting too much pressure on you. However, there’s just no other way around it. The good news is that once you open up to your parents or teacher, it gets easier the next time around. And you don’t even have to say that they are putting too much pressure on you at all. All you have to do is make them aware of your thoughts and feelings about your schoolwork, sports teams, and any other activities you are doing. Why is this important? It is important because being honest with them about your feelings—and giving them a chance to hear how you feel—is the first step toward having them recognize that they may be putting too much pressure on you.
A good time to bring up this topic is when they pick you up at an activity and you’re in the car with them. You might say, “Mom, I really enjoy soccer, but it’s taking up so much of my time that I’m exhausted and stressed all the time. I’m worried about my ability to keep up with schoolwork and my friends. I think we need to talk about cutting back.” Another good time might be when you show them your great report card. In that instance, let them know the personal price you paid to achieve those grades: “Mom and Dad, I know I got straight As but it just about killed me to get there because I’m doing so many other things besides schoolwork. Can we talk about cutting back some of my activities? I’m afraid I will burn out if I don’t.”
Remember: people can’t read your mind. And your parents and teachers care about you. Let them know how you feel, and put your well-being in their hands. I bet you will be pleasantly surprised at how they step up to help you take care of your physical and mental health.
Here are a few other things you can do to stop putting so much stress on yourself:
- Whenever you are disappointed in a grade or a sports score, ask yourself if this is because you expected yourself to be perfect and you weren’t. Then banish that perfectionism and repeat your mantra for being human: Everyone makes mistakes. No one is perfect.
- Practice accepting imperfection, not just in yourself but in other people as well. When you get older, you’ll recognize a curious thing about people: often, it’s their flaws that make them unique and interesting! Learn to accept that people are imperfect now and you’ll feel more connected to others your whole life.
- Give yourself credit for the effort and not the outcome. Do the same for others. Is there a kid on your sports team who is hopeless but tries really hard? Cheer them on when they try hard. Let them know you noticed when they did something better than before. Then give yourself the same kind of pep talk when you try your best. Remember: be your own friend.
- Practice tasks that can be done over and over to give yourself experience with what is called an iterative process. Often, those kinds of tasks give you a chance to improve just a little bit each time, which can teach you the power of effort over being perfect. Some things to consider: learning a card trick, learning a dance routine, or learning a new language.
- Look criticism right in the eye if it terrifies you and practice diffusing its power. Do this by asking your parents and teachers to give you constructive criticism, no matter how well you did, so that you can get used to hearing criticism without feeling judged and without making it into a bigger deal than it really is.
I am so happy that you recognize that you are stressed out now, when you’re still young, and that you are already looking for ways to handle it. Managing stress is a vital skill for your high school years, your college years, and for life beyond college. Remember that you’ll never be able to banish stress completely. There will always be times in life when you feel stressed. But you can put it in perspective and manage it well.
Recognizing it is your life is the first step toward doing just that. I wish you both the very best!
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