Paffenbarger: Prioritizing Mental Health

by Jennifer Paffenbarger | 10/28/15 7:30pm

While studying abroad in Japan this past summer, I got a B in every single class — and it was not a tragedy. This may come as a bit of a surprise considering that much of Dartmouth is full of overachievers. Most students here somehow manage to be less competitive with each other than our often equally overachieving counterparts at other Ivy League institutions. Unfortunately, however, this does not stop most of us from competing with ourselves, which can have myriad unintended and potentially dangerous consequences on students’ mental health.

Prior to matriculation, many Dartmouth students had never gotten a grade lower than an A in their lives. I personally know people who got their first Bs in their first-year seminars and were extremely displeased with themselves. A simple fact often seems to be a stunning revelation for many Ivy League students: Grades other than As are O.K. — even natural — to receive. I feel that many already know this on an intellectual level, and do not think any less of their friends who get such grades — but, somehow, it is still hard to accept lower grades when you receive them. I, for instance, worry what my parents will think. Others might worry about their grade point averages dropping too low to qualify for certain academic activities or post-graduate schools.

Dwelling on grades too much, particularly when they are already in the past, can cause a lot of unnecessary stress that often does more harm than good — and worst of all is when the over-thinking and stress begin to impact mental health, causing feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem or even depression. In my experience, the best way to handle the problem is by separating the practical concerns from the personal ones. Graduating with top honors, for example, would be a practical success, as you would be much likelier to find a well-paying job or be accepted into a high-ranked graduate program — but not doing so does not reflect on your character or personal worth. Moreover, resenting, judging and criticizing yourself will only distract you and bring you even further away from your goals.

This leads me to ask — what makes a C in organic chemistry more acceptable than a C in, for example, “Writing 5”? Is it because almost everyone else in organic chemistry is also getting a C, or it is because you know you did your best even if the grade is low? While I would hope that the answer is the latter, unfortunately, I suspect that it is often the former. Everything is relative, and when others are doing as well as you, it is easy to know what the standard is. But what about when you do not know how other people are doing — or, worse, when they all seem to be doing better than you? That is when it is easy to fall into a pit of self-judgement and self-loathing — and this is not exclusive to grades. Artists judge each other against other artists, and writers against other writers, far too often for their own good. Perhaps this inspires some people to do better — but for many, such comparisons can be very intimidating and discouraging.

Shifting your frame of comparison is a far better strategy. Rather than comparing your grades to someone else’s, compare them to your past results. Better yet, do not compare your grades — which are merely someone else’s assessment of your progress — but instead, compare the knowledge itself and the skills you have learned. At the end of a class, if you feel that you know a good deal more or can write better than when you started, then regardless of what letter grade a teacher gives you for your work, it has been a success — you have been a success.

Of course, this is easier said than done. It is understandably difficult to avoid judging yourself or your work, especially in a society that seems to revolve around numerical measurements of worth. A moderate dosage of judgment is healthy since, without it, you will never learn or improve. But if you judge yourself in a way that is kinder and more understanding, this healthier mind-set might just help you to climb out of the pit of grade angst and self-loathing to find freedom and — dare I say it — happiness.