When kids at Phil Stamper’s middle school got in trouble, their names were written on the chalkboard. Stamper aimed to never have his name go up there — his mom was the school janitor, and she would be the one to erase it at the end of the day.
His relationship with school was paradoxical at times: He understood the value of studying and believed working hard could set him up for success outside of his small hometown near Dayton, Ohio. But he also felt a self-induced pressure to succeed.
“It was always like, ‘you’re destined for greatness,’ and I always felt that pressure,” recalls Stamper, now 33 and the author of several YA fiction novels. “As you keep going, it gets harder and harder. It’s not that I couldn’t keep up, but … it’s really hard to continue being a prodigy when you’re being told that you are, even though I don’t think I actually was.”
There’s a joke circulating online that “anyone who was a ‘pleasure to have in class’ has an anxiety disorder now.” But in humor lies truth. It is oversimplified to say being a teacher’s pet leads to mental health struggles, but there is a correlation between young people putting pressure on themselves to overachieve academically and later experiencing burnout.
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Academic pressures for some students can sometimes be attributed to a need to people-please, while others may have trouble connecting with peers or they find self-worth through academic success, says Melissa Whitson, a licensed clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of New Haven.
But there’s a danger to attaching an external factor like academic success to your personality, because eventually a time will come when students don’t perform the way they feel they should.
“It goes hand in hand with people-pleasing, because if you’re not performing at the level that people expect you to (or) even the lines that you expect to, that’s part of your identity,” says Whitson. “If you’re struggling with that, that’s going to cause anyone anxiety and worries about ‘Well, who am I? Are people are not going to like me if I’m not good at this?’”
For some students, the “teacher’s pet” mentality comes into play later in their education. Jasmine Williams’ family would laugh at the idea that their daughter was an overachiever in grade school — parent-teacher conferences usually consisted of conversations about her being a distraction to others during class.
But things changed in college: Williams was mourning several deaths in the family, and needed an outlet to feel like she was in control. So she focused on school.
“Years later, it became apparent to me that the reason I probably had that big push to go above and beyond academically was really because I was struggling in my personal life,” says Williams, a public speaker. “My life felt very chaotic. In an attempt to feel better about that chaos, I was looking for something that could give me a sense of control. School and academics… had that sense of structure I was really craving that I wasn’t getting from my personal life.”
Experts say this isn’t uncommon: Studies have shown links between traumatic events and perfectionism tendencies. But using an external factor — even a seemingly positive one like academic success — to numb pain from loss or social exclusion is “built on quicksand,” Whitson says.
“You’re never going to distract yourself out of adversity,” Williams says. “You can only address the pain when you let yourself feel it. And that’s when you begin to heal.”
What is burnout, and how can adults address it?
The World Health Organization defines burnout as a form of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Symptoms can include feeling depleted energy, cynicism about one’s work and reduced efficacy.
“I feel like I can’t get out of bed for days — like I don’t want to get up, I don’t want to move. That’s my life with burnout,” says Stamper, who has since found positive ways to cope with feeling overwhelmed with school or work.
The danger of focusing on one external source for internal validation means one’s sense of self can quickly crumble when something doesn’t go according to plan, Whitson notes. “We see people just kind of be like, ‘I’m not going to do this anymore.’ ”
But the adults who relate to that “pleasure to have in class” tweet need not worry: There’s still time and space to recover from feelings of over-working.
After reaching a breaking point like this, experts recommend taking a step back and asking for help. Stamper notes finding a therapist and psychiatrist was crucial in his journey to properly address the issues that had been “building up” through high school and college.
How can students prevent burnout?
Stamper is thankful his parents were supportive, not pushy, when it came to his academic success. But in hindsight, he wishes he had asked for help earlier when he started noticing signs of anxiety.
“They were able to say, ‘This is not a big deal and this isn’t the end of the world, people make mistakes,’ and all those right things, but I would build it up so much in my head that I got to a breaking point before we even got to that,” he said.
The way parents, caregivers and teachers respond to a student sets important precedent, Whitson notes. Are the adults in their lives teaching them that a certain type of behavior or academic outcome should elicit a certain type of reaction? If so, it can set the student up to believe that they need to repeat that outcome in order to feel loved or wanted.
“What we can do is make sure that we’re not focusing on how it makes us feel when they do certain things,” Whitson says. “It’s more about focusing on the effort, rather than the performance — highlighting those things and being proud of those things, rather than the ultimate performance. That will (teach the student) ‘Well if I struggle, I’m still trying hard.’ And so it’s more about the effort or hard work or things like that, than it is about what the outcome is.”
When Williams works with students, she emphasizes the importance of practicing self-care and prioritizing tasks: “When we don’t have clear priorities, everything feels like the biggest priority,” she notes.
Several characters in Stamper’s novels deal with mental health issues. To Stamper, it was a way of speaking his struggles with anxiety and school performance into existence so he could begin dealing with them.
“Normalizing it was taking a huge first step,” he says. “Putting it out there is what helps me avoid burnout.”