In December, after going through 18 consecutive years of school, I graduated from university. For my whole life, I have poured my heart and soul into academia, trying to fit into the world's definition of academic excellence. It was exhausting, sure, but it wasn't until I graduated that I realized how much of my identity I derived from being a student.
In the years leading up to this moment, I thought graduation would come with feelings of relief. Being in school brought me joy, but it also came with stressors and took up the majority of my energy.
I thought I would have the time to do everything I had dreamt of before but couldn’t do, simply because school was always my priority. To be fair, this was naive, and I am still coming to terms with the fact that my journey of self-discovery is much more complicated than I expected.
Over the past few months, I have acknowledged that even though graduating was something I was looking forward to, school was what I wanted to do, and maybe I was not ready to move on. I have come to recognize the fact that I depended upon it to give me purpose and validation. Leaving school (even if it is only temporary) also meant losing this direction, and that is something I am still coming to terms with today.
Growing up, I was never the funniest or most athletic friend—I was labeled the “smart friend.” Through occupying this role, without even knowing it, academia became my source of validation. I would obsess over every detail on my projects and after I handed in my work I would stress until I got my mark back.
If there wasn’t a gold star on the top of the paper or the mark was not an A, I felt like I had not only failed academically, but that I failed as a person as well.
Exceeding academically and being rewarded for my work was how I learned to measure my worth.
So naturally, I thought that sending in my last essay and receiving my last grade would be the end of this era. But I quickly learned that 18 years of conditioning cannot be undone in one moment.
When I think about what academic validation has meant to me, I'm met with a very interesting paradox.
On one hand, I feel the desire for validation has motivated me to achieve great academic success, which I’m very proud of. It pushed me to work hard at school and achieve my goals in the classroom, and encouraged me to apply this perseverance to my interests beyond as well.
However, on the other hand, I realize that this all came at a price.
Constantly convincing myself that the negative impact academic validation had upon my mental health was “worth it” because it led to success on paper only feeds into the myth that we are defined by the value others assign to our productivity.
It contributes to the narrative that it is okay to put your well-being second and the expectations of others first.
Basing our worth upon external validation can quickly spiral into an unhealthy cycle—one that breeds overproduction, burnout, and the seemingly endless pursuit of approval.
This toxic cycle forces us to prioritize the end result above all else.
It often prevents us from enjoying the journey of learning and working towards a goal, while limiting the possibility of exploring our true interests and dismissing the importance of rest, creativity, and reflection along the way.
When the constant pressure to perform and create based upon pleasing others came at the expense of my well-being and personal desires, I realized how I lost the ability to determine for myself if the work I produce is “good enough,” and the cycle of dependency and people-pleasing continues.
As I have learned recently, relying upon good grades and positive reinforcement from others as our main, or only, source of affirmation creates this harmful cycle, especially as that positive feedback will inevitably go away at some point in your life.
So yes, while we do work and receive applause for it, it is also okay to sometimes just exist as we are, and that is enough.
We often lose sight of the fact that we, simply as being humans, hold importance. Requiring the affirmation of others to confirm what we should already know to be true is draining, especially when we should not have to constantly be working and creating to have value in this world.
As I navigate this new stage of life, I look back at what I have accomplished academically with pride, but also honour the importance of learning to validate myself not based on what grade others have given me or the value they have placed upon my ability, but for the learning and growth I have undergone.
So, while leaving this stage of my life behind may have not been the cathartic experience I was hoping for, it gave more to me in a subtle way. It granted me the opportunity to take pride in who I am, simply for being me and continuing to exist in the best way I can.
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