The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Personal essay: Coping with perfectionism-driven anxiety and separating grades from self worth

5 min read

Anna Blake discusses the anxiety she has faced as a college student, and different ways to cope. | Unseen Studio,


Staff Writer

“It’s only the second week of school. How can you be stressed already?” My friend asked me this as I was eating lunch and staring into a void. I had spent the previous night tossing and turning, stressed over the large stack of readings I had to do for multiple classes, as well as the fact that I had to get up in a few short hours for a 9 a.m. class. 

Within the last year, I have come to realize that my desire to strive for academic validation has strongly impacted my mental health. Instead of realizing I was tired and needed a break, I would try to push through a long reading that I could barely understand with an exhausted brain. As I tried to complete my work through brute force, I inevitably would lose focus and become frustrated with myself that I couldn’t read an infinite amount of pages in one sitting and that it took me hours to read those pages. I would also start feeling guilty for doing things that were not school-related, such as watching an hour-long episode of a TV show. I recently started waking up in the middle of the night with my heart racing and my mind darting to all the things I have to do in the coming days. One of the reasons it took me so long to realize that my obsession with perfect grades was unhealthy was that I was so focused on pushing through my work that considering my mental health didn’t occur to me. 

I didn’t grow up thinking that I needed academic achievements to make my family proud, but the pressure I feel to succeed is something that I have grown to obsess over. Growing up, I was an average student, but when I got into high school and started getting mostly A’s, I realized that it made me feel good and that I want to continue to feel that validation from my grades.

My anxiety-filled nights are usually the product of having multiple assignments or readings due within the week and feeling like I don’t have enough time to complete them. As a quick clarification, I don’t spend every minute outside of the classroom doing school work; I work on campus, play on the club tennis team and relax by watching TV and spending time with my friends. While none of these things are particularly unique to me, as most of my friends also work and are involved with clubs and sports while being full-time students, my intense need to be perfect makes me feel like I’m an awful and lazy person for not being able to do it all. 

It’s not often that I get to the point where I am completely overwhelmed with anxiety,  but when I do, my brain tells me that I will never be successful in life and that my entire being will be demolished if I don’t turn in an assignment or do a reading. The long list of to-dos, coupled with my thoughts of failure, always lead to long weepy FaceTimes with my mom.

Once I get through the rough patch and my workload feels manageable again, I can start to rationalize my fears and convince myself that they will not manifest into reality. However, part of me immediately forgets any sort of struggle I experienced to succeed and the other part cannot fathom the idea of missing an assignment, which leads me to push myself too far and repeat the cycle. After many FaceTime calls with my mom, I’m able to push through my work and use the next few days to get past my feelings of anxiety and thoughts of failure—I forget they exist until the next wave hits. 

When I’m in between waves of anxiety, I can’t remember what it feels like to be drowning in work or how it feels to be woken up with my heart racing as a reaction to all the things on my to-do list. I continue on like it never happened and go back to enjoying tennis practice, working on campus and relaxing without feeling guilty. My feelings of being overwhelmed by schoolwork neutralize and I continue to complete my work to the best of my ability like I always do. 

As I am writing this, I recognize that grades are not everything, but that mindset changes when I head into busy weeks. When I am between the waves, I know that perfection is not realistic and that no one is perfect. I also recognize that college is not even a marker of success for many people, and there are other life experiences that indicate success . 

I’ve recently learned that if I get consumed by trying to get perfect grades I can miss the point of learning, which is to take in new knowledge, apply it and gain a better understanding of a subject. A big turning point in recognizing this was a long and deep talk with one of my friends who understands and has witnessed my experiences of academic anxiety. I asked how she deals with her stress when she has busy weeks and how she avoids letting it consume her. We talked about our approaches to work and she shared her method of creating a list of tasks and prioritizing them. Although looking at a long to-do list is usually the cause of my anxiety, the most important thing I gained from our conversation was to take breaks and prioritize my mental health. 

Last week, I was only able to complete two-thirds of my reading before class, and that was okay. I was mildly disappointed in myself for not getting to it all, but I was also able to get over it quickly because I didn’t beat myself up about it. I flipped my mindset by being glad that I was able to get some of it done rather than none of it. 

Another one of the things that has helped me the most has been going to club tennis. While it can be stressful to think about going to practice when I have a lot of work, I’m always glad when I go because I get to hang out with my friends and release a lot of stress. Another thing that helps me when I get stressed is remembering that long after I finish college, I will probably never think about a specific grade I got in any class. 

When I start to feel anxious about a busy week, I hope to look back on this and remember that grades in college aren’t the only way to be successful or fulfilled in life. I will always want to strive for academic achievements, but I am slowly starting to realize that my identity as a student should not be perfect grades, especially if it comes at the cost of my mental health.