Youth Culture   /   Spring 2009   /    Essays

Adolescents and the Pathologies of the Achieving Self

Joseph E. Davis

German package of Ritalin. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Growing up, I’ve always had a lot of pressure to do well in school and things like that and be like—you know how your parents always want you to be better than them?… It’s just like so much pressure, and I think that’s a lot of it, that’s why I get really nervous speaking in front of people or doi…projects when the grade is dependent on them or things like that. That always makes me nervous because maybe I’m not going to do as [well]…and then it’s going to mess [up] my grades, and then I’m not going to be able to be this person I’m supposed to be.
—Sarah, college freshman, age 19


Young people like Sarah, from well-to-do suburban families, live in a world of high expectations that often includes enormous pressures to be successful.11xI have changed the names of my interviewees and any other details necessary to protect their anonymity. Like many of her classmates at the very competitive college where she is now a freshman, she has long felt that she needs to “get straight A’s,” “do everything perfectly,” and have just the right, outgoing personality. Part of the performance pressure comes from her family. Her parents have high standards, and her father sometimes states them in no uncertain terms. The weight of responsibility, however, according to Sarah, arises from her parents’ hopes for her. “They just hope,” she says, “for better for you and for you to be all you can be.” Her mother, professionally quite successful, “never has directly told me I have to be this person, but it’s just like I think I definitely just look at her and I’m like, oh my gosh…. How am I not doing as well as her?” Additional pressures to perform—to be “this person”—come from the school environment, which Sarah characterizes as a “ruthless competition” both socially and academically, from her status-conscious friends, and from the foreboding sense that “everything I’m doing now is going to determine my life.” Trying to live up to expectations is a constant source of stress.

Sarah was one of two dozen college students, aged 18–22, we interviewed as part of my larger study on the use of psychoactive medications to deal with everyday life problems. More than half of these young people were taking a medication for problems with anxiety, sadness, and distractibility, many since high school. The rest of the students, describing very similar problems as the medication-takers, were coping in other ways. Sarah was in the latter category. As early as middle school, her mother took her to see a therapist because she was “nervous and anxious about things.” Although the subject of medication was discussed, neither Sarah nor her mother thought it necessary. Sarah still doesn’t. Compared to those taking medication, Sarah, like others in the non-medication group, is more likely to draw distinctions between external pressures and her own sense of how she is internally constituted. In reflecting on the causes of her nervousness and anxiety, she points to the expectations and competitiveness of her social environment. At the same time, she also recognizes that she has, at least in part, internalized the expectations. She does not believe that it is possible for her “to do everything that my parents want—or my father wants me to do,” yet “even though I think I’m not able to do it, it’s like I’m still going to keep pushing myself.” She knows she shouldn’t let “other people’s pressures become a big issue” for her, that she “can’t do everything perfectly,” but she feels as if she has to “do it perfectly.” So she worries not just that underperformance will let others down but also that she is failing in important ways to reach her own “full potential.”

All the striving comes at a cost. The gap between lived experience and self-image is a source of pain. “And every single time I feel it,” Sarah states, “it just puts me down more.” She experiences intense anxiety around exams and presentations, discomfort in many social situations, and general feelings of inadequacy. Ashamed of her nervousness about school performance and unwilling to appear weak, she hides her feelings from both her family and her friends. She worries that even her close friends might “judge me and think I’m weird or something.” When friends notice that she is on edge, she feels compelled to act like nothing is wrong and tries “extra hard” to hide her nervousness. This isolation also contributes to Sarah’s conviction that her struggles are somehow unique, that something “deeper in myself,” and not just external pressures, is at root. Sarah believes that “a lot of people have pressures from their parents and from society and stuff like that, but I just don’t think they react to it the same way that I do, or with so much intensity.” She is certainly right about the pressures, but interviews with young people in similar circumstances suggest her reactions are only too common.

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