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.
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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.