By Jatin Mathur, Naperville North High School Senior
Numbers drive our world… 89.5 – the minimum percentage to earn an A in a class, 36 – the maximum ACT score, 1600 – the maximum SAT score, 4.0 – the maximum unweighted GPA, and on it goes. Why? It’s simple: numbers make things easier to grapple with, understand, and then share. Fitness is often defined by numbers like your mile time, your sit and reach score, and your pacer. Intelligence is gauged by your GPA and your test scores. Ultimately, these numbers frame not only how society analyzes characteristics of an individual, but also how that individual thinks about his own characteristics and goals. This makes sense: if you are being judged on your mile time, your mile time is what you improve.
There is a widely cited study conducted in 2008 by the Dove Self-Esteem Fund called “Real Girls, Real Pressure: A National Report on the State of Self-Esteem.” It is the original source of the widely cited statistic that seven-tenths of girls feel insecure, with the exact quote being: “seven in ten girls believe they are not good enough or do not measure up in some way.” Again, we see the same emphasis on numbers. Seven in ten is so memorable because it is so personal. Look around you, or think of ten girls you know, and think what it would be like if seven out of ten of them felt inadequate. The personal nature of this number is why it is used even ten years later. The problem with this number? A phenomenon known as over diagnosing, where people tend to label things as abnormal to the point where anything and everything can cause some concern. As Psychology Today puts it, “in this brave new world of psychiatric over diagnosis, will anyone get through life without a mental disorder?” Make no mistake, we at the Alive Center believe there is a growing self-esteem issue that both girls and boys are facing. However, we also believe all these numbers can be misleading and mischaracterize the problem, especially when it comes to people.
For one, the focus on numbers is so detrimental because it not only enables, but encourages comparison. Your BMI only means anything when compared to that of others. Your GPA or ACT only means anything when compared to everyone else’s. It is through these numeric comparisons that pressure begins to take root. It’s not that students crave perfection; rather, they don’t want to be mediocre, the godforsaken “just okay,” the average. And with the obscure goal of not being like everyone else, teens put pressure on themselves to succeed.
Grades, tests, quizzes, and in a broader sense homework and even clubs and activities, have a way of stressing students out. The value of education, the fulfillment through community service, the energy behind extracurricular activities — all of these are diminished when the focus is a numerical representation of the thing you seek. And when comparison is allowed, pressure is amplified, if not created. Faulty comparison is what leads to abnormal, damaging levels of pressure, where students feel an urge to pursue mischaracterized numeral representations of their goals.
So how do you control this pressure? We at the Alive Center first recommend identifying the source. Usually, it’s a little bit of everything — you, your family, your friends, your competitors, the school, the club, etc. Understand that all of these contribute to the pressure you create for yourself. However, this also means you can learn how to better manage pressure. Whether that means reading a book, talking to friends, or taking deep breaths, keep yourself calm. Calmness will enable you to better understand the problem, and keep a clear, level head when you need it the most. Lastly, know that it’s okay if you don’t handle pressure well right now. For many, this is a trained, learned skill. If you put in the effort, you will improve.
But even better is not just learning how to control pressure, but how to avoid getting caught up in it in the first place. The answer is simple, but doing so is the hard part: by taking charge of your own goals, your own accomplishments, your own failures, your own life. The Alive Center was founded on the premise of being a place where people can come to explore their interests, to find what makes them come “alive.” There’s no external pressure, no “need” to perform well, no sense of “having” to do something; there’s only you and your passion. If you love writing, then should you worry so much about your SAT Math score? Create your own goals, and focus on them. You should strive to improve, but that doesn’t mean you have to compare yourself to others. You should work hard at what you do, but that doesn’t mean you have to be better than everyone else. You should value yourself, but that doesn’t mean you should equate your value of yourself with how society perceives you. The bottom line: think about yourself, not others’ perception of you.
Our message to teens: Have your own goals, and your own means of evaluating yourself.