June 21, 2024
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June 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

You: Not Your Grades, Not Gold Stars. You.

“Just be yourself, nothing else matters.”

“As long as you liked it, that’s what’s important.”

These are messages that I’ve heard time and time again, on television, in school, at home. The idea is that as long as an individual has the confidence to believe in himself, then everything else will fall away. And I believe this; I believe that when we can rest our laurels on our own values, interests and passions, then we have all the framework we need to believe in ourselves.

But I also believe that achieving this goal is much more difficult than we make it out to be.

We live in a society where much of what we do is measured and judged. We tend to learn and be motivated by positive reinforcements. As infants, we responded when others cheered with excitement over our first steps or movements. Then as we got older we received accolades for our projects and performances while our parents tried to steer us away from negative behaviors and move us toward “socially acceptable” behaviors or achievements.

In this way, responding to praise is ingrained within us. Children are typically taught that grades are a marker of performance, effort, and/or intelligence. Goals being scored or home-runs being hit determine performance in a game. And to an extent, that’s true; when a system is built in this manner, worth is felt by validation within the system.

To tell a child that grades don’t matter, therefore, would be confusing; the school seems to say it matters. To an extent, society tells us they matter. So for a parent to tell a child that this is not the case would likely lead to internal doubt: whom should the child believe here?

To suddenly tell someone to disregard what others may think is to challenge a deeply ingrained practice. Even if a child is raised with strong messaging about doing what she wants or focusing on effort, the system at play counters this idea. It is hard for someone to go out into the world trying to figure out who she is as a person (while simultaneously trying to honor her own wishes and interests albeit recognizing that may go against the grain).

I face this constantly with clients wishing to accept themselves in a world that values thin privilege. And there are countless other examples of individuals who may have a different life plan than their family, or people who may no longer enjoy the hobbies that their entire group of friends find important, or perhaps those who study for hours but simply can’t get that A+ everyone values. Doing what feels right for the individual can feel so challenging when we have learned to rely on feedback, validation, praise and even a numerical score at how we’re doing.

How can we face this? What can we do?

The step toward building internal confidence, even when facing a system that values assurance from others, is by identifying how we feel about ourselves and the actions we take or interests that we have. If, for instance, a high school student takes an exam, it has become so customary for the student to rely on the grade to recognize whether or not the material was understood. And typically, the test does reflect this. But sometimes the test is meant to be challenging or the person may, for whatever reason, struggle with this standardized measurement. Sometimes an individual can study for hours and feel confident and then enter the test and the environment can cause tension or anxiety. And so, the first step would be for that person to reflect on the experience of studying. What was it like to put in the effort? How did it feel to review the material? These questions should not be overlooked. I am not suggesting any readers look at this as a reason to no longer try; to the contrary, I encourage you to reflect on and take notice of your efforts.

Whether grades, sports, fashion choices, hobbies, interests, identity, or methods of self-acceptance, the first step includes pausing to reflect on what you thought of your decision, action, behavior, or thinking. How did you feel about yourself in the process and what did you think about yourself? Can you look for growth without becoming judgmental? Can you affirm that others may not be as accepting and validate how hard this might be, while still holding on to what feels important to you?

I am not pretending it is simple to abandon the way we were raised or to think that no one else matters. Focusing on efforts and interests is not simple because what other people think matters to us. But the person you can and should be asking about first and foremost is yourself. Then you can acknowledge the others and the challenge set before you, and come to terms with how your and their acceptance or measurements of success may differ. I’m not recommending you ignore this. I am, dear reader, recommending that you start with yourself and latch on to those values and passions, or even what will allow you to survive and thrive in this world, even if others cannot do the same.


Temimah Zucker, LCSW, works with individuals ages 18 and older in New York and New Jersey who are struggling with mental health concerns, and specializes in working with those looking to heal their relationships between their bodies and souls. Temimah is an adjunct professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, an advocate and public speaker concerning eating disorder awareness and a Metro-New York supervisor at Monte Nido. To learn more or to reach her, visit www.temimah.com.

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