Updated: Sep 5, 2019
I was away visiting friends last week when the GCSE results were announced. One family in the group had a daughter expecting her final grades. I’ll call her Emma. My friend’s daughter (let’s call her Alice) is a little younger but close to Emma.
Emma found the whole GCSE journey difficult and had months of feeling very anxious, even though she had worked consistently hard and methodically. The day before the results were announced she was upset and wanted her mum to take the whole day off work to be with her. The general discussion was around how Emma was coping, concern for her mental wellbeing, acknowledgment of how hard she’d worked and how all the adults were sure she’d get the grades she needed.
I was wondering about Alice, who is 14 years old and is commencing year 10. Thus, the GCSE build-up begins …
She was busy lounging on the sofa, telling me that she and Emma were spending the night together the evening she got her results. I asked Alice what she thought about the behaviour Emma was demonstrating; did Alice feel it was justified? Did Alice feel Emma would get poor grades? What did she see when she looked in on Emma and her thought-storm of anxious thinking?
Alice shrugged, she said that Emma had worked hard and that she was sure Emma would pass all her subjects, certainly enough to take the A Levels she had planned. Alice was not concerned about Emma’s mental health or wellbeing; ‘she’ll be fine’ she said.
I pointed out to Alice that Emma’s reality right now is very separate to her own. Emma appeared to feel her whole future was on the brink of doom and that she had failed herself. Alice seemed to feel there was no problem and Emma would be moving onto college as planned. A vast chasm between the two. Yet who was right?
They both felt they were. Emma had convinced herself that she was going to fail based no real evidence. Alice was able to look in objectively and saw a friend who was as strong and solid as ever, but still she could understand that Emma didn’t feel the same way.
When our friends are in such a place of pain, anxiously predicting the future (not possible), all we can do is stay calm, listen and remind them they are okay, just as they are, in this very moment. Alice knew that, whether Emma achieved her desired grades or not, there would still be options available to her.
Emma did well; she passed every subject (except one) and sailed through her enrolment onto her chosen A Level subjects. I asked Alice what Emma was like that evening at the meal and sleep over. She told me she was happy, laughing and proud of herself.
What changed between the day before the results were received and the evening the results were in? Nothing.
The feeling of anxiety and dread was not coming from the looming GCSE results – although it may have really felt like it was – the feelings were coming from whatever she was thinking about in each moment, whether consciously or not. Her feelings were coming from her thoughts of fear, panic, failure.
The good news is that our thoughts are open to change in every single passing moment; one thought might be that she may have failed, the next that she might have scraped through, or achieved high grades or that it doesn’t matter either way. We just don’t know what thought will pop up next.
So, Emma was really caught up in her thought-storm about her results and she may not have been able to hear the voice inside that knew she had worked hard and had a good chance of succeeding. When we are able to recognise how caught up in our thinking we’ve become, we can naturally drop away, allowing our minds to quieten down and our thoughts to shift once again.
When Emma saw her grades, her thinking and attitude changed significantly. But we don’t have to wait or rely on proof like results; we have an inner compass that will always point to our true and settled nature. When our minds quieten, we allow ourselves a tiny space in our minds to see things clearly. This being human, it is the same for us all.
I asked Alice what she had seen for herself whilst observing her friend during these two days. She said that her experience of Emma’s results day was very different to Emma’s.
Did this help her to see anything useful for her results day two years in the future?
Alice said she would have more faith in herself, in her studying and in her ability to pass tests. She felt she had seen her friend beat herself up to a high level of pain and anxiety for no reason. She would do the best she could and, once the exams had been sat, there was no point trying to predict the future.
Great advice. I will remind her in two-years’ time!