Great expectations: Perhaps you should lower yours?
World Mental Health Day: Meeting other people’s demands – or indeed your own – can be bad for your mental health
If your family demand you consistently come top of your class, you might be wise not to take that demand seriously. But are you sure they are even demanding this?
In separate conversations in Dublin and Belfast recently, high levels of stress among third-level students came up. Some of those I spoke to attributed the stress levels to the demands of social media, others to the challenges students will later face in finding decent jobs and in putting enough money together for a house.
Carl O’Brien, Irish Times education editor, reported in June that the number of students seeking counselling had doubled since 2010. Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland attributed the increase to “growing awareness of mental health issues, pressures linked to social media, personal and family expectations over academic success, and financial difficulties”.
Many of the problems faced by students, I think, can helpfully be classified under three headings: the demands of others, one’s own expectations and situations outside one’s direct control.
If you’re a student reading this (though anybody could usefully apply this classification) you will see that one of these sets of issues is under your own control: your own expectations.
More about that later. On the issue of the demands of others, it’s important to accept that not all demands need to be met. The demands that you turn up for work at certain times or that you pass certain exams are ones you need to attend to if you want to keep the job or stay on the course.
But if your peer group (perhaps through social media) or family demand that you meet unrealistic levels of achievement, like consistently coming top of the class, you might be wise not to take that demand seriously.
Are you sure they are even demanding this?
Could it be that this is, actually, an expectation you have of yourself?
Do you demand that you should always have the approval of peer group and family?
Worth the effort?
This expectation is impossible to meet. And even if you could meet it, would it really be worth the effort and stress?
The same might be said of the influence of social media. Do you place an expectation on yourself that you should live the perfect life others project on social media? It’s unrealistic and impossible: life involves pain and disappointment as well as joy and success.
The ones with the perfect lives? Don’t believe them.
You might also have generated other completely unrealistic expectations of yourself like the shy person who compares themselves to the most extraverted person in the room and not to the average person. Identifying and scaling down these expectations to a more easily achievable level can make a big difference to your stress levels and to your general sense of satisfaction in life.
It would be great to impress all those who matter to us but failure to do so doesn’t make you a bad person
The third pillar in this unholy trinity is situational. If you have too little money to get by, have insecure living arrangements or are a student in a college that provides too little support (one counsellor for every 2,600 students, as Carl O’Brien reported), then these are situations over which you don’t have a lot of control. (But get on the counselling waiting list if you need it). You can, of course, attempt to influence a solution through student politics or politics at a wider level, but not everybody wants to get involved and that’s okay.
What’s in your control is to work out what demands from other people it makes sense to meet. And give some time to looking at the expectations you have of yourself. Could you lower some of these expectations? If so, consider doing so.
It may help to know that the expectation that we should always impress other people is among the most common of our unhelpful attitudes as identified by the late Albert Ellis, one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. It would be great to impress all those who matter to us but failure to do so doesn’t make you a bad person. As Abraham Lincoln said, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.” You can find a list of our 13 top unhelpful beliefs as described by Albert Ellis on my website.
Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Daily Calm. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com).