Alice says she’s suffering from ‘exam stress’. And so are her friends. None of them are sleeping or eating properly, she says. Some of them have even been to the doctor about it.
I feel sorry for her. She takes her life and her schoolwork seriously. She works hard. She tries her best. But with a few weeks to go before the dreaded exams, she’s in a state: worrying all the time, sleeping badly, crying sometimes.
‘I’m working in short bursts like they tell you to,’ she says forlornly. ‘And I’m trying to do nice things as well, like giving myself rewards. And my mum and dad are really supportive. They’re not pressurising me at all. It’s just me! I can’t seem to stop worrying.’
I ask about the teachers at school.
‘They’re pretty stressed themselves,’ she says. ‘They’re always going on about how we should relax, but you can see they’re not relaxed. And then they do assemblies saying we should be doing at least four hours work at night!’
Exam anxiety has existed for as long as there have been exams, as have all the other anxieties that occur whenever we want to do something well but are afraid of doing it badly. There’s nothing new about this. We need a degree of anxiety to do our best; we need to be prepared, alert, ready. But what makes these experiences feel impossible and reduces perfectly competent people like Alice to tears is when no one helps them think about the possibility of failure.
In educational circles, the f-word isn’t mentioned. Alice will have sat through assemblies listening to famous people telling their stories of wonderful success. Words like ‘inspire’ and ‘inspirational’ will have been used a lot. Sometimes Alice’s own successes and those of her peers will also have been applauded, and rightly so. But, typically, her teachers will then have wrapped things up by saying to the assembled company something like, ‘And so you see, anything is possible! There’s nothing stopping you. You can achieve anything if you want it enough. Your dreams can come true. It’s only a matter of hard work and belief!’
No one will have put their hand up politely and asked, in a tremulous voice, ‘Sir, what if we work really hard and still don’t get the grades?’ No one will have dared to ask, ‘Miss, how am I supposed to become the first female astronaut from this school when I’m really bad at maths and don’t understand science?’
Hearing about other people’s successes is all very well, but young people are more interested in hearing about their failures. They want to know about all the things that went wrong, the mistakes, the stupidities, the misunderstandings, the personal limitations. They have strong feelings about people with disabilities, for example, because the notion of disability feels so personal… ‘What about all the things I can’t do? All the things I’m no good at? The things I’ll never be good at?’
The rhetoric of Success! Success! Success! has invaded schools as it’s invaded other areas of life, encouraged by ‘inspirational’ business leaders, ‘aspirational’ politicians and ‘positive’ psychologists. Alice and her stressed-out friends are implicitly asking important questions of the people around them: ‘But what if we fail? What will we be worth then? How will we understand ourselves then?’ Schools have bought into the rhetoric that everything is possible because no one dares to tell young people the truth: that everything isn’t possible. ‘Failing’ schools allegedly fail to inspire young people and no one wants to be associated with a ‘failing’ school. So the language of ‘inspiration’ (‘Success! Success! Success! You can do anything!’) has become obligatory. The possibility of failing has become unmentionable, unthinkable.
I once worked in a school where our exam results improved, year after year. I was as pleased as anyone, but couldn’t help noticing that, year after year, we seemed to become more and more anxious. It was as if we’d all bought into the myth of relentless improvement, the belief that as long as we continued to try our very best, our results would continue to improve and we’d get our just desserts. Yet the increasing levels of anxiety in the school hinted at what we knew only too well: that continued success wasn’t going to be possible. There would come a time…
When the time did come, as it was bound to do, the school actually avoided publishing its results, claiming that there was so much exam board re-marking going on that it would be misleading to publish any results in the near future. Clearly, the shame of our apparent ‘failure’ was too much.
I think that the anxiety or ‘stress’ described by so many young people like Alice is born of the realisation that the institutional rhetoric about success is no longer to be trusted and that another outcome is equally possible, an outcome apparently so dreadful that no one will even talk about it.
Talking with young people about failure
I ask her what it would be like to fail her exams.
‘Awful,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what I’d do. I supposeI’d get over it eventually, but it wouldn’t be nice.’
‘It certainly wouldn’t be nice,’ I agree with her. ‘And you’re right. You would get over it, Alice. You’d survive.’
‘Yes,’ she says, thinking, ‘but…’‘
‘I don’t know. It just wouldn’t feel right. I’d feel like I’d let everyone down. Or like I wasn’t being myself any more. I know that might sound a bit weird but I don’t know how else to say it.’
Alice’s sense of herself may have become founded on the idea of being Successful Alice, but failure and disappointment are with us from the moment we’re born. Our relationship with a mother never lives up to the blissful union that we half remember from before birth. She turns out to be imperfect. And a father’s attention becomes erratic once the novelty of a new baby has worn off. And siblings are always a mixed blessing. From birth, we start the lifelong, developmental process of bearing disappointment and bearing the frustration of things never being as good as they could be.1 In a sense, we spend our lives wrestling constantly with our potential to fail, with our essential ordinariness.2 So when someone comes along with a promise of certain success, we grab at it, keen to believe that our experiences of disappointment and failure might have been temporary all along and might now be banished forever. Perhaps we’ve just been unlucky. Perhaps, in the new future, we’ll all be successful, no longer tarnished by failure.
Like some of their parents and teachers, Alice and her friends have developed ‘false selves’,3 defending them against the hurts of failure. I don’t blame them. It’s hard for parents who love their children to admit to being less than perfect. It’s hard for teachers who care about their students to admit that they can’t do it for all of the people all of the time.
Learning about failure
So there’s a sense in which young people always come to counselling to find out whether success really will be possible or whether failure and compromise are inevitable: ‘Why did my boyfriend break up with me? Why are my friends so difficult? Why can’t I get a part-time job? Why do I have to look like this? Why did bad things happen in the past? Why can’t there be more happy endings?’ Young people come to counselling to learn about failure because, whereas absolute triumph might be possible in a race or computer game, relationships will always be a mixture of triumph and disaster. In that sense, relationships will always be about failure, at least in part. And counselling relationships will be no different. Counselling doesn’t make the pain go away. Counselling doesn’t mend broken hearts or bring people back from the dead.
Alice asks if I know of any good tips for passing exams.
‘Nothing you won’t have thought of already,’ I tell her, ‘because exams are always difficult. We do our best and sometimes we fail. And the exams don’t stop once we leave school or university. We carry on facing difficult challenges throughout our lives, and we carry on worrying that we’ll fail.’
‘Thanks!’ she says, joking. ‘You’re really cheering me up!’
Because schools defend against the very thought of failure, young people are left to make sense of the experience for themselves, often without support. For those unused to failure of any sort, the experience can be crushing, as if everything has suddenly fallen apart, as if nothing will ever be the same. Conversations about failure are therefore central to the task of counselling: conversations acknowledging not just the possibility but the inevitability of failure, conversations detoxifying failure, taking away the shame of failure, making failure normal.
Alice and I will go on to talk about the dreams that her parents might once have had, and about the ways they might have learned to live with life as it is, rather than life as they might have liked it to be. We’ll talk about life always being a mixture of the good and the bad, the successful and the unsuccessful.
Encouraging young people to think only of success encourages them to split off the possibility of failure in the way that a baby or child might learn to split the good from the bad, the loveable from the hateful. Like all defensive splitting, it serves a purpose, but is ultimately unsustainable once a child becomes a young person and senses that the world is no longer so simple. I think that Alice and her friends are sensing this, however much their teachers might still be pretending otherwise. Their suspicions leave them feeling very anxious.
‘You’re right about me not cheering you up,’ I say to her. ‘In fact, it’s worse than that! I’m the bearer of even more bad news. Sometimes life sucks. Sometimes we don’t get what we deserve. Sometimes bad things happen to good people…’
‘I know,’ she says. ‘I do know that. It’s just that…’‘
That it’s not fair?’
On the wall of my counselling room I have this quotation, adapted from Samuel Beckett:4 ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’, and in my diary, I keep this quotation from the autobiography of Richard Holloway,5 an Anglican priest who lost his faith. ‘This is grace,’ he writes. ‘Unearned, undeserved, unconditional acceptance of unchanging failure, including biological failure, our last failure, our dying.’
The acceptance Holloway describes has nothing to do with lazy underachievement or with not caring. He’s describing a much more personal experience of our limitations. We try our best. We do. And we fail all the time because we’re people. For young people, this is liberating rather than demoralising.
Nick Luxmoore is a school counsellor, psychotherapist and author.
1 Phillips A. Missing out: in praise of the unlived life. London: Penguin Books; 2012.
2 Luxmoore N. Young people and the curse of ordinariness. London: Jessica Kingsley; 2011.
3 Winnicott DW. The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. London: Hogarth Press; 1965.
4 Beckett S. Worstward Ho. London: Faber & Faber; 2009.
5 Holloway R. Leaving Alexandria. Edinburgh: Canongate Books; 2013.