Perfectionism – the real challenge
Exam performance and school league tables. They seem to be the key driver now for our primary and secondary education system – the need to deliver results. Unfortunately, this ill-prepares young people for a future of good mental health and well-being, let alone for university or life-long learning. Students effectively become ‘performers’ for the benefit of the school, often at the expense of their own personal mental health.
At university, students perpetuate a learning style ‘perfected’ at school for GCSEs and A Levels, cramming knowledge with the sole objective of excelling at exams. Which of course many do, very well (often at great cost to their own self-worth). But it is a focus almost solely on outcomes, in order to perform, and not on the process of learning, and enjoying learning. Whatever happened to a love of learning? We now tend to over-assess at all levels of learning, as if only assessment drives learning. But assessment should be part of the learning process, not the primary purpose.
Outcome vs process
If you focus almost solely on outcomes, you focus on thoughts (and anxiety) about the future. You believe that exam success is the route – and the only route – to happiness and a good life. Being anything other than ‘perfect’ is considered by the students themselves, and often schools and parents who drive and support their efforts, as a failure. Perfectionism, and associated anxiety and depression, has effectively become institutionalised in our education system. One in four university students now suffers from mental health problems (YouGov, 2016) yet this issue of learning style receives scant attention in most studies of student mental health issues, compared to study and financial sources of stress (e.g. EPI, 2018; YouGov, 2016; The Insight Network/Dig-in, 2018; HESA, 2019).
I see the consequences on a daily basis, in university students I teach and in therapy clients. At university, this outcome-focused approach to learning is even less relevant than at lower levels. Students become fixated on a qualification they believe will secure a well-paid job, and so success and happiness. Often they have little or no interest in the subject they study; no joy in learning. Add social media and constant comparison with their peers, and we shouldn’t be surprised increasing numbers of students at university find it hard to cope, with c.95 HE students in 2016-17 having committed suicide (ONS, 2018).
This brings us to the concept of ‘mindful learning’ – using mindfulness practices to be more present in your learning, and engaged and connected with the subject and with colleagues and your environment. Maximise the educational experience of learning and participating, rather than obsess over outcomes (results). If you enjoy your learning, in the present moment, the outcomes take care of themselves. And the outcomes are often rather less important than imagined. You can only act in the present. Worrying about future performance and results can change nothing; it is not rooted in reality. But so many students now find themselves stressed out because of a fear of failure, of not being good enough, or not as good as or better than peers – constant ‘comparisonitis’.
For me, as a UK College trained cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model of mindfulness and values is especially helpful for developing the skills for mindful learning. Using simple everyday techniques for bringing yourself more into the present is key (rather than requiring daily meditation that may find difficult to stick to). And a deep appreciation of personal values as a driver for action – what’s important to you; values are important before setting personal goals. These skills can be offered readily in transferable skills training sessions to large groups of students, as I do, as well as in one-to-one therapy. And, of course, you can reinforce all of these skills, and confidence in being mindful, with hypnosis and self-hypnosis. These life-long resilience skills are still too often missing in universities as they focus inevitably on counselling those in crisis. Both are needed.
Becoming a ‘curious learner’
To be truly present and a mindful learner is to be a ‘curious learner’ – bringing a beginner’s mind to learning and the process of learning. That means accepting the ups and downs (and mistakes) as a normal part of the experience of learning. It includes engaging and working with, and learning from, peers and enjoying the discovery of new facts, understanding and experiences. Cultivating a sense of wonder and excitement about learning. Now that is mindful learning!
For aspiring therapists…
For those of you who might be thinking about embarking on the Diploma in Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy with the UK College (or already are), and perhaps a bit concerned about the assessments you will have to do, don’t be! You will have the best opportunity to apply the mindfulness skills you acquire from the course to your own learning. Be a curious learner. Use the assessment questions and case studies as a way to consolidate your learning and allow them to be a key part of enjoying that learning. From that comes the satisfaction as you become a practising therapist helping others help themselves.
Bill Sheate, January 2020
Education Policy Institute (EPI) (2018) Prevalence of mental health issues within the student-aged population
HESA (2019) Graduate Outcomes Survey Results 2017/18 https://www.hesa.ac.uk/collection/c17072/a/graduate
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England (2019) https://mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/research-and-evaluation/mental-health-statistics/
Office for National Statistics (2018) Estimating suicide among higher education students, England and Wales: Experimental Statistics. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/articles/estimatingsuicideamonghighereducationstudentsenglandandwalesexperimentalstatistics/2018-06-25
YouGov (2016) One in four students suffer from mental health problems. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2016/08/09/quarter-britains-students-are-afflicted-mental-hea