The Price We Pay for the Pressure to Succeed

October 29, 2021

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Claudia Black Young Adult Center

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By Anna McKenzie

Every culture has a success ideal. In America, that ideal is shaped by achievement: The people we honor as successful are rich and powerful. They own companies, are prevalent in the media, and are surrounded by apparent luxury. Some individuals, whether they’re 40 or 15, become “influencers” because they seem to have lifestyles and looks that their followers desire. But social media images and captions only tell part of the story, and rarely do they depict the reality of daily life. 

Today’s adolescents are now bearing the mental weight of trying to attain this ideal. With higher exposure to the “success” of others and fewer coping skills than generations reared through hardship, America’s teen population is increasingly falling victim to bouts of anxiety and depression that are not just chronic, but debilitating. To heal from these issues, teens and parents must find a way through the mounting pressure to succeed and its threatening shadow: the pressure to never fail.

Social media images and captions only tell part of the story, and rarely do they depict the reality of daily life. 

How the Pressure to Succeed Has Affected Adolescent Mental Health

In 2017, the New York Times profiled a series of students who had gone from well-functioning to deeply socially anxious adolescents. Health experts involved in helping these teens recover their mental health cited several causes for the breakdowns these teens were experiencing. One of the causes was undoubtedly social media. Not only was social media a source for comparing their lives to those of their peers, but it was an escape from the real world.

In the years since, Facebook has conducted studies into the use of its platform and the Instagram app to determine its effect on the self-image of adolescents. In 2021, Facebook decided to shelve its plans for an Instagram for Kids app after The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook knew, based on their studies, that Instagram was increasing rates of anxiety and depression among teenagers.

On our Beyond Theory podcast, we spoke to Dr. Whitney Howzell, Claudia Black Young Adult Center’s Executive Director, to inquire about adolescent mental health issues.

“I think there’s a lot of exposure, be it the times — social media, television — to what everyone else is doing. And we all put our ‘best selves’ on the internet. So, I think there’s a lot of misconception around, I’m supposed to have this; I’m supposed to be doing this,” says Dr. Howzell. “… I always lean on telling them that, ‘You’re where you’re supposed to be.’ … Moreover, it gets easier, and you can get through it.”

Social media is not the only reason why anxiety and depression rates among teens have increased. The misperception that there’s only one real path to success is damaging adolescent mental health. That one path is within academics.

Academic and Parental Pressures on Today’s Teens

In 2009, anxiety took over depression as the No. 1 issue among college students. It has remained at the top of the list since then. In 2016, 41% of college freshmen reported that they felt overwhelmed by their tasks, compared to 18% in 1985. But for many, the onset of anxiety does not come with college. The Washington Post revealed that the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine had added high-achieving adolescents to their list of “at-risk” groups. The reason for the decision? These teens are vulnerable to chronic levels of stress and the extreme pressure to succeed academically.

Most parents just want the best for their kids. They want their children to be set up for a life where they are safe, well-connected, and provided for. Higher-paying jobs usually require higher levels of education, and it’s often said that “who you know” allows you access to certain opportunities. These general ideas can filter down to black-and-white realities for adolescents, who can easily connect a bad score on a test to the inability to get into a good college. If they can’t get into a good college, they can’t get a good job, and so forth.

This narrow logic has affected the mental health of many teens who feel they are barely keeping their heads above water. Instead of learning to cope with failure, they focus their energy on not failing. When the reality of failure occurs, these young adults suffer from mental health breakdowns and may even try to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. 

Stressed College Student

Learning How to Cope with Pressure

What’s the remedy for these incessant pressures on adolescents? How can teens learn how to cope with failure, setbacks, and struggles instead of breaking down (whether before or after the reality of those events)? Here are a few suggestions to help teens and parents overcome these challenges and work toward better mental health:

  1. Acknowledge that social media has inflated our cultural view of success and its prevalence. Social media is not reality. Implementing breaks from social media can vastly improve your mental and emotional well-being. 
  1. Remember that life goes on. “There’s no finality in ‘now,’” says Dr. Howzell. Your life doesn’t end with failure; everyone fails. How you respond to failure is what matters, not your ability to be perfect.
  1. What feels life-defining now will not feel that way later. The longer you live, the more perspective you can gain on your experiences. The ones that feel terrible now simply lose their impact as months and years go by. 

There is a world beyond pop culture imagery and academic expectations where people of all backgrounds and experience have learned to overcome life’s hardships and thrive. Teens can enter that world if they choose, and encouragement from loved ones can go a long way in helping them do that. For those who find themselves still overwhelmed by the pressure to succeed beyond the teen years, we at Claudia Black Young Adult Center can help. Reach out today to learn how you can strive for success without it costing your mental health and wellness. It’s not as impossible as you may think.