A mountain of expectations

No matter how hard life may be at the time, there’s always a way to get through it


Trigger Warning: self-harm, suicide

I used to never understand why my parents would praise and reward my brother if his grade didn’t go below C’s, while I received nothing for continually maintaining my grades. It was just expected of me, among plenty of other things. It felt like every failure or setback from my brothers meant more pressure on me to overcompensate and be successful. 

Being a daughter of two first-generation immigrant parents, there were a lot of high expectations set for me. To become successful so the labors of my parents’ immigration wasn’t in vain. So I could honor my family back home in Myanmar. So I could honor my culture and my people, being a part of a minority ethnic group called Mizo. 

But I never would’ve imagined the toll academic validation would take on me. I’ve had to teach myself that my worth isn’t valued through my success. 

At first it was easy to meet these expectations. Grades had always been important to me, whether it was by choice or whether it was instilled into me. It was something I was good at and something I took pride in. But as classes and their curriculums got harder, I found myself struggling to keep up with my grades, while simultaneously dealing with the complexities of being a teenager. 

Eventually, I found myself basing my self-worth off my accomplishments in school and my grades. When I under-performed, I would be consumed with guilt and anxiety. I felt like I was failing my parents, who went through so much hardship to bring me to America for a better opportunity in education. I felt like I was failing myself, who had worked so hard to study. Countless nights I’d stay up, not being able to sleep because my thoughts were clouded with looming thoughts of a bad grade, or even just the possibility of a bad grade. 

I felt trapped. I couldn’t just shift focus off of school, even if it meant that my mental health would improve. I felt as though I absolutely had to maintain my grades. 

So in order to cope with the stress, I eventually resorted to cutting myself. At first, it was just one cut. Then it was two, and three and then 10 and 20. I was addicted. I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t want to die. But the sharp pain I felt eased my conscience. In a sense, I was punishing myself for feeling overwhelmed. I was aware from the beginning that it was an unhealthy habit, but I always felt better after I did, so I didn’t feel the need to stop, nor did I want to. 

I began cutting myself late fall of my sophomore year. Luckily for me, it was easy to hide. The weather was just cold enough to where it wasn’t abnormal to wear long sleeves to school, and my secret habit went unnoticed for months. It started with craft scissors, but I eventually ended up getting a bladed box cutter. When the blade became dull, I’d simply snap the tip of the blade to reveal a new sharped end. I stored it in the second drawer of my desk and anytime I felt stressed, the blade would be just an arm’s reach away to ease all my stress. 

It wasn’t until I opened up about my problem to a few trusted friends that they encouraged me to stop. I learned a concerned side of my friends that I had never seen before, where they genuinely feared I would eventually escalate my self-harm to suicide. 

One of the biggest things that helped me break this cycle of basing my self worth on my grades was my boyfriend, Pierce. Unlike me, he was the polar opposite: outgoing, adventurous and grounded. It always seemed to me like he was sure of himself and knew who he was and what he wanted. Despite being just a teenager himself, he was there for me as best as he knew how. He’d stay up with me on nights when I was staying up to do schoolwork and remind me to take breaks when I was overwhelmed. My relationship with my parents has always been complicated, so I never shared much of my internal thoughts with them. Rather, I confined myself to him about anything and everything, and he was always there to reassure me. 

Through the help and support of the people around me, as well as my own efforts, I’m learning to cope with these constant expectations in a healthier way. My journey most definitely wasn’t linear. Some days are harder than others and cutting myself becomes a temptation. Sometimes, I would cave in and cut myself once or twice. But I continued to push myself to not rely on the short-term release that self-harm gave me. 

Little by little, I’m seeing the seeds of my effort take root. I threw away my box cutter. I’m learning to accept grades as they are. I’m learning to be kinder to myself, learning to be proud of myself, even when no one else is. Little by little, as my scars continue to fade, I can face more difficult challenges without the crutches of self-harm weighing me down.

Disclaimer: This is my own personal story, and the way I’ve recovered won’t work for everyone. So, if you’re struggling with self-harm, please click the resources below.