Is it natural for our self-esteem to change depending on our academic performance? 

In a perfect world, our perception of ourselves wouldn’t depend on the grades we get. However, many of us are brought up – by family or the academic system – in ways that tie our self-worth to our academic achievements. It’s a common experience to have been scolded at home for your bad grades, regardless of whether you are a Russian or international student. As a child, you can hardly tell that your parents are only upset about your grade, not you as a person. That’s why many of us carry this belief with us to adulthood.

Can our self-esteem change to the positive through our actions?

It’s important not to expect overnight changes. The beliefs that we hold have mostly been with us for a very long time, we have lived with them and by them, so doing a single exercise won’t turn any tables. What it can do, however, is lower our anxiety, freeing up our mental resources for something else. It can also help us take our failures less seriously: grieve for a bit, but then get ourselves together to rectify the situation. 

Another thing to remember is that self-criticism isn’t actually a handy strategy. Many of us are used to thinking that self-criticism can be motivational and helpful, but researchers, such as Kristin Neff, say otherwise: it actually lowers both self-esteem and performance. Willpower researchers Roy Baumeister and Kelly McGonigal have also suggested that self-criticism is actually one of the factors diminishing our willpower. This means that the more we criticize ourselves, the harder it gets to then motivate ourselves in work or studies.

Credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Credit: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

What should you do if you fail/are less successful than you think you should be?

Here are some recommendations for students failing in exams or anywhere else: 

  1. Become your own champion and supporter to help nurture your self-esteem and inner strength. Students, especially international students, have to face many challenges: moving to a new city or country, leaving family far away, having to solve various household issues, and dealing with the language barrier. That’s why it’s important to praise yourself even for the steps that may seem small – sometimes, they require a lot of effort. 
  2. Try some of these daily evening practices
    1. Write down three things you did well today (small things count!)
    2. Write down three things you are grateful for (you can thank yourself or others). Practicing gratitude is known to be conducive to forming emotional resilience and preventing depression. 
    3. When you have failed at something, and you are being overwhelmed with self-deprecating thoughts, try the ABCDE technique to tackle your irrational beliefs (including self-criticism). Just follow the steps in this template and write down your answers. 
  3. I also highly recommend the Self-Compassion website and especially their exercises. There are wonderful audio meditations and writing exercises that will help you see yourself in a more kind and supportive way – and treat yourself accordingly.

What is the best way to celebrate and acknowledge a good result – in an exam or elsewhere? 

Keep a journal of your achievements, even the smallest ones. We tend to focus on our mistakes and failures, while at the same time taking our victories, big and small, for granted: I passed this test, but so did everyone, big deal. Instead, you can notice your accomplishments by daily writing down what you achieved. 

While you are doing it, it can also be good to praise yourself in the “right way” by focusing on the changes. For example, “Yesterday, I didn’t complete this assignment because I didn’t have enough time and willpower. Today, I planned my time a little differently and procrastinated a little less, so I had enough time and energy to do the assignment.” Thus, you are highlighting your actions and the way they can lead to desired outcomes. By being attentive to your achievements in this way, you can support yourself and develop better habits.