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Story • Studying Sexology: Performance Anxiety is Present

2 October 2018
Boucles d'or

Stories are written by people who don’t necessarily work or study in fields related to sexology. They convey emotions, perceptions, and subjective perspectives. Opinions voiced in the stories are those of their authors, and in no way represent the position of Les 3 sex*.


☛Ce témoignage est aussi disponible en français [➦]

Translated by Zoe Yarymowich

I have always been a perfectionist, competitive, and anxious person. I have carried these descriptors with me since childhood. My mom once told me that when I was around six years old I would “have fun” transcribing words from the dictionary to practice my writing. If it wasn’t good enough for my taste, I would give myself a slap on the wrist.

Yes, I know… it sounds completely crazy.

Despite my tendency towards performance, I was not particularly focused on my grades during high school. However, my school would have been a good environment to feel pressured in since I was in an international education program with lots of brilliant people. This is probably because I had bigger fish to fry… like managing the appearance of my anxiety disorder, a couple of depressive episodes, and occasionally, suicidal thoughts by the age of 14-15 years old. Nothing less.

In CÉGEP, my performance anxiety was under control. I definitely had better grades than I did in high school, but I had a certain distance from my academic career. School represented a sphere of my life among many others. I only hoped to have the grades necessary to get into the university program that I hadn’t even chosen yet. At the same time, my mental health was also getting a bit better. It helped to have a present friend and family sphere.

My psychological state really deteriorated when I arrived at university. As we say, “shit hit the fan.”

From the start, I was paralyzed by all of the adult choices that I now had to make to decide what I wanted to do with my life. It sounds dramatic, I know.

With time, I understood that we can always change direction in our lives, but at that moment, I felt like I had the fate of the next 40-50 years of my life on my shoulders.

I wasn’t able to find my place in the world of higher education. I changed programs multiple times. This uncertainty caused me a lot of anxiety and a great feeling of helplessness. To cope with the overload of pressure and emotions, I developed an eating disorder during this period.

After all of this, I took some time to recover from this difficult ordeal and to find what I was passionate about in order to give my life a certain direction. While looking at the options of baccalaureates at different universities, I re-stumbled upon sexology. I say “re-stumbled” because when I was finishing CÉGEP, sexology caught my attention. However, at the time, I was not ready to move to another city far from my lover, my friends, and my family.

So, at 21 years old, I decided to come to Montreal to study the best discipline in the world: sexology. The change was rough if I can say so. I liked my classes, my teachers, and UQAM… but it felt like the 6-year-old girl who would slap herself on the wrist for her “mistakes” was back… only this time, she was on steroids. The image is a little funny, but that’s really how I felt.

I was out of control. I was obsessed with handing in perfect assignments: a grade lower than 90% was unacceptable. I learned all of my class notes by heart for my exams. Overnighters were no stranger to me, like many students in sexology. It was the norm. It was valued. I went to see my teachers, and panicked when there was a tiny unimportant detail that I “didn’t understand well.”

I would butt heads with the other members of group projects because I was never satisfied with their sections. I was so obsessed that I once spent a good 15 minutes arguing with one of my teammates about whether we should put a comma in a sentence. More than once, I changed the sections of my colleagues at the last minute, because their work was not acceptable according to my irrational standards. A group project even threatened to end a friendship. For real, now I can say that I was the worst teammate to do group work with.

School took up all of the room. My grades and my performance were the only things that gave me self-esteem and that mattered. If I had underperformed, according to my too high standards, it was the end of the world and my self-esteem was weakened.

First of all, I would say that when I entered sexology, there was a huge performance culture driven by the students (including myself), as well as the teachers and department. In one of my first courses of the first semester, we were already talking about the master’s degree and the high grades necessary to get in. I got the impression that the master’s was often valued more like a professional goal than the acquisition of the bachelor’s degree alone. I will say that it sets the tone for your university career rather quickly.

Every time we received our grades, we felt like there was a competitive atmosphere between the students who had “performed” well and those who had “less good” grades. Some students refused to share their notes with those who were unable to attend the class for one reason or another.

All of this performance culture explains in part why our class averages were high (in the 80%), which meant that people who had good grades were still under average. I would see students being ashamed of a grade in the 70-80% range, which is completely crazy in retrospect. I know students who thought about dropping out of the baccalaureate because they felt out of place in this competitive environment.

Hey, sexology is a humanitarian science based on empathy, understanding, and individual strengths. It is supposed to put forward values of acceptance, respect, and human dignity. Can we apply these principles to our students, professors, and the department?

Thankfully, from the second year of my journey in sexology, the competitive atmosphere was attenuated and there was a sense of helpfulness and camaraderie among students. I think that this is in part because several people who had the goal of getting the master’s degree had changed their minds: there was less pressure concerning our academic achievements. For my part, I also calmed the perfectionist in me to let go of less important elements and foster prosperous relationships with my colleagues.

On top of all of that, what I would like to say to new students or people who have difficulty shedding this performance anxiety is this: seeing sincerely brilliant and passionate people in my entourage “performing less well” in exams or assignments put into perspective my definition of what the term “competent” means. Before, I wrongly thought that school performance represented a person’s level of competence. It is evident that competence can sometimes be measured by university requirements. However, the evaluation of this must go above and beyond simple knowledge. Attitudes, intuitions, and practices are all also as important as knowledge and school performance. And the beauty of it all is that we have our whole life to develop our skills. We don’t have to be good the second we learn something. Let’s give ourselves some time. Let’s be understanding towards ourselves. Let’s work together to create a stimulating and empathetic environment and let’s transmit this way of seeing things to our colleagues, our teachers, our department, and our school.

And in the end, school is just one part of our life that doesn’t define who we are. Balance, especially in university, is crucial to appreciate (as much as possible) your university career.

performance anxiety, academic performance, baccalaureate in sexology, UQAM, Université du Québec à Montréal, stress, anxiety, competitions, grades, school, university, pressure, perfectionist


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