When Results Day Isn’t What You Hoped It Would Be

Trigger warning: This post contains details of an emotional breakdown and mentions of self harm.

So results day is coming up. The timeframe is much as it ever was: school grades will be released as planned: A Level results will be released on the 13th August and GCSE results will be released on the 20th August. Degree results tend to depend on the specific university. Despite all of the upheaval over the last several months and the changes made to the expected academic year, many people still took exams of some kind, worked hard on projects or coursework, and pushed themselves to attain the highest marks they could so, regardless of the unusual circumstances, the anxiety around these days is no doubt mounting.

As I’m in the middle of my course, I’m not currently awaiting any grades. I completed my second module back in April and received my marks not long after. But every August (and to an extent, January, when some modules are assessed), I think of all those anxiously anticipating those numbers or letters that they’ve been working towards for months, that their lives have revolved around for so long (not a healthy mindset, mind you, but one that society has entrenched in us and one that I’d like to talk about further at a later date). I think of those young people and hope that, whatever grades they have received, they are coping in a positive and healthy way.

What with my GCSEs, some in Year 9 and some in Year 11, my AS Levels, my A Levels, all the results during my degree, and now my Masters, I’ve had many, many a results day. And the majority of them have been absolutely fine, if not better than fine. Some of them have been downright amazing. But I do have one very negative experience that I think is important to share because chance are, at some point or another, we will all have a bad results day that comes as a shock. So I want to tell this story and then share some advice for dealing with a similar situation…

It was a chilly morning in March 2013 and I was anxiously awaiting the release of the Autumn module results with my friends. The only course I’d had an exam in was Physics and although I’d found it difficult, I finished it feeling like I’d done okay. Having been absent for a lot of secondary school due to ongoing illness, I’d missed out on a lot of foundation material so I’d found the course difficult but during the most recent parent-teacher evening, my teacher told us (me and my Mum) that she had absolute confidence in my abilities and that I was on track for a high grade. So when I opened my results and saw the little printed ‘u,’ I was initially confused. Surely it was a mistake. I’d always gotten good grades and my teacher had said such positive things. I waited restlessly for the mark to be confirmed and when it was, it felt simultaneously like everything went still and like everything was crashing down around me. I made my escape and headed for the more secluded of the two toilet blocks – I felt like every emotion I was feeling was visible on my face and I had no idea how to talk about it or how to pretend that I was fine. I needed to be alone.

I was crying before I even made it into the toilet stall and I sat on the lid, sobbing so hard that my chest hurt. I was gasping for air but it was like my lungs had pinprick holes in them, the air rushing straight out again. Even to this day, I’m not sure I can explain exactly what I was feeling. It’s not especially subtle and sounds very dramatic but it felt like the world was ending. I felt like a failure and I felt like the only thing people would see when they looked at me was a failure. All I was was this ‘u.’ All I was was ‘unsatisfactory.’ I couldn’t move past that thought. Everything else disappeared.

I don’t know how long I sat in that cubicle, crying and self harming, before my friends tracked me down. I wanted to stay there and hide forever but somehow, I dragged myself up and walked out to face them. I still remember the shock on their faces; I still remember looking at myself in the mirror, my face a mess of thick, mascara stained tear tracks and my arms covered in scratches. I looked as bad as I felt.

One of my best friends – someone I still consider a good friend despite the fact that we don’t see each other as often as we used to – took control of the situation, taking me off campus to a coffee shop where she gently coaxed the story out of me over hot chocolate. We both had to go back for classes but she arranged for us to talk to a mutually beloved and admired teacher at the end of the day. I wasn’t convinced but I was operating on autopilot, drained of the will to protest. So after my lesson (a lesson in which I didn’t say a word), we went to see this teacher and in her typical fashion, kind but direct, she told me about some of her experiences and talked me through my options. Then I went home and didn’t return for over a week.

It’s worth noting that my mental health had been deteriorating exponentially over the previous year, so this happened at a time when I was completely unequipped to handle it and it was a catalyst for a lot of big decisions. I dropped out of the physics course, partly because I wasn’t mentally healthy enough to manage the number of courses I was taking and partly because I was so distressed by the experience that I felt completely incapable of going back into that classroom and continuing with the course. Just thinking about sitting in that room triggered anxiety too extreme to function. And I can admit now that there was some shame involved too: I couldn’t bear the thought of my teacher and my class looking at me and seeing a failure. So I dropped Physics, completed the rest of my courses, and started seeking professional help for what were now obvious mental health problems.

To this day, I still struggle to open exam results. I work extremely hard and then, when the results are released, I’m very careful to open them at a time when I feel emotionally equipped to handle whatever they’ll say and when I have the time to process the emotions that I’ll potentially experience. I’ve talked about this a lot with my therapist, in general terms, but then we talk about it every time new results loom. Not long ago, she referred to the experience as ‘a trauma’ and the relief of having it validated for the distress it caused and continues to cause was so overwhelming that I swear my heart stuttered in my chest. After having so many of my experiences (and the ongoing problems they caused) invalidated, it was a really emotional moment. That day had a massive effect on my mental health and my relationship with education and still triggers debilitating anxiety.

Not all results days are like this. In fact, most of them aren’t and I hope that you – you, reading this – never have to go through an experience like this one, but just in case you do, here are some of the things that I’ve learned about coping with difficult results…


IN THE MOMENT

  • Get yourself to a safe place – Dealing with difficult emotions is hard enough in itself but factors like crowds of people, lots of noise, and so on can make it even more difficult. Whether you need to be alone or with a friend, somewhere quiet or somewhere too noisy to let yourself dwell (momentarily is fine, indefinitely obviously isn’t healthy), being in a place where you feel free to express your emotions can only make it easier to cope with the torrent of emotion.
  • Give yourself time to process your emotions – I always find that, when something huge and unexpected happens in my life, my emotions completely overwhelm me and while I know what I’m feeling right then and there, it often changes as the intensity recedes. I try not to make any decisions until everything feels more stable; if I do, I usually end up regretting them. So let your emotions flow and evolve and eventually simplify. Once that happens, everything will be clearer.
  • Talk it through with someone – Talking to someone (someone you feel safe and un-judged with) about what you’re going through can you help you process the emotions and make sense of what’s causing them, whether it’s a fear of disappointing people, a fear of damaging your future, or a fear of failure in general. Or something completely different and personal to you. And then, when you’re ready, they can help you put it in perspective and decide what to do next.
  • If it feels helpful, compare with your peers – Whether this is a good idea can only be judged by you. Sometimes sharing can be a bonding experience; for example, if the exam or module was marked universally harshly, the shared emotions can help you deal with the situation. However, if you decide to compare your grades with your classmates, be careful about who you choose to talk to: some people may approach the problem with potentially invalidating positivity, some may have done worse and be sensitive about it, and so on. It’s not a straightforward choice and one that only you can make.

ONCE YOUR EMOTIONS HAVE SETTLED

  • Talk to your teacher(s) – Not only do your teachers know the system, they will also have seen and helped multiple people through experiences similar to yours. They will have useful advice and experience that they can share with you that will hopefully make it easier to decide on your next steps.
  • If you get feedback, assess areas to improve on – If your results come with feedback, read through it carefully and think carefully about how you can perform consistently in the areas you excel at and how you can improve in the areas you lost marks in. Having clear goals for your future work can improve not only your future performance but also help with negative feelings around your recent grades.
  • Think about whether you want to resit – Retaking exams can be a smart route to take because resits can give you extra time to learn the material and they can help you boost your overall grade. And if that overall grade affects your next steps, it may be possible to continue with that original plan, just a year later. However, resits eat up time, can distract you from whatever comes next – whether that’s working on new modules, new experiences in a gap year, etc – and challenge your mental health with added anxiety and pressure. Again, only you can make this choice but I recommend talking to multiple people with various viewpoints before making a final decision.
  • Consider getting extra help – Whether you’re starting a new module or resitting previous exams, support from a tutor or mentor might be helpful, both in your approach to learning and your overall grades. You might also find that you need some support with your mental health after upsetting results or in the face of moving forward in education so you may want to talk to your school’s counsellor or the pastoral care team or even your GP. It may also help to talk to a teacher, not specifically for mental health advice but for advice on who to talk to concerning this matter.

Despite the trauma of that day and the vivid images that come to mind whenever I recall it, there are three things that I actively choose to focus on:

  1. The absolute kindness of my friend – I don’t know how that day would’ve gone if my friend hadn’t come to find me, taken care of me, and taken me to talk to a teacher I trusted. While I wasn’t capable of properly acknowledging her help at the time, I am so grateful that she was there and that she looked after me in my most fragile state, nonjudgmental of my emotions, accepting of my self harming, and thinking only of how to help me. Whether we’re friends forever or our paths diverge, I will always remember and appreciate it.
  2. The words of my teacher – I so appreciate my teacher sharing her story with me and what she’d learned from it, even if I wasn’t really taking it all in at the time. I didn’t know it at the time but she helped. She really helped. I can’t remember her exact words (much of that day is a blur) but in essence, she said: there is always more than one path to get to where you want to be. I didn’t truly understand it at the time. I had a plan and I was going to follow it but looking back, she was right. I may not be literally where I wanted to be but I’m metaphorically where I wanted (and want) to be and more importantly, I think I’m where I’m supposed to be, if a little battle-scarred.
  3. It was the beginning of a very important journey – It was a horrible day with far reaching consequences but it was that day that really made us realise that something was very wrong and we needed to do something about it. Of course, if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that my mental health journey has been and continues to be full of twists and turns but if not for that day, who knows how much longer I would’ve struggled before something pushed us into action. I thought it was the end of everything but in fact, it was the start.

This post turned out to be a lot longer than I’d intended but I hope it has been somewhat helpful. I hope you remember that whether your results are good or bad, whatever you feel is valid. You have spent years working towards this moment and it’s natural and totally okay to have strong feelings about them. It would be odd if you didn’t. You’ve worked hard for this. So feel what you feel and do what you need to do to make sense of this big, messy experience that you’ve gone through. It will be okay – maybe not in the way you expect but it will be okay. I can promise you that.

Quotes That Helped Me (Validation Edition – Part 2)

Of course, there are always more quotes! I had too many quotes on this subject to fit into one post so here are some more quotes that will hopefully validate some of your harder, more complicated feelings.


“I think my life is of great importance, but I also think it is meaningless.” – Albert Camus

“I don’t want to believe, I want to know.” – Carl Sagan

“I cannot understand why the world is arranged as it is.” – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“God, I just want to be important. I just want to be someone real.” – Ritapa Neogi

“As far as I could see, life demanded skills I didn’t have.” – Susanna Kaysen

“I know too much and not enough.” – Allen Ginsberg

“I feel very small. I don’t understand. I have so much courage, fire, energy, for many things, yet I get so hurt, so wounded by the small things.” – Anais Nin

“The world changes too fast. You take your eyes off something that’s always been there, and the next minute it’s just a memory.” – Michel Faber

“Memories do not always soften with time; some grow edges like knives.” – Barbara Kingsolver

“It was because I was scared. Scared of standing out, scared of being invisible. Scared of seeming too big, scared of being too small.” – Malorie Blackman

“I don’t know where the strength went, I don’t remember losing it. I think that over time it got chipped away, bit by bit, by life, by the living of it.” – Paula Hawkins

“I am afraid I will be like this forever.” – Sierra Demulder

“For the first time in my life I understood how someone could consciously decided to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, but because they’d been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again. It was never gonna get, never gonna be that way ever again.” – Joe Biden

“The difference between how you look and how you see yourself is enough to kill most people.” – Chuck Palahniuk

“Sometimes suffering is just suffering. It doesn’t make you stronger. It doesn’t build character. It only hurts.” – Kate Jacobs

“I’m sick to death of this particular self. I want another.” – Virginia Woolf

“I’ve spent half my life not knowing the difference between killing myself and fighting back.” – Andrea Gibson

“I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed.” – Charles Bukowski

“You never forget. It must be somewhere inside you. Even if the brain has forgotten, perhaps the teeth remember. Or the fingers.” – Neil Gaiman

“There are times when I am convinced I am unfit for any human relationship.” – Franz Kafka

“Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” – Evelyn Waugh

“Too much emotion, too much damage, too much everything.” – Ernest Hemingway

“It all ends in tears anyway.” – Jack Kerouac

Quotes That Helped Me (Validation Edition – Part 1)

One thing I’ve really learned over the last few years is that, as important as support and help are, so are recognition and validation of what we’re going through. To feel like someone understands how we feel can ward off the intense isolation that can come hand in hand with mental illness. To have our struggles dismissed is sometimes even worse than them being ignored altogether.

In a continuation of this series, here are some quotes that validated my feelings and helped me feel understood. I hope they can do the same for you.


“I’m afraid I’ll be a book that no one reads. Music that no one listens to anymore. I’m afraid I’ll be abandoned like a movie playing in an empty theatre.” – Tablo

“We are all museums of fear.” – Charles Bukowski

“I exist too much, I feel too much, think too much. Reality is crushing the life out of me.” – David Jones

“I’m really afraid to feel happy because it never lasts.” – Andy Warhol

“Have you ever had to get through a day, smiling at people, talking, as if everything were normal and okay, while all the time you felt like you were carrying a leaden weight of unhappiness inside you?” – Elizabeth Wurtzel

“I get it now. I get it. The things that you hope for the most are the things that destroy you in the end.” – John Green

“I’m numb and I’m tired. Too much has happened today. I feel as if I’d been out in a pounding rain for forty-eight hours without an umbrella or a coat. I’m soaked to the skin with emotion.” – Ray Bradbury

“The truth is, I pretend to be a cynic, but I am really a dreamer who is terrified of wanting something she may never get.” – Joanna Hoffman

“The incredible pain returns again and again and again.” – Susan Sontag

“I can only connect deeply or not at all.” – Anais Nin

 “Sometimes I can hear my bones straining under the weight of all the lives I’m not living.” – Jonathan Safran Foer

“I’m not sure which is worse: intense feeling, or the absence of it.” – Margaret Atwood

“That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” – John Green

“I need to be alone for certain periods of time or I violate my own rhythm.” – Lee Krasner

“I am deathly afraid of almosts. Of coming so very close to where I want to be in life that I can almost taste it, almost touch it, then falling just a little short.” – Beau Taplin

“I’m just dying to say, ‘Hey, do you ever feel like jumping off a bridge?’ or ‘Do you feel an emptiness inside your chest at night that is going to swallow you?’ But you can’t say that at a cocktail party.” – Paul Gilmartin

“It’s all too much and not enough at the same time.” – Jack Kerouac

“She felt everything too deeply, it was like the world was too much for her.” – Joyce Maynard

“Even if you know what’s coming, you’re never prepared for how it feels.” – Natalie Standiford

“The sadness will last forever.” – Vincent Van Gogh

“How do we forgive ourselves for all of the things we did not become?” – David ‘Doc’ Luben

“There is a certain clinical satisfaction in seeing just how bad things can get.” – Sylvia Plath

“No one warns you about the amount of mourning in growth.” – Té V. Smith

“I am half agony, half hope.” – Jane Austen