Under Pressure: Letting Go of Expectations

One common stressor I’ve seen with students I tutor is that oftentimes they are under a sort of pressure (to varying degrees) from their places of employment, and/or themselves to pass the exam. Sometimes passing the licensing exam means being able to keep their current job, or becoming employed at all.

Unlike some other mental health disciplines (who accumulate post-graduate hours before taking an exam, such as LMHCs and LMFTs), social workers have to pass two licensing exams, the first one being the immediate barrier to being allowed to even sit in a room with a client, and the second one only occurring after 2-4 years of practice.

That’s a lot of pressure for a recent graduate: especially with student loans looming ahead, the rush to find employment after investing in their MSW, the comparison with peers who may “seem further along”, and the expectation that they “must” pass the exam.

However, if you haven’t already caught it (and even if I’m not much of a cognitive-behavioral guy myself), this is all-or-nothing thinking. It can and will get in the way of doing well on the test, because the focus will be on the result (and if applicable, punishment) others are imposing on you. We become invested in the “must” result, rather than being, fully present in our knowledge of ourselves and knowing the material (after all, you did graduate from your program!).

It is hard to reason through an exam when the mind is anchored to the worth of a result that “needs to happen.”

While yes, there are real consequences to not doing well, one failure (or even a few) won’t close the chapter on your life as a social worker. Ultimately (and this is only my intuition after working with some students), it’s a reinforced sense of self-compassion that will actually increase your chances to do as well as you should and can do.

What is self-compassion? It is:

  • Acceptance of your pace and process (You may not pass it on the first try, but it won’t be your last try).
  • Acceptance of yourself as a whole person (You are more than just a test).
  • The removal of expectations and judgments on yourself, regardless of how well (or not) you do.
  • Care for your needs. (e.g., Beyond preparation, what else may be getting in the way of your life or readiness to do as well as you can?)

Just like it is with our client, it can be difficult to cultivate this sense of self-compassion, but it is ultimately what will get you in the right space to claim this barrier and the next step of your career.

P.S. Just for fun, Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” 😉


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