Imagine for a moment all the hard work you've put in, the late-night studying, the endless revisions and the sacrifices you've made. You've been building up to this one moment where you finally get to see the fruits of your labour, your matric examination results.
But then, the moment arrives and it's not what you expected. Instead of jumping for joy, you are standing there paralysed by a wave of disappointment.
It's hard because of something scientists and psychologists call "cognitive dissonance".
This is when there's a disconnect between our beliefs — in this case, about our expected success — and the outcome.
Our mind tries to reconcile the two, but it can't, resulting in psychological discomfort that we experience as disappointment.
Moreover, our self-esteem often rides on the back of these results. Particularly in the case of the 2023 matric students; you don't just see a score, you see a reflection of your worth.
Social support systems might also subtly (or not so subtly) link those scores to your potential and your identity, multiplying the pressure.
So, how do we deal with this crushing feeling?
In a recent conversation with Independent Media Lifestyle, Dr Nombuso Gama, an esteemed educational psychologist, sheds light on the weight of anticipation and the sting of disappointment that comes with the release of matriculation results.
“Academic achievements hold immense value in our society, particularly the matric results, which can feel like a make-or-break moment for many students," explains Dr Gama, who recently expanded her practice to TikTok under an initiative she proudly calls ”taking psychology to the streets“.
She aims to foster candid, healing discussions, especially within the black community.
"I want to catalyse a healing revolution through open dialogue," she asserts.
The excitement, anxiety and anticipation that accompany matric results bring a mix of emotions for learners as well as their families and educators. It's a time of high hopes, with everyone wishing for success. However, the reality is that not everybody passes.
"It's a roller coaster of feelings. Success brings joy, but on the flip side, disappointment can be a hard pill to swallow," Gama explains.
For those beaming with pride over their achievements, Gama offers her hearty congratulations.
But she has a special message for those who find themselves grappling with results that have fallen short of expectations: "Remember, this is not the end. It's a setback, not a defeat. You have the opportunity to tackle this hurdle again next year."
She provides this invaluable guidance for students grappling with disappointing matric results.
Here are a few things you need to know
“Even though there is a chance for a do-over, feeling stressed and disappointed in yourself is a normal feeling. Allow yourself to feel the pain and disappointment.
"It's perfectly natural to feel gutted," assures Gama. "Let yourself go through the agony, the sense of broken dreams, even the sting of letting people down. Feeling this pain is step one in healing."
Gama isn't unfamiliar with academic hiccups herself, adding a personal note to her professional observation.
"Believe it or not, I also failed Grade 11. But here I am years later, helping others," she revealed.
While it may feel like this is the end of the road, it actually isn't. It is a chance for you to be introspective. Honestly ask yourself which aspects you did not give your all in and how you can improve. Then focus on those parts going forward, she advised.
“All circumstances pass so please do not be tempted to deal with this situation through permanent methods, such as suicide,” she advised.
Gama's advice extends to parents, who might be struggling to manage their own disappointment.
"Your kid's already down. This isn't the time for 'I told you so'. What they need is your support.
“Parents also need to contain their disappointment. Please do not add to the pressure. Be there for your children – they are in a vulnerable state where your support or the lack of it can have detrimental effects on their lives,” she said.
What next? How do you build your life after this failure?
“Take this as your chance to start learning this process because your adulthood will come with many failures,” said Gama.
She added that rebounding from academic adversity requires you to do the following:
Whether failing was partly because of your doing or not, it is time to let it go. Speaking and thinking negatively about yourself will not help at this point. Instead, you need to focus on how to pick up the pieces again.
Sit and figure out a plan that will bring you better results next time
Consider how often you'll study each week. Decide how many hours you'll dedicate and what exactly you'll do, like reading, practising past papers or researching. Think about the tools you have available.
Remember, doing well in school is a team effort; teachers, family and friends are there to help you progress.
Try returning to your school to ask if teachers can provide extra materials. See if friends who've passed can share their resources. Check with your parents to see if they can pay for additional tutoring.
What lessons can you learn from your experience?
Every failure is an opportunity to learn. For instance, maybe you need more study time than you initially thought. Maybe you could ask for more help, etc.
People will talk – let them
You cannot stop people from asking how you performed in your matric or from talking behind your back, etc. Don't focus on them – you have a future to secure.
Why is taking care of your mental health important at this time?
“Failure is a great trigger.” According to Gama, taking care of your mental health right now is really important because failing can make you feel bad. You might start saying mean things to yourself, like you're not good enough or there's no reason to try anymore.
She added, “But those thoughts aren't true. Knowing that helps you not feel so stressed out when things don't go as planned.
“Looking after your mental health also helps you get over the bad times and start thinking about what you can do next, instead of just feeling sad about what went wrong.”
Seek out support
Surround yourself with supportive people. Contrary to what you think, many people feel your pain. Even though, for instance, your parents seem disappointed in you, they are actually your biggest support system.
They feel the pain you feel as well. Lean into their support.
Do not isolate yourself
When you feel ashamed of a situation, your brain will lie to you and tell you to hide yourself in your room so people don’t see you. Unfortunately, that becomes a space where mental health challenges, such as depression, fester. So don’t do it.
It's important to process your pain. So get a piece of paper and write down how you feel about the failure. Pour your heart out on that paper. And once you are done, destroy it, and let go of those emotions.
Your brain will most likely keep on focusing on your failure. Force it to think about the current moment. The previous moment is gone, and as hard as this is, it will not help to fixate on it.
So take deep breaths when you feel your brain wandering and bring it back to the present moment.
“Then give your dreams a second chance. Try again with more intentionality this time around,” said Gama.