Depression and Anxiety at 16; the Dark Side of Pageants and Achievement Awards

“As I felt the spirit, I knew- I knew that I would give all my Earthly possessions to follow the Savior. I wanted to stay there forever because I knew his spirit was there beside me. I never wanted him to leave me. I felt so calm and safe. I love the gospel.”

That was just one time I bore my testimony in my journal when I was sixteen. I had just gotten back from a school trip to Temple Square in Salt Lake City when I wrote that. To anyone looking on the outside, I was a beautiful young lady with nothing to be depressed about. Inside me was a seething, tortured soul filled with self hatred.

For my Sunday School lesson yesterday, the manual suggested showing the class a journal you kept and to explain how making a record of things helps us remember important ideas and events that we would not remember if not for the record. This then relates to the importance of the scriptural record to standardize our doctrine and worship. So, I dug into my cedar chest and pulled out my journal from 1996 when I was a junior in high school.

For a long time I’ve suspected that a lot of my problems with anxiety and depression have been present since my childhood days. My journal brought that reality into laser focus. In 1996, I couldn’t be involved in enough activities. I would get up early in the morning to run three miles, then I would go to early morning choir practice, then I would stay late for play practices. When I got home, I started my homework for my high level math and science classes. Often I would stay up very late. I had several goals I was working toward including running several times each week, reading my scriptures every day, and getting all A’s in my classes. I was in concert choir, swing choir, every drama play, speech, cross country, honor society, church young women leadership, piano lessons, seminary council, and challenging classes. I was relentless in my pursuit of adequacy.

You might look at the awards I got and the honors I received and think, adequacy? Don’t you mean excellence? No, adequacy. That’s the pathology. I wasn’t striving for excellence, I was desperate to construct a persona that was adequate, that was good enough for happiness and acceptance. All I was able to see were the handful of girls that were smarter or more talented than I was. My drive to compete with them was fueled by deep feelings of inferiority. Their success was my failure. My success would stave off feelings of inadequacy for a while, but it was never enough. Occasionally, I noticed that other kids seemed happier and less stressed out than I was. I rationalized that they were just different than I was. For me, I had to drive myself. Other people could be okay with just living their lives and being average, but for some reason I was special. I was going to have a really great life, it was just going to be later. I would suffer now, and then it would all pay off down the road. The depression became unmanageable when I finally realized my happy tomorrow would never come.

I remember talking to my bishop about some of my stress and he suggested that perhaps I was involved in too many activities. He strongly recommended that I cut back on some of them. I was devastated! How could I cut out anything? If I did, I would fall behind in my relentless quest to be good enough! Surely he could see that…..after all, he knew that I wasn’t good enough to date his son. He wouldn’t give me the time of day. How was I supposed to meet and marry a good man and reach all of my righteous goals? I had to drive myself.

And so I did. I drove myself and drove myself. I was so busy I had no time to date. The boys that were interested in me didn’t have the same drive as I did. They wanted me to accept their compliments that I was beautiful and talented. I thought that if anyone liked me, there must be something wrong with them. I subsisted on little to no sleep, constantly driving myself to be better, always at the edge of my fuse, ready to explode in anger at my family members. When I did, I was consumed with greater feelings of inadequacy and searing guilt.

My junior year I did Junior Miss. It was my lifelong childhood dream to compete in Junior Miss. I felt that my entire self worth rested on this one pageant. If I could win Junior Miss, against my competitors, all of those girls I was driven to prove myself one of, I thought I could at last be worthy of love and acceptance. I didn’t cut back on any of my activities, but I just added an obsessive pursuit of the title of Junior Miss.

The night of the pageant came and I messed up my line. I had a saying that I had memorized long before that I was supposed to recite. I could have recited it in my sleep, but my nerves were shot after months and months of stress and pressure, and my mind went blank. The image of all those people looking at me, the bright light in my face, and the terror is still crystal clear……I was shaken to my core. I managed to stutter through something. As I left the stage, my friends said I looked like I had seen a ghost. The pageant was about half way finished at that point, but for me, it was over. My dream crumbled slowly before my eyes as each time I went on stage, my brain could not or would not remember the steps I had so obsessively practiced. When we all paraded out on the stage at the end and awards were given, I knew I would not likely win. I still held out hope that I would get something.

I won nothing. It felt like I had failed everything. I felt like I had wanted one thing and worked my whole life to that one thing, and there was no future. I was a failure, not at a pageant, but at being a woman. I wept. I knew that everyone was looking at me. I was supposed to clap. I was supposed to be happy. The girls who had won were my friends. I loved them. There I was with the hot spotlight on me, and everyone could see that I couldn’t keep it together. That was further proof that I was a failure. I couldn’t keep my composure like everyone else and be happy for the girls who had won. I stayed on stage for what seemed like an eternity, but the pain became so unbearable, all I wanted was my mom.

I stumbled off the stage, in my formal gown and heels, leaving the rest of the girls on stage to hug and congratulate one another. I was desperate for the comfort of my mother’s arms. I had failed! If I had even done my best it would not be so devastating. I was fundamentally inadequate and wrong. I remember thinking that I would never recover from that moment. How can we be so cruel to our children? I don’t know, but we do it.

As I have become healthier, I am better able to understand my 16 year old self and others who, like me, cannot allow ourselves or our children to be who they are, but must drive themselves and/or their children to meet some standard or ideal. Tortured by shame and a painful inferiority complex, they are unable to savor their own growth and achievement or those of their children. It is pathological, and it is everywhere.

At the football game I went to a couple of months ago, I saw the beautiful cheerleaders perform their tumbling, receive their awards, and do their thing. I saw the homecoming royalty walk onto the field. I thought of all the ways we drive ourselves and our children. It can take a terrible toll on us and on them.

I see the drive to compete and achieve in my own boys. My oldest son is determined to take the hardest classes even with dyslexia. He struggles to see his talent because in honor’s band because he is fourth chair. My second son is a high achieving student at the STEM Academy. My third son is in Gifted and Talented. I have to hope that I can keep it from getting pathological the way mine was. It is so easy to get caught up in honor rolls, sports teams, and even church callings. I remind them of their own inherent worth away from the stage and the trophies and the honors of men. I tell them to take it easy on themselves and enjoy the journey. In some ways it is much easier with boys to keep it from getting out of control.

If I had a daughter, I would never put her in a pageant. For some girls maybe it is okay, but the inherent message that women can be judged, numbered, and ranked is abhorrent to me now. Each of us is beautiful and valuable in our way, and we all deserve to be loved and valued. I would never want my daughter to think that a rhinestone crown somehow defines her.

As far as my boys, I tell them all the time that their grades and their achievements are insignificant to me in comparison with their happiness. I want them to be happy and to know that the Savior loves them. They aren’t defined by their works. The Kingdom of Heaven isn’t open to only high achievers, in fact, a lot of people are going to be surprised at who gets a mansion there. I strongly suspect that a lot of people wouldn’t buy a house in that neighborhood!

3 thoughts on “Depression and Anxiety at 16; the Dark Side of Pageants and Achievement Awards

  1. Dear Little E
    I am sorry you feel we pushed you into that pageant , I didn’t think we did. We always prided ourselves in letting our kids make their own decisions about those kind of things, although we always gave our opinion if you ask! All I remember was a pretty, beautiful young woman who was so happy and positive that we loved havingyou around.💕 Dad

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t feel like you pushed me into the pageant. I do wish that our society was less achievement obsessed. It can exacerbate perfectionism and anxiety in people like me. I wish that I could have enjoyed my successes more instead of driving myself so hard.


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