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Self-Compassion Can Motivate College Dropouts

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college dropout motivation

The majority of college students do not graduate in four years, whether it is due to changing majors, dropping courses, taking time off, or changing expectations of the curriculum. The high school-to-college pipeline is responsible for 30% of college students dropping out during their first year. By year six, 56% of students have dropped out. It is natural for college dropouts to feel like they have given up on their goals, but shame around dropping out of college can lead to losing motivation to make different goals. Self-compassion can motivate college dropouts to rebuild their relationship with themselves and look at their situation as an opportunity to explore what they truly value.

Challenging Fears of Failure

Everyone has a different definition for failure based on goals, values, and belief systems. For one person, a B+ on an exam is an achievement. For another, it may feel like a huge failure. There is no one cause for fear of failure, but it can be linked to being routinely undermined, or overcorrected in childhood. They may begin to believe that any small mistake makes them somehow less worthy of love or praise and can carry those negative feelings into adulthood. Experiencing failure is a natural part of life, but for some people, this fear can feel debilitating. The fear of making a mistake or failing is so great, that it causes them to do nothing instead of taking any risk. Even if that risk may mean growth in the future. 

Experiencing a traumatic event at some point in your life can also be a cause. For example, say that several years ago you gave an important presentation in front of a large group, and you did very poorly. The experience might have been so terrible that you became afraid of failing in other things. And you carry that fear even now, years later.

The New York Times reports, “many teenagers go away to college only to recognize — either because of their grades, their habits, their mental health or all of the above — that they’re not ready for college life.” Many young adults worry that dropping out of college is a reflection of their ability to succeed in the real world. Instead, it is usually not the time or the right place for them to try to pursue an academic degree for a variety of factors that do not reflect who they are as a person. 

Common reasons for dropping out include lack of motivation, family emergencies, financial aid, change in career aspirations, college preparedness, lack of college value, and employment. Taking a step back and looking at reasons leading to the decision to take time off college can help young adults recognize that they made an informed decision that was in their best interest at the time. 

The Benefits of Failing

Failure is often talked about in a negative light, but the reality is that failure is just another way to describe a learning opportunity. It all depends on the way you see the situation. Failing is usually a sign that you are moving outside of your comfort zone into your stretch zone. A comfort zone is just that: comfortable. It feels safe and contained, but there is no real growth or learning happening. When in our stretch zone we’re pushing ourselves by taking on something brand new or relatively new, in order to grow and have different experiences. We’re challenging ourselves without becoming overwhelmed. Thinking about doing these kinds of activities gives us nervous excitement. It is here that we can begin to grow. As we stretch, we are bound to fail at times. No one is good at everything on their first attempt. But experiencing failure builds resiliency as we learn. Each time we fail and try again we learn what didn’t work. There is Thomas Edison’s quote that says: “I haven’t failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” It is this shift in perspective that can help you reframe how you see and experience those failures. 

Rebuilding a Relationship With Oneself

Many young adults struggle with low self-esteem after dropping out of college and allow these beliefs to cloud their perception of the future. Low self-esteem can reinforce unhealthy coping mechanisms that make it difficult to change how young adults feel about themselves. “Self-esteem is a judgment about how valuable I am: very valuable, not so good, not so valuable at all,” claims Dr. Kristen Neff, author of Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. “Self-compassion isn’t about self-evaluation at all. It’s about being kind to oneself.” 

The people in our lives can affect how we feel about ourselves. When they focus on what’s good about us, we feel good about ourselves. When they are patient when we make mistakes, we learn to accept ourselves. This is one of the building blocks for healthy self-esteem. One of the best things you can do to feel more confident in yourself is to be around people who build you up. Hearing other people remind you of your strengths and accomplishments can begin to shift your internal voice. How you speak to yourself plays a large role in how you feel about yourself. If you’re constantly fixating on all of your failures, that becomes all you can see. For example, if you are struggling to connect with peers, your first thought may be: “I’ll never make new friends”. What if instead you were able to think: “Maybe I can make new friends.”? Even that small shift opens you up to a more positive mindset. When you speak to yourself, take a step back and ask yourself if what you’re saying is true, fair, and kind. Allow yourself the same grace you would a friend or loved one. 

Rebuilding a relationship with oneself involves self-forgiveness and self-compassion, which lead to learning goals instead of performance goals, such as trying the same things again and expecting different results. Neff explains, “self-compassion is a healthy source of self-worth because it’s not contingent and it’s unconditional. It’s much more stable over time because it is not dependent on external markers of success, such as grades.” 

Staying Motivated to Reach One’s Goals

For many people, self-criticism is the number one way we motivate ourselves. Many people who have taken time off school feel rushed to return due to shame and fear of perceived failure. They do not allow themselves time to focus on their personal needs and re-evaluate their goals. Although they feel like they have disappointed others by not reaching their previous goals, they struggle to question whether their goals were realistic in the first place–for where they were at the time and in general. 

When creating goals, there is a question you can ask yourself. Is this a S.M.A.R.T. Goal? 

Specific: Having a goal to find a new job is wonderful, but what are the specifics that can help you achieve that goal? Will you need more training or certifications? Be specific about what steps you will need to take.

Measurable: How will you know when you achieve your goal? If your goal is something that will take a longer time to achieve, think about setting smaller goals along the way to help you measure your progress. 

Achievable: Your goal is meant to inspire motivation, not discouragement. Focus on how important a goal is to you and what you can do to make it attainable

Relevant: Think about if your goals make sense in your broader aspirations. We all need support and assistance in achieving our goals, but it’s important to retain control over them.

Timely: Every goal needs a target date so that you have a deadline to focus on and something to work toward. This helps prevent everyday tasks from taking priority over your longer-term goals.

Transitional living programs, like Journey Home East, work with young women reintegrating into the community after leaving school and going to residential treatment. Mentors offer guidance as they look at their values and establish short-term goals that will lead to personal success. 

Journey Home East emphasizes that reaching out for help does not mean you are incapable of reaching your goals, but rather, that you are committed to learning skills that will help you feel better prepared to accomplish them. Mentors helped college dropouts to practice self-compassion by trading criticism for supportive feedback, modeling compassionate self-talk, and encouraging them to befriend themselves. 

Journey Home East Can Help

Journey Home East is a transitional living program for young women ages 16-21. Journey Home East specializes in serving young women who have successfully completed a residential treatment program and/or therapeutic boarding school and have demonstrated significant progress indicating their readiness for a life-skills based transitional living program. It has been recognized that a transition period after residential treatment can be helpful and provide some of these young women with the best chance of ongoing success.

While they are at our program, we help build confidence in young adults. The idea is to wean them off support systems of being in programs for many years and hone in on functional living skills they need to be independent. Journey Home East helps with scheduling for school, classes, work, internships. This program also provides health coaching, relationship building, dating safety and personal safety tips. Students have the opportunity to equip themselves with the skills they need to lead healthy and successful lives post-treatment.

Contact us at 855-290-9684. We can help your family today!