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Mature Students – Stress and Challenges of Returning to School
Mature learners face practical and emotional challenges
Returning to study as an adult, whether after a hiatus of a few years or several decades is a wonderful opportunity for personal growth and development. Sometimes, however, it poses particular personal and interpersonal challenges that lead to stress and can interfere with the achievement of academic or skill acquisition goals.
It’s worth recognizing that there are typical stresses that can sometimes feel threatening or overwhelming and can cause a mature student to seek help or advice. Here’s an overview of some of the challenges and issues a mature student might encounter that might be worth addressing in personal therapy…
Having trouble getting started?
The youth environment links us back to the younger self: hopes and fears… memories of early failures drag us back. Family issues of origin around competition, self-esteem, fear of success, dependency, and archaic parental expectations may resurface.
What can you finally do now that you couldn’t do then? Dare to try again.
Study again because you have to. The emotional fallout from downsizing, layoffs are being laid off…marriage breakups.
Psychology of being there… and staying there!
Family pressure to stay in old roles, family interference… family drag and actions in response to attempts at change and development. Familial feelings of abandonment create guilt.
Psychological tension of new experiences and new challenges,
- Feelings of inferiority in relation to the abilities of younger peers in an uneasy mix with feelings of superiority around life achievements.
- Tension in group projects that can result.
- Social isolation from fellow students…no fish or birds or good red herrings…feeling both up and down
- Stress of a steep learning curve in the face of technology and study skills that have been lying fallow for many years…you can’t do your 7th grader’s math anymore…so how do you deal with statistics .
Perfectionism, a very common phenomenon that may be serving as a defense and its relationship with self-sabotage.. how your perfectionism gets in your way.
Impostor syndrome… the symptoms are:
- Inability to internalize the feeling of being talented or competent in the face of all objective evidence to the contrary
- Attributing success to external factors unrelated to ability.
- Compare yourself with others
- Highlight the strengths and weaknesses of others
- Minimize the weakness of others and one’s own power.
- Immobilize by the terms
- Avoid challenges
- Demanding perfection and therefore never escaping disappointments
- Feeling anxiety, fear and depression due to pressure to live up to the image of success or fear of being exposed as unworthy or incompetent
Philosophical and moral development
Becoming an Individual: Psychologist Erik Erikson’s Final Stages of Personal Development Begin:
“Generativeness vs. Stagnation”… leads to “Integrity vs. Despair”
Intellectual and moral development of the adult: moral issues around taking an individual stance, giving back to the community.
Carol Gilligan on Women’s Moral Development: Women’s Right to Engage in the Circle of Care and Nourishment. Not always putting the needs of others first.
Sandwich generation… Being a “three-story” sandwich indeed… with responsibilities to the generation above and below…. as well as responsibility to oneself.
Feeling of vocation … Feeling a “calling” to do a job is a powerful driver of effort and sacrifice, but also initially, sometimes difficult to justify or express. The existential need or aspiration to express yourself in this particular way and to create a life that is congruent with your mature values needs validation and support. Luigi Rulla, writing about vocation, argues that the most prominent difference between career and vocation lies in the fact that vocation is not the expression of the self-concept, but the expression of the self-ideal. He argues that vocation has much more to do with the expression of values than career. It is perfectly possible to pursue a career that suits your abilities and the potential of the environment but does not emphasize personal values too much. In mid-life there may be a redefinition of personal values strong enough to cause an upheaval in the professional trajectory. The professional calls have the characteristic requirement that the personal values of the aspirant are consistent with those of the domain or the institution. It suggests that ability and skills are surface attributes that can be modified to a significant degree as the aspirant strives to express deep values.
The emphasis on values can lead a vocational aspirant to make personal sacrifices and to overcome normal considerations of stability, prestige, status and remuneration. This choice may not be equally valued by others around them… and this can lead to interpersonal problems.
Practical and physical considerations…
Coping with physical limits: For men and women, accepting and adapting to increasing limits and a decreasing energy level.
Time management…pulling all-nighters is no longer an option! Need to develop alternative strategies.
Networking: Application of the skills, resources and contact networks of adult life to academic work
Effects of menopause and perimenopause on the psychology and physiology of women.
Don’t suffer in silence
Many of the challenges mentioned above are not limited to mature students
These are often expected challenges of adulthood and middle age…but the added challenge of a return to study can intensify experiences to the point where they feel overwhelming or bring them to light in unexpected ways. Talking about these matters with a thoughtful friend, therapist, or counselor can help normalize the experience and allow you to find realistic and practical ways to deal with issues as they arise.
Going back to school is exciting and also emotionally and psychologically exciting.
Internal turmoil and self-examination may be marked by external manifestations, such as increased physical and mental fatigue, sometimes manifesting as mild depression and social withdrawal, but it is worth noting that research assures us that , even though it feels “destabilizing”, back to Study and career changes are rational responses to dissatisfaction and unmet needs of well-adjusted people!
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