Oh, the Stories We Tell!: On the GRE, turtles, and storytelling

So, just in case this is the only place you follow me, you should know I took the GRE today. It feels really good to be done!

But, that’s not (entirely) what this post is about.

This morning, as I was talking to Sarah about how I was feeling, I realized that the past three weeks of studying in between schoolwork and the like, I never once thought of this as a “high stakes test.” Which it is, in all honesty. For a lot of schools and people, this score is about who you are, what you can do, and where you can go. It was definitely like that the first time I took it (which was 10 years ago). I can remember the anxiety of driving into Pittsburgh, among the big buildings and the tight streets, and feeling anxiety welling up up up in my chest. If I didn’t do well at this test (which I’d waited until the last minute to take, so retaking wasn’t possible to get in for the coming fall), then I had no other plans.

This time? A vastly different picture of Stephanie. Deep breathing. Friendlier streets that I’m (relatively) familiar with. A sense that, if I didn’t do well enough to make the scores a non-issue with my application (which was the bar I was aiming for), I still have options. My identity and selfhood’s worth wasn’t riding on this test.

Wow. Different storyline. Way different experience.

me with kaplan math workbook
Showing love to the Kaplan Math Workbook.

Because I went in with the thought, “Hey, gonna do my best and see what happens.” I had prepared the only way I knew how and I’d spent a ton of my free time over the previous three weeks trying to get myself ready. In some ways, it became a joy to see what I could get on my own – after reading the information – and then learning from what I got wrong. (Also? The Kaplan Math Workbook is amazing! Highly recommended!)

So, fast-forward to this morning, after I finished the test. I had gotten two of my three scores (the third is a writing section and should be available in 10-15 day) and was pleased with the outcome. It was then,  I realized like a cartoon image of me hitting my forehead with the palm of my hand. The story had changed. How I approached the situation changed in kind.

By telling myself that this was about learning, about trying my best – I freed my brain up to be a bit more flexible than if I had told it, over and over, I have to do well I have to do well I have to do well.

When something matters to me – a lot – I tend to get really worked up, really anxious, and kicking myself for everything I see as doing wrong in that sense. While I sometimes may seem really capable, I have so many internal awkward turtle moments where I kick myself and replay it, over and over and over.

And yet, those moments turn out to not be a big deal to most people.

When I dropped the storyline of “This means everything and if I don’t do this absolutely perfectly, I will mentally kick myself – repeatedly,” I was able to be fully present and literally focus entirely on each question. I could feel when my jaw was tensing. I could sense when my shoulders were near my ears (creating a turtling sensation).

When I dropped the storyline that I couldn’t do this, that I was simply doing what I had to and was going to force my way through it, I was able to open up and remember more. It wasn’t about forcing it. It was sinking into what I’d absorbed over hours at the kitchen table the previous weeks.

It’s sometimes so hard to remember that our storylines keep us stuck. I know that it took me nearly a week to even crack open the math workbook – because I kept telling myself I’d never get it. And yet, when I started with the basics and worked with it, I was able to build confidence and find more space in the learning.

What storylines are you hanging on to? How can you find gentleness for yourself in it?


4 thoughts on “Oh, the Stories We Tell!: On the GRE, turtles, and storytelling

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