There have been a lot of news stories recently about cheating at some of the country’s most prestigious schools. While cheating is nothing new, these incidents are indicative of a different, more systemic problem. Cheating used to be considered the result of poor preparation and poor impulse control. Students now seem to regard cheating as a necessary evil to keep up with the ever increasing demands of the hyper-competive world in which we live. Some perpetrators describe themselves as having good intentions of helping their fellow students reach higher levels of achievement. They don’t seem to grasp the ethical breach involved in cheating. Nor do they seem to mind that their elevated GPAs and test scores are hollow victories.
The bitter irony of all of this striving is that it does not bring happiness or fulfillment. For students, there is always the next test, the better school, the coveted internship. For adults there is the higher salary, the bigger house, the nicer car, the next luxury item and, of course, the accomplishments of our children to bolster our sense of worth. The high of these achievements wears off quickly and we are left with the sense of emptiness that comes from living life in search of external validation.
I see this everyday with my patients. I see it in the college student who takes on too much so that she can get into a good graduate school for a career she isn’t even sure she wants. I see it in the mother who, despite her exhaustion, refuses to give her baby a bottle because she believes that exclusively breast feeding makes her a better mother. I see it in the dedicated husband and father who feels never has sufficient time to give to his job, his wife and his children so he doesn’t feel entitled to take care of himself. What all these people have in common is that they lack an internal sense of being enough. I do not mean that they are not doing enough, because they do plenty. I mean that they feel empty despite their successes.
External validation is valuable to the extent that it is an accurate reflection of our internal state. We all want to be acknowledged for our efforts whether in the form of a grade, a salary or a simple compliment. However, you find yourself constantly striving and never arriving, slow down and ask yourself the toughest question: How will I know when I am enough?