“I never feel good enough,” my classmate said. “I always feel like my friends are doing more impressive things than I am. No matter what I do, I always feel inadequate.”
It was the last session of class for the semester, and the tone had become intimate and confessional. The professor nodded. “Okay. Who else feels that way?”
I raised my hand and timidly looked around me. The class was mostly women, including ones I greatly admired – women I had compared myself to before raising my hand. Every single hand was raised.
At that moment, I felt both huge relief and deep sadness. Relief in realizing that I wasn’t alone, and sadness that so many others must feel the same overwhelming pressures that I did to meet an unreachable standard.
The second semester of my junior year, coming back from a semester abroad and feeling isolated, I found myself caught in a spiral of self-doubt and self-blame. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that, despite my internships, past leadership positions, and an impressive GPA, I had already failed myself.
I felt worthless. The self-confidence I had carried without a second thought, back home in high school when I was a big fish in a little pond, crumbled. Any accomplishments I made quickly seemed trivial compared to what everyone else was doing. If I were good enough, I would be the president of some organization, preferably one I had started myself. I would have my academic work published. I would have a Facebook-photogenic group of friends who went out together every night and did fun, cultural things on Sunday afternoons in the spring. I would run half-marathons. I would be working too hard to get enough sleep, but it wouldn’t matter because of how engaged and passionate I would be.
I tried to ignore the feeling and make it go away. But that just made me feel worse, because of course it didn’t go away. It made me unmotivated, unable to command the energy to take on new projects, and so I hated myself for sleeping eight hours a night and numbly watching TV instead of “being productive.” Some nights, the despair went so deep that it was all I could do to call my mother at two AM, sobbing without a reason – sitting on the cold tiles on the bathroom floor with the door shut, so my roommate wouldn’t know. By the time I realized there was a word for what I was feeling – depression – the semester was over and it was time to pack up.
Only too late did I find out how many people feel this way, even though no one talks about it. It shocked me to realize that I wasn’t the only one going through this, that even the peers I admired most felt inadequate, that the façade I measured myself against ruthlessly and mercilessly didn’t actually exist. In real life and on the internet, we’re plagued by the Facebook effect. Everyone’s accomplishments are public but their insecurities are invisible. It creates a vicious cycle. We are all fueled by each other’s successes, trying to race against a receding horizon we cannot reach, which just makes us feel less worthy.
It seems as though this internal, destructive drive towards perfection is more of a female phenomenon. Granted, maybe it’s because I’ve mostly spoken with women about it, and this isn’t to say that men on this campus don’t suffer from anxiety, depression, and the overwhelming pressure to achieve, because they do. But it’s women who are taught to be pleasers from day one, and it’s women who somehow are never able to say no. Courtney Martin captures this in her book, Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, in a quote that gave me chills the first time I read it:
We are the girls with anxiety disorders, filled appointment books, five-year plans. We take ourselves very, very seriously. We are the peacemakers, the do-gooders, the givers, the savers. We are on time, overly prepared, well read, and witty, intellectually curious, always moving…We pride ourselves on getting as little sleep as possible and thrive on self-deprivation…We are relentless, judgmental with ourselves, and forgiving to others…We are the daughters of the feminists who said “You can be anything” and we heard “You have to be everything.”
Speaking to more women on campus, I’ve realized how closely their experiences mirror mine. Yes, we understand that people need to take time for self-care – to sleep, eat well, take time for themselves to relax when the stress is too high – but that’s something other people need to do, not us. If we were as strong as we pushed ourselves to be, we could keep going. Instead, we drink too much and walk home from yet another guy’s house in the morning.* We hope no one notices how many meals we skip or how much time we spend at the gym. But we still don’t live up to the standard, and it doesn’t make us feel better about ourselves.
We need help, but we don’t know how to ask. The reason I never asked my friends for help wasn’t because I was afraid they would say no. I do think that we want to care for each other, and the spirit of community service extends to those closest to us. That wasn’t it. It was because I didn’t feel I could ask, when they all were so busy with such impressive, important things. I didn’t want to be a drag or a buzz kill, and I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t handle the pressure.
We need to talk about this. It’s hard to ask for help because that means we have failed at the basic goal we have aspired to for years – self-sufficient, effortless perfection. Asking for help, and accepting that it is okay to do so, means rejecting that framework entirely, and accepting that we can be valuable people, worthy of love and friendship, even if we didn’t score the internship or win the election or get the A. It’s incredibly hard to do, and I wrestle with it every day.
We are already accomplished and compassionate social justice leaders – we know how to be kind to others. We need to be kinder to ourselves.
*This is not to say that drinking alcohol or having casual sex is inherently bad or unhealthy. Personal context is key.