In the lobby of the School of Kinesiology building, my friend and I were reminiscing about our high school days. We reflected on how college had changed the both of us. At some point, I jokingly brought up one of my college essay drafts in which I described myself as a “chill” and “laid-back” person. I had expected a playful remark of some sort or just a nod of acknowledgement. To my surprise, she responded that the Daisey she knew in high school was incredibly uptight, obsessed with academics and getting into a good college.
Weeks later, while drinking my frappuccino and brainstorming topics for a Michigan in Color piece, I thought about this conversation once again. I was convinced that what she said wasn’t true: “I’m literally such a down-to-earth person. How could she say that? My sophomore year roommate studies all the time, while I take five-hour naps” were all thoughts running through my head.
However, when I really thought about it, I realized some truths: Before this summer, I was obsessed with being a high achiever.
In the past, I always had a sinking feeling when someone answered questions correctly quicker than me. When I was rejected from a summer internship program, I was jealous of others who were able to enjoy its stipends and fellowships. On top of taking difficult STEM classes every year since I started at the University, I was an active member in at least five organizations and also did six hours of research each week. Yet, I felt like I needed to do more as a pre-med student to set myself apart. All these complex and negative emotions were tied to the values instilled in me as a child.
In my memories, I return to elementary school, where I was constantly competing against another girl in class. Whenever we got our test scores back, one of us would consistently score two percent higher than the other person. In our computer class, we alternated as the fastest typer in our grades every year. Ultimately, I came out on top when we graduated. The need to be the best was instilled and further perpetuated by my parents, who wanted me to excel in comparison to my peers. My father took it upon himself to teach me the multiplication tables beyond what was required and signed me up for IXL, a website dedicated to providing math problem sets. In middle school, I was signed up for ICAE (Indus Center for Academic Excellence), another program with a focus on competition math. One car ride home from school, my father told me that I needed to be the best to get into “HYP” (Harvard, Yale and Princeton) or comparative schools (mind you, I was still in elementary school).
Therefore, it wasn’t odd that going to a prestigious college was stuck in my mind through middle and high school. And that meant aiming to be the best at what I did. I took the hardest classes alongside the brightest and hardest working peers at my school. I took a Pre-Calculus Honors summer course to skip into AP Calculus AB my sophomore year. When my friend added AP Computer Science into her schedule, I did the same, even when I lacked the basics. At some point, I wasn’t taking these classes because I enjoyed the subject but rather to show that I was better than the average student at my high school. On the inside, I kept convincing myself that if I wasn’t doing well at academics and extracurriculars, it was all my fault. I gave up easily and avoided asking for help whenever I ran into obstacles because I believed that was all I was capable of. I normalized stress and anxiety to the point that I thought everyone felt the same nervousness as I did every day.
Going into college, I held that same mindset. Despite not being in the Honors program, I took one statistics and two organic chemistry honors classes. When I didn’t perform well in those classes, I would scour Reddit (clearly I was in high-panic mode) to see if medical schools would accept my GPA. During the Fall and Winter semesters, I constantly felt overwhelmed with being on the pre-med track and the insatiable need to succeed over my peers. Even more so, socially, I constantly felt alone and had severe FOMO since I chose to dedicate most of my time to improving my chances at medical school. While my friends played volleyball or attended parties together, I was always in the library studying for an exam. When I scrolled through their social media posts the next morning, I often felt left behind and disconnected from my friend group.
I felt burnt out towards the end of sophomore year in college. I was close to seeking a therapist or really anyone who I could just talk to about feeling deeply unaccomplished in my academic and personal life. I refused to believe I had a case of the infamous Imposter Syndrome, and I felt very embarrassed talking to my friends, whose lives seemed so put together. I knew that I was breaking down. Hiding behind my bed at home and crying my eyes out for no reason a week before the start of Winter semester was a sign that I needed help.
Before summer began, I consulted one of my friends about how I was feeling, and he suggested that I try opening up to my friends more before going to therapy. One of my lab partners also talked about her goal of improving herself rather than obsessing over how she compares to her peers. After these conversations, I realized that I could feel better about myself if I put more time into taking care of my mental health and changing my mindset. I ultimately chose to forgo the therapy option, and I decided to spend the summer in Ann Arbor, which culminated into a healing journey for me full of many “firsts.” (My decision to forgo therapy was solely my own, if you or someone else you know is struggling with mental health, please see the bottom of this article for resources.)
Right after classes ended, I had a brief period of no obligations since my research position started a few weeks later. I finally had enough time to sit and reflect under the bright, summer sun and put myself and my happiness first. Because I didn’t need to worry about my grades and extracurriculars, I reconnected with my old hobbies while exploring new ones. I started a GoodReads book challenge and binged Korean Dramas. I decided to join MiC so I could express myself more through writing. I met with old friends and even professors and GSIs from classes that I really enjoyed — coincidentally, the majority were from writing classes. I also celebrated my birthday with my old friends and new ones I made during the summer. A week ago was the first time I used a Spin scooter on campus. The new experiences I’ve had in the last two months have allowed me to let go and have fun, something that is difficult during the busy and stressful school-filled semesters.
Treating myself and prioritizing my mental health has also improved my academic and social dilemmas. While I still feel antsy about FOMO (especially with the summer Instagram posts), I found ways to keep myself busy and make my own company fun. Instead of checking my phone constantly, I now spend more of my time reading and working. I used to feel guilty about missing out, but I learned that I can balance hanging out with friends and enjoying my own time. Before, I only applied for opportunities that looked good for medical school applications, but now, I focus more on what I enjoy doing. My mindset has changed from “I need to do this to boost my application” to “I’m making a difference in people’s lives, as well as my own.” Now, I feel a sense of fulfillment instead of an obligation to check off to-do items. Even though I’m still pushing myself, I think I’m finally heading in the right direction.
Sometimes, we need time to just slow down and re-evaluate our goals and feelings. This year, I felt a huge weight lifted off of me when I decided to take the month of May off. I had the opportunity to rediscover myself and my goals again. Finally, I’m joining activities that are important to me, and I feel control over my own life. While I still struggle with finding balance in my life, I think asking myself “How are you?” and “Do you need a break?” has helped a lot, along with a couple of necessary cry sessions. I feel more in tune to myself, and I am proud of myself, even if healing requires taking a step back.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, consider the following campus resources:
Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) (734) 764-8312
Wolverine Support Network (WSN) wsndirectors@goldaaumich-edu
MiC Columnist Daisey Yu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org