Starting a new semester is the perfect time to reflect on your goals and priorities. This turning point is an opportunity to analyze how to improve as a student, friend and member of society. If we always followed the same patterns, we would never step out of our comfort zone to try something new. However, this can also lead our minds down a path of negativity against ourselves.
Many college students tell themselves they need to study more, take on a higher position, eat healthier, appear more attractive and more successful to themselves and to others. This constant pressure to be and do more pushes many students to their limits. Where college students are the most self-destructive is academics. Getting good grades is the most common pressure for U.S. teens, so students who perceive themselves as falling behind are often viscously hard on themselves. There are two forms of self-criticism: comparative self-criticism, in which they compare themselves to others, and internalized self-criticism, in which they never meet their own definition of success. An unhealthy cycle is formed. College students with the highest levels of self-criticism also set the highest standards for themselves. They create higher expectations to reach, never believe it’s enough and can never be satisfied.
In the eyes of this generation, it’s impossible to ever feel as though we are doing “enough.” With the ever-present, manufactured realities of social media, there are endless opportunities for comparison. Every day, we are presented with people close to our own age who have and do more than us: people who lead more glamorous lifestyles, people who are more accomplished than us. Every profile establishes a “presentation of self,” the persona they present online, to create an appealing and desirable profile, yet this presentation is chosen with a purpose.
Online presentations of self are often calculated. One of the main strategies used by micro-celebrities — those well known on the internet but only to niche audiences — and everyday people alike is the illusion of an authentic life. In the context of celebrities, audiences want to be let into the “backstage” of a star’s life — they want to see the space where this person is their most authentic self. However, the “backstage” is often manufactured. These stars only show the hours when they are most productive, the meals with the best food or the moments they laugh the hardest.
College students are constantly comparing themselves to their peers. Everyone wants to be seen as if they have everything together and know their direction. On one hand, there is the desire to be recognized for their effort and being driven. On the other hand, there is the desire to put in the least effort and still be successful.
There is immense pressure to be “that person” who is envied and looked up to by everyone. But what set of characteristics does this even include? Students are constantly trying to demonstrate that their effort is paying off. That the hours of effort, tears and emotions aren’t placing them in the same position as everybody else, that all this hard work is setting them apart. Even when it feels impossible to balance such a busy schedule, everyone around you appears to be doing it: why can’t you?
Why has our society begun to ignore the ways we damage and torture our bodies to demonstrate we are hardworking and deserve the credit? “I haven’t eaten yet today,” also known as malnourishment. “I only slept for 4 hours last night,” or sleep deprivation. “I studied for 10 hours today,” cramming. “I drank four cups of coffee today,” over-caffeination. All of these terrible actions only put your body at a disadvantage, yet these types of comments and actions are seen as signals of a career-focused person. There is a list of contrasting goals leading to unrealistic expectations no balanced life could meet.
Going into my first semester at the University of Michigan, I maintained the same standards for myself I had held before college. I expected the same grades, to participate in the same number of activities, have the same number of friends and engage in a similar way with my outside interests. I had always considered myself to be a goal-oriented and curious person. But in college, nothing about my life was the same. It was unrealistic to believe that in this new environment I would perform the same way, have the same strengths and weaknesses or desire the same life. I began to feel as though I was failing because my old expectations didn’t align with my new lifestyle.
I applied to write for The Michigan Daily because I was always discovering new topics to discuss in high school. However, once I was living in this new environment, I couldn’t channel that curiosity into my writing. I thought I was failing at something that had once come much easier to me. I couldn’t meet my standards because I needed more realistic ones. Even though it was difficult, when my first piece was published, I posted it to my Instagram story and sent it to my friends and family. They all congratulated me on my accomplishment. Due to the illusion of transparency, I presented an accomplished version of myself. Even when I worked on pieces for 10 hours, often losing sleep over my struggle to perform the same again, others couldn’t see that. I contributed to the creation of this false, unattainable reality in our society. I was not transparent, but I continued to believe everyone else was.
I felt immense pressure to appear to be “that person” because I wanted to believe that I was. Why do we continue to perpetuate self-presentation of the most ideal, successful version of ourselves to everyone? Why do we produce a fabricated “backstage,” when we have this opportunity to connect with others experiencing the exact same issues? Everyone falls under the pressures of others and unknowingly places these same pressures on their peers. If we became more honest with ourselves and others, we could facilitate a less toxic environment that encourages, and learns to appreciate, the discomfort that comes with growth.
Gabby Rivas is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.