My first real campus cry was in the laundry room on the fifth floor of South Quadrangle. Sometimes, a good cry isn’t actually about what made you cry. Sometimes, it’s about something else entirely. In this case, I was crying because I had locked my phone in the washing machine. An unfun fact is that once you’ve paid for a wash cycle, the machine door will not unlock under any circumstances. Not if you unplug the machine, not if you manually reset it, not if you call the RA on duty in a state of panic.
I was actually crying about the growing feeling that I was doing everything wrong and that I was completely clueless and destined to ruin my own life. Between when I locked the washer and the end of the cycle, my phone had come to symbolize my ability to adjust to college life.
It was my second day living in South Quad, and I had already met a handful of people in my hall. Virtually all of them saw me at some point while I was running back and forth between my dorm, the first-floor community center and the laundry room. After 37 agonizing minutes of watching my phone spin, I left with a pile of clean clothes, a water-damaged iPhone and the feeling that I wasn’t really cut out to be at the University of Michigan.
Since that fateful first cry, I have had many breakdowns on campus. And while I enjoy a good cry on occasion, I do not consider myself a particularly emotional person. Still, every semester I find myself having at least one public breakdown: in the hallway outside an exam, in a remote corner of the stacks, in the middle of the LSA building. But I’m not ashamed to cry on campus anymore. In the moment, it’s certainly awkward and draws unwanted attention to myself, but I don’t see it as the personal failing or sign of weakness that I once did.
Administrators and students alike have advocated for a healthier campus culture, where students can be open about their struggles. But no one wants to be the person who struggles publicly, the poor soul sobbing in the middle of the Shapiro Undergraduate Library.
Crying on campus is uncomfortable. It’s awkward and demoralizing and sometimes downright embarrassing. It’s also an inevitability of college life because we can only pretend we have it all together for so long. Improving students’ mental health will mean creating a world where we don’t have to bottle up our emotions or feel ashamed of our struggles. It will mean creating a world where we’re all free to cry on campus from time to time.
Despite the fact that our emotional reactions are often beyond our control, crying in public, or even semi-public, is still seen as weak or shameful. There’s a whole genre of writing detailing how to mitigate the awkwardness of crying in public— at work and in class, both in-person and online.
This aversion to emotional release stems from deep-seated cultural norms that deprivilege emotionality. Stoicism, the umbrella term for these norms, emerged as a school of philosophical thought in ancient Greece in the third century B.C. It “preached detachment from the passions and a belief in the supremacy of our rational mind.” Simply put, stoics wanted to “master themselves through the control of their emotions.” Rationality and emotional stability, their thinking went, would lead to true happiness.
All of this is to say that there is a deeply rooted cultural tradition of emotional suppressions. And there’s immense value in emotional regulation and rationality. Adult life often means making decisions based on logic. But what happens when this goes to the extreme, when our collective preference for level-headedness precludes us from acknowledging and honoring our own feelings?
Against the backdrop of our collective rejection of emotionality is the rise of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as “a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success.” Over 80% of people report experiencing imposter syndrome at some point. There’s something paradoxical about it: the vast majority of people believe that they’re uniquely inadequate and deceptive, that they’re the only one who’s faking it. Nevertheless, this singular sense of inadequacy is incredibly isolating and pushes students to further internalize their emotions. If you’re the only one who’s struggling, then there’s nothing to be gained from vulnerability. In fact, honesty and openness will only serve to expose you as the imposter you already know you are.
And so we come to a point where mental health on college campuses declines every year, students are reporting near unimaginable levels of self-doubt and everyone on campus is totally managing their 18-credit course load, five extracurriculars and part-time job besides you. Everyone is doing great, but no one is feeling good.
Every student knows the answer to the question “what’s your go-to breakdown spot,” even if they won’t admit it.
“Under the stairs in the MLB is my favorite place to cry,” LSA senior Alli Williams said. U-M alum Maria Ulayyet liked to cry on the steps of the Michigan Union at night. “I really thought I had the best cry spot in college,” Ulayyet reminisced. After visiting the financial aid office, Information senior Huda Shulaiba frequently cried in the Student Activities Building. Former University President Mark Schlissel infamously said he “wasn’t sure if (he) ever cried on campus” and that he relied on his wife for emotional support (five days later Schlissel was fired, and it was revealed he was cheating on his aforementioned wife).
I don’t know if it’s my favorite place to break down, but floor 2B of the Hatcher Graduate Library stacks is by far my most frequented cry spot. The first time I cried there was during finals at the end of my freshman year fall semester. I had been studying for Math 116 all morning and was certain I was going to fail. No matter how many practice problems I did, my projected exam score stayed in the low 60s.
When I felt like I couldn’t sink any lower, my roommate texted me that she had come down with mono and was highly contagious. We had invited friends over to our dorm that weekend and taken sips of each other’s drinks — my chances didn’t look good. Honestly, I wasn’t worried about myself. I was at such a low that pretty much anything could’ve happened to me then, and I wouldn’t have cared. I was breaking down because I worried about how I was going to tell the guy I had been hooking up with that I almost certainly had mono. I irrationally was convinced he’d hate me and never want to see me again and because of that, I’d fail calculus and then all my other classes too. And thus began a long tradition of crying in the Hatcher Graduate Library stacks; sometimes about classes, sometimes about boys, sometimes about the general sense of inadequacy and dread brought on by college life. But it was always with the sense that everyone was watching me and silently judging me while I sobbed.
This sense of judgment and otherness is the defining characteristic of crying on campus. A team of psychologists at the University of Queensland in Australia surveyed over 200 adults about their attitudes on crying. They found that there were three main views: crying in private makes them feel good, crying in private makes them feel bad and crying in public makes them feel bad. Participants who expressed the latter belief reported feeling ashamed and judged when they cried in public.
But when people were surveyed about how they felt when others cried in public, the responses were much more empathetic. When asked “do you think it is acceptable for men/women to cry in public,” 72% of respondents on a 2016 YouGov poll said it was okay for men, and 82% said it was okay for women. In other words, other people are not, in fact, severely judging you when you break down in the UgLi. It seems we’re willing to extend grace and understanding to others when we aren’t willing to give it to ourselves.
Imposter syndrome and student mental health have been deconstructed and discussed at length, both at the University and more broadly. Our cultural ethos seems to be in agreement that a) it’s a problem, and b) it’s caused, in part, by an implicit pressure to act like everything is fine, no matter how we’re really feeling. Dismantling imposter syndrome and creating a healthier campus culture will require us to be more transparent about our struggles. It will require openness and vulnerability, but no one wants to be open and vulnerable.
Engineering senior Tess Mello once broke down in the front row of her statics class while her Graduate Student Instructor watched. “It was embarrassing in the moment to cry in the classroom and know people could see my breakdown, but there was nothing I could do to stop it,” Mello explained. “A lot of (the embarrassment) was not wanting people to see me in that state and not wanting to make the people around me uncomfortable.”
Mello speculated she wasn’t the only one feeling that way. “We’ll joke about struggling really hard in fluid mechanics but going home and crying to sleep about it doesn’t happen to every student, but it happens to more than we’re willing to admit,” she said.
U-M alum Rachel Ives cried in her first organic chemistry lecture after a big exam. “I think it felt extremely demoralizing to cry in a public place because it means you’re at your last resort,” Ives said. “I have to be in class and learning so I don’t fail the next exam, but I’m also clearly not emotionally ready.”
Aishu Ramaswami, a rising sophomore in LSA, cried in the Undergraduate Science Building after taking the first quiz in her Tamil class. “I was so upset because the language is actually my family’s mother tongue,” Ramaswami said. “Taking Tamil was my first time learning how to speak and read the language … It was a mix of shame that I didn’t know my cultural language, shock because this was the first time I had failed a quiz and overall nerves and imposter syndrome from starting college and wondering if I belonged at U-M.”
But despite these fears of being judged, students frequently cry on campus about very ordinary things. Struggling with exams, academic performance, imposter syndrome and belonging are near universal experiences in college.
My freshman year of college was one of the best times of my life and also one of the hardest. I formed meaningful friendships, experienced a level of independence I never had before and fell in love for the first time (spoiler alert: The guy I almost gave mono to did not end up hating me forever). I also struggled to find my place as a working-class student at a wealthy university, developed an eating disorder and started seeing a therapist for my anxiety. I never imagined that I would sink so low, but there I was, time and time again, crying in the Hatcher stacks.
I am not, for the record, saying we should break down all the time or even that crying on campus is a good thing. In fact, crying on campus is often deeply uncomfortable and terribly vulnerable. I am saying that we should normalize emotionality and vulnerability.
I don’t regret crying on campus, but I wish I would’ve found healthier outlets to deal with feelings. I wish I would’ve been kinder to myself, I wish I would’ve gone to therapy before I started coping by starving myself, I wish I would’ve let my friends help me when they tried.
I probably would’ve still cried on campus a few times even if I did all those things, but my freshman year would’ve been a lot easier.
New students — you will cry in public. Probably more times than you can remember and definitely more times than you’re willing to admit. In that moment, it might feel like you’re the only one who struggles, and the only one who doesn’t have it together. You aren’t. And if you want to make it through your first year unscathed, you’ll need to find ways to be kind to yourself, find people you can be open and vulnerable with and maybe even find a go-to cry spot on campus.
Statement Columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.