Unhealthy dependence on stress culture

If you didn’t know by now, I attend Pomona College, a liberal arts college in Southern California known for its laidback atmosphere and friendly students.

However, why is it that even in the land of eternal sunshine, warm weather, and cheerful students, I’m still not able to relax?

I find myself constantly plagued with guilt.

I worry that I’m not doing enough, that I should be pushing myself more. I’m worried about “falling behind,” whether it’s from my classmates or students at other peer institutions.

Where did this mentality come from? Why do I feel the constant need to achieve?

It all started in sophomore year of high school, when I started at a new school. I was all alone in an unfamiliar environment. I had no friends and no one to talk to. Focusing on grades and schoolwork provided me an alternative outlet to channel my energy.

If I was busy, I was using time wisely. I was proving to myself that I was valuable. By being busy, I convinced myself that I was creating the possibility of a better life in the future.

Any threat to my productivity was a threat to my sense of self-worth.

Pretty soon I was involved in two charity organisations, the student newspaper, a speech and debate club, and a varsity sport. I took SAT classes after school and during holidays. I got home at 7 p.m. every day and did homework until 2 a.m. I was obsessed with getting straight As, a 2300 on the SAT, and becoming the leader of every club, all with the purpose of getting into my dream university.

And I was utterly miserable.

I was stressed-out. I was getting four hours of sleep every night. I shuffled between school and home like a zombie everyday. My relationships suffered, and so did my mental health. But in some strange sense, I felt that at least my life had purpose. I revelled in my own misery, sleep-deprivation, and overall sense of loneliness and anxiety. I believed that my happiness and self-worth revolved around how busy I was. I clung onto my jam-packed schedule to distract myself from my worries and insecurities.

When I graduated from high school, I was relieved. I had finally escaped the college admissions rat race.

Yet, I find myself falling into the same self-defeating cycle of over-exertion and insecurity in college.

My instinct remains to clutter my schedule with as much as I can handle. As soon as I had the option, I overloaded with five courses instead of the standard four. I’m also doing three extracurricular activities, and working two part-time jobs. And yet, I still think I’m not doing enough.

As high-achieving students, too often we feel the need to cram our schedules with extracurricular activities that we’re not passionate about, and do internships that don’t excite us, all so we can reassure ourselves that we’re not falling behind. But this is a very passive way of thinking. We are not acting out of genuine interest, but out of fear.

We convince ourselves that if we only work harder and push ourselves more, that we’ll finally reach our end goals, and we’ll be happy at last.

I refuse to fall into the same harmful cycle again, and I refuse to make the same mistakes.

Life isn’t a race. It isn’t a competition to see who can reach the top the fastest. In fact, I’m not even sure that there is an end destination. And oftentimes the faster we run, the quicker we burn out in the end.

It’s ok not to have a master plan with everything in your life figured out. Not be busy one hundred percent of the time. It’s ok to take life as it comes.

For now, I need to learn to be ok with leisure.

I’m trying to take time to discover what I am passionate about. After all, find joy in the process, and rather than focusing on the end goal, is the surest way to find fulfilment.

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