The Fear of Being Ourselves

Enter: Dr. Hibiscus

In Kate Fagan’s What Made Marry Run, a gripping portrayal of the life and death of college freshman Madison Holleran, an unforgettable comment is offered in a discussion of student mental health.  Reflecting on the psychology of today’s college students, a student (using the pen name “Dr. Hibiscus”) wrote the following :

Our main source of stress was that we were simply not allowed to be human… My generation is not suffering because we didn’t learn how to lose a game of flag football. We’re suffering because everything we do is filtered through a lens of consumerism. We see ourselves as “products” to be “branded” and “marketed” in all venues of our lives: social, romantic, and professional. This has been a mindset inculcated into us from an early age.

EVERYTHING we do is seen as instrumental towards marketing ourselves for the college admission boards, or for the job market, or to help us rush a fraternity or sorority, or to help us win friends, or to help us be a more attractive potential partner. You see the capitalist worldview has infiltrated our psychology, and our sense of self-worth. And it is toxic. It results in fear of being ourselves and following what we really want to do. It results in micro-managing every aspect of our lives to best effect so that it looks good for Facebook or LinkedIn or Tinder. It results in constant comparisons with our peers (which causes depression) and catastrophizing of any potential dent to our marketability (which results in anxiety). Essentially, it results in a dehumanized mindset.


What Role Do We Each Play?

This comment is an important window into the mindset of our high school and college students. The student’s strong vocabulary allows him to describe a striking parallel between people and products. We can ask ourselves: do many of today’s students feel a need to “brand” themselves in various ways? More importantly, are they at all aware that this need is influencing their behaviors and attitudes? How might we help them gain an awareness? And subsequently, what actions can be taken once they’re aware of the concept of “personal branding”?

“Dr. Hibiscus” puts forth a bold claim: the stress endured by competitive academics (and a comparison-ridden social environment) is dehumanizing. In what ways might our dialogues about academia and life are reinforcing this competitive energy? Immersed in an environment where so many students feel their worth is contingent on external factors – grades, college acceptances, test scores – what does it take to help a high schooler understand that there are other, more important metrics? How can we motivate behaviors coming from the heart, and not from a concern for “marketability”? These are critical questions for parents, counselors, tutors and students themselves.


Finding Success on YOUR Terms

By diving into their own, personal definitions of the word “success,” students can be empowered to reconsider their assumptions and recognize the pressures acting upon them. At North Coast, this is a critical part of our goal for students: that they learn to acknowledge and label external pressures, in the hopes of making a conscious decision about how much weight to give them.

Finally, a theme we’ll come back to: don’t compete (unless there’s truly no alternative). Instead, be creative. Create new opportunities. Ask around. Find the least crowded channel. 

When you compete, someone, by definition, must lose. In contrast, if you collaborate, you transcend the zero-sum game and create a unique opportunity for yourself and others.