I r emember walking into my friends’ dorm room in 10th grade. The girls were looking in the mirror with disgust, taking turns saying parts of their bodies they didn’t like. For a second, I thought I had walked onto the set of “Mean Girls.” Within a few moments, I noticed myself inching toward the mirror, my reflection staring at every flaw, judging every imperfection.
Years later, I walked into my freshman dorm room at Penn. Two girls stretched out on their small twin “XL” beds in Hill debating who did worse on their chemistry midterm. “I’m not good enough.” “Why do I even want to be a doctor?”, “I’m not going to get into any med school.” Their anxiety was contagious, and it took me a few minutes to snap out of the back and forth. By that time, I had remembered my midterm last week that I didn’t do so well on and my writing seminar essay due that night that no matter how long I sat in front of my computer, still didn’t seem like English.
Penn breeds and depends on competition. Sometimes the competition is good. It drives us. But to what extent can we let competition permeate into every part of our lives? The last thing we need is to compete over who we are as opposed to what we do. More and more often, I find myself questioning if our fear of failure ultimately motivates us to accomplish great things or paralyzes us more.
Each of us has walked into a “med school existential crisis” or “Regina George” setting all too many times in one way or another. Yet, we don’t need a physical mirror to find plenty of other ways to put ourselves down. It starts with “Who still has the most acne” or “Who has the biggest love handles?” Yet it all too quickly transitions into “Who has pulled the most all-nighters? Who feels the most overwhelmed? Who has an eating disorder? Who goes to the gym the least?” The context may vary, but the question remains the same: What are you best at saying you’re the worst at?
The truth is, we have become all too comfortable in a perpetual state of stress and self-degradation. If we aren’t anxious, we feel something is wrong. If we aren’t drowning in a sea of bio labs, accounting “quizzes” or status reports, we aren’t swimming fast enough. At a certain point, we have to question how healthy it is to be endlessly assaulted by anxiety. Are we supposed to constantly beat ourselves up in fear of someone else beating us to it? “You’re not good enough”, “You’re a failure,” “Why are you so stupid?” If our self-talk were a fighter, Rocky wouldn’t stand a chance.
I don’t have the answers to these questions - I struggle with them everyday - but I think it’s important to question how comfortable we are with our negative self talk to the point that it has become unconscious. We think that by taking our problems lightly - by turning our insecurities into just another competitive game - we can minimize whatever is really going on. We mask our real fears and bury them in a sea of school work and inflated anxiety.
Perhaps, by constantly undervaluing ourselves, we’re attempting to give ourselves the leeway to screw up.
The only way to handle the pressure at Penn is to be kind to ourselves. How can we expect to take in others’ kindness if we can’t even accept our own? The first step is to notice when we are having these self-deprecating conversations, these counterproductive back and forth “I am more stressed”, “No, I’m more stressed” competitions. To make the unconscious conscious and to challenge ourselves to squirm a little, to not be so comfortable in negative self-talk.
Once we acknowledge our real fears and pain, we allow ourselves to celebrate our real successes and joys. The norm shouldn’t be self-degradation, but self-love.
Give yourself a break. Accept compliments, as all you have to say is “Th ank you.” Laugh a little. And the next time you step in front of the mirror, smile just because.
ALLYSON ZUCKER is a College sophomore. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.