By Lilly Stewart
I’m burnt out. I tried writing this reflection on the past three years and tried to come up with a hopeful message for my last year of undergrad, but all I get is the same feeling of dread that comes when you click ‘submit assignment,’ knowing you have another one due the next day and that it probably wasn’t your best work. What I’ve realized over the past three years is akin to an imposter syndrome wake up call—I am a B student. Not a C student and sometimes an A or A- student if I get a lenient grader. These (toxic) labels have had a hold on me for a long time. Even my admission that I’m perpetually B-level re-legitimizes defining myself by a letter grade in the first place. Being smart isn’t good enough, you have to work hard. Working hard will get you a B, but it won’t make you naturally academically gifted.
The past three years made me think about labels. Am I ‘the responsible friend,’ or have I been choosing selfish and irresponsible friends? Am I an average student, or does the academic format not lend itself to my strengths (namely, creativity)? Am I ‘quiet’ or just more understated, in a world that rewards flash, noise, and prodigy-level smarts? Sometimes it feels like you have to be the absolute best—doing all the best things, being in all the leadership positions, getting all the best opportunities and internships, landing the best grades, having the best friend group and the cutest clothes—and showing it all off on social media. But honestly, my motto for this year has been “I’m doing my best.” And sometimes my best is not that great. My best might not be THE best, but it’s mine. Shouldn’t that be enough?
I’ve experienced one normal year, one year interrupted, and one year isolated. I can say pretty confidently now that each year, I’ve started to care less and less about getting the perfect grade or having the perfect extracurriculars. I’ve started to care less about finding the right labels to signal my worth to others. There is never going to be a label that fits me. I’m not a B student because sometimes I get As or on occasion, Cs. (Side note: it’s true, C’s DO get degrees, so don’t sweat it too much @ first years). I’m no longer worried about not having found my perfect circle of friends (during a pandemic, no less) because clinging onto people for comfort has only brought me more disappointment when it becomes obvious those people never cared about me. My advice to first and second years who think they have found their ‘best friends’ in college? You might think you are an exception, but you probably aren’t. Be aware of how people actually make you feel. Do they really have your back, when push comes to shove? Or are they just people you surround yourself with for laughs and companionship? You aren’t meant to spend your entire college career with the same ‘gang,’ I promise you. Most people don’t.
Don’t let social media fool you into thinking you aren’t doing enough, that you don’t have enough friends or enough ‘positions,’ (aka labels). Remember, social media will only ever portray the best side of people. It’s cheesy to say ‘you are enough’ or ‘just do your best,’ but these adages are true. The whole ‘there is no try, only do’ is one of the biggest lies ever told (no offense, star wars fans). Sometimes you try, and it doesn’t stick. Sometimes you try, and the other person isn’t trying with you. It’s good to know when to walk away and try something (or someone) new, or simply click submit and hope for the best, content with knowing that you’ve done all you can.
Realizing that labels will never completely fit and that doing your best won’t always result in straight As or dream relationships frees you up to start demanding more of the world around you. If you feel the grade you got was unfair, appeal for a better one. I did that for the first time this year, when before I was always too afraid because I didn’t want to confront people and look entitled. To my surprise, I got the assignment re-graded, and it all worked out. There was some pushback and a few deliberate ‘miscommunications,’ but I held my ground. I am paying to go here, after all. I started opening up with friends and found that I wasn’t alone in a lot of my struggles, fears, and frustrations with labels. I found that I had more support systems than I previously thought and also that some of the supports that I thought were solid were actually flimsy and needed to be let go. All of my best friends live far away from me, so this past year has been a lesson in making efforts to keep connections alive. Some of my friendships have strengthened while others have dwindled and fallen off. But that’s normal, and I think the key is to be okay with the constant change that comes with being human.
As I enter into my fourth and final year of university, I’m planning to focus more on building the right connections and giving myself grace when it comes to grades, friends, my future, or pretty much any other obstacle. The bottom line is, I care much less what other people have to say about me or what they secretly think, or even what they have accomplished compared to me. I’m not some zen sage or anything, so obviously social media and toxic academia will still get to me. I’ll probably still lose sleep wondering why I don’t have close friends at school like ‘everybody else,’ or why I don’t have a paid internship or a great job lined up for after graduation, or why I don’t have the coolest wardrobe like all the influencers I follow on Instagram.
The burnout I have now is that I’m burnt out with being burnt out. Mental and physical exhaustion as a result of school and social drama have only increased my stress, leading to a vicious cycle. If you feel yourself burning out, take a break. Ask for that extension. Advocate for yourself. Reach out to people. Get off social media and go watch your comfort movie. And most importantly, ask for help. I got a piece of advice recently that changed my perspective. When it comes to accomplishing things and ‘getting ahead’ in the final year, especially with roadblocks like a pandemic where opportunities seem scarce, don’t make decisions out of fear. If you are passionate about something or interested in it, go for it, but don’t mindlessly follow everyone else where you think you’ll be successful or popular. If you do, you’ll most likely get frustrated, bored, and burnt out (like I did).
Instead of trying to find the right labels, I’m just going to do my best, persevere, and go towards things that feel right rather than things that look right. Getting through an entire year of school during a pandemic is an accomplishment itself, which I think is easy to overlook when it feels like we should always be on to the next thing (in other words, on to adding another label). But over the past three years, I’ve learned to celebrate the wins more than stressing over the potential failures of the future.