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Life at Princeton is stressful, often feeling like both a marathon and a sprint. The pressure to achieve impressive grades, form meaningful friendships and networks, gain admission to clubs, plan for a prosperous professional life, and seem happy can be incredibly overwhelming, if not frustratingly impossible. This is especially so for the many students who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. Princeton is aware of this culture and promotes self-care and recognition of the fact that “you are not alone.” But this is not sufficient. The philosophy that Princetonians need is one of self-compassion: learning to love and accept themselves, flaws and all, and recognizing that failure is an inevitable and necessary aspect of the Princeton experience. The difference between this and typical self-care may seem trivial, but these are two fundamentally different approaches to building resilience.
Princeton’s current approach to self-care effectively promotes general habits of healthy living, such as obtaining the right amount of sleep, exercising regularly, eating a balanced diet, and maintaining one’s overall physical, mental, and emotional hygiene. This approach can be hazardous, as the promotion of self-care can place even more pressure on students to embody an image of effortless perfection. Moreover, an emphasis on self-care does not in reality provide students with substantive coping skills to healthily survive times when ideal self-care may in fact be impossible. When a student is suffering, the knowledge that they’re also failing to enact self-care may only compound the sensation of inadequacy.
The doctrine of “you are not alone” is hardly an improvement. This idea conveys an abstract sentiment of solidarity and shared stress among students and normalizes the stressful Princeton experience. But when you are alone in a dark, lonely dorm room at 5 a.m. and pulling your second all-nighter in a row to finish a grueling p-set or essay, the idea that you are not alone does not mean much. In those moments, it is nearly impossible to not feel alone and helpless. Princetonians are not in the habit of actually sharing their darkest moments of despair with one another, which can also leave “you are not alone” as nothing more than an hollow idea with no visible evidence to support it.
Given the severe limitations of self-care and the “you are not alone” mentality I strongly urge Princeton to refocus its efforts on promoting self-compassion. Self-compassion essentially fills in the gaps between the idea self-care and the “you are not alone” approach by encouraging Princeton students to be kind to themselves, regardless of how successful they are at meeting life’s relentless demands.
On the surface, self-compassion may seem problematically more passive than self-care, as it does not call for particular actions like sleep and a healthy diet, and it is less collectively unifying than “you are not alone.” But the passivity and individuality of self-compassion are the concept’s strengths; it demands only an intrinsic change of perspective that builds strength and resilience independent of our actions or others.
Self-compassion allows us to maintain self-worth even in our so-called “worst” moments, such as when we are too tired or depressed to get out of bed in the morning or when we cannot muster the energy or the motivation to study for a big test and decide to binge programs on Netflix instead. Similarly, self-compassion can be maintained regardless of whether other students are experiencing the same difficulties. All self-compassion requires is an acceptance of what makes one uniquely human.
Self-compassion can only be made mainstream on Princeton’s campus through concrete programming. During orientation, the University should implement the promotion of self-compassion along with its advocacy of self-care and the “you are not alone” mentality. Such an approach would provide first-year students with a more holistic conceptualization of emotional well-being on campus. For example, the orientation event that Counseling and Psychological Services (CPS) leads in each of the residential colleges would be an ideal venue for familiarizing first-year students with self-compassion. Likewise, CPS should run events throughout the year in the residential colleges and the eating clubs that promote self-compassion through interactive discussions with students about what it means to treat oneself kindly and healthfully.
Further, the University should provide students with more opportunities to actively engage with and embrace self-compassion and mental health more broadly. Regularly scheduling social events such as dog-petting study breaks and casual peer groups that discuss emotional well-being would be a tremendous start. What’s more, the residential colleges and the eating clubs should appoint several students to act as peer counselors who can meet with fellow students to discuss mental and emotional well-being. Such a program would provide students who do not feel comfortable seeing a CPS counselor with an opportunity to discuss mental health with a peer who can more intimately relate to their emotional experiences.
Princeton’s attempt at fostering a mentally healthier campus life is noble yet incomplete. Self-care and the idea that “you are not alone” are simply too limited and problematic to substantively alter Princeton’s stress and burnout culture. Therefore, the synthesis of self-compassion with these existing concepts is necessary to compensate for the limitations in our campus culture at present. All in all, a more self-compassionate campus is ultimately a happier one. Let’s all strive for that.
Originally published at www.dailyprincetonian.com.
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