Thrive on Campus//

Performative Stress is Self-Sabotage

On any given moment of every single day, you'll pass by a student announcing their stressors, lamenting their inability to complete a number of necessary tasks, and predicting their inevitable failures.

TierneyMJ/Shutterstock
TierneyMJ/Shutterstock

Welcome to our special section, Thrive on Campus, devoted to covering the urgent issue of mental health among college and university students from all angles. If you are a college student, we invite you to apply to be an Editor-at-Large, or to simply contribute (please tag your pieces ThriveOnCampus). We welcome faculty, clinicians, and graduates to contribute as well. Read more here.

When I went home for the weekend to go to an old friend’s birthday party, I realized that I had forgotten how to have a normal conversation. It took me a full three hours and two cups of coffee before I could stumble awkwardly back into silly jokes, easy laughter, and wild claims with little necessary data and fewer consequences. Still, when the night was brushing up against morning and Super Smash Bros. was bright on the television, I found myself holed up in a bedroom, staring blankly at an essay outline that was due in a week. It still ended up aggressively average, I’m still a little upset about it.

This is old news, right? College students have a stress culture problem, and on the Columbia campus, it’s particularly bad. Sure, talking about, or perhaps even bonding over, our hellish experiences provides a form of social connection that doesn’t feel so horrifyingly disconnected from our impending workloads. Basically, we don’t feel as bad ignoring our work if we’re doing so by complaining about our work. It validates our struggles while placing us in the social hierarchy of stressed out that has all but replaced coolness.

But if “stress culture,” as a tradition and social force, pervades our undergraduate lives, why can’t we call it what it is? Repetitive, self-sabotaging behavior, performed by an unusually high-functioning, perfectionist group of individuals.  

That’s right—we undergraduates have a self-sabotage problem. Self-sabotage can be defined as an act that seems momentarily helpful, but ultimately undermines personal success, especially when repeated. You may have read the Forbes article about how procrastination is a self-sabotaging behavior. You may be less aware that other harmful behaviors, like self-medication (caffeine, alcohol, Adderall?) and comfort eating (JJ’s, anyone?) are also types of self-sabotage.

Perhaps an even less obvious form, although a much more prevalent one, is our collective practice performing stress. On any given moment of every single day, you’ll pass by a student announcing their stressors, lamenting their inability to complete a number of necessary tasks, and predicting their inevitable failures.

I’m not denying that undergraduates tend to take on an excessive amount of responsibility at this school. Our classes are difficult, and our teachers are often less than understanding when life happens. As overachievers (or maybe just humans eventually hoping to be employed in a very competitive market) we are usually also involved in non-academic endeavors. On campus, these activities certainly take on a more cutthroat, corporate aura of responsibility. Still, you can’t ignore that this life—a rigorous curriculum, a competitive student body, and a reduced social sphere—was entered by choice. In fact, we are usually praised by a culture of self-made American productivity for opting into it.

So why do we constantly complain about these choices? Probably because that tragic spotlight feels so good. I mean, come on, you have to admit that stacking up all your tasks in a messy little rant makes you a little bit happy. Or, at least it validates the need for attention that we all seem to be lacking. For a moment, you are the busiest, and the most impressive.

Not to mention, placing all of your impossible feats in conversation with each other seems to minimize the importance of that one thing you should really be working on (maybe instead of the dramatic climax to your impromptu monologue). At the very least, publicizing the fact that you don’t expect to do well on something certainly constructs a pretty little cushion to fall onto if you actually end up failing.

Maybe this works for you. Maybe, somehow, pretending to feel bad about everything you’re choosing to do here actually alleviates some of your anxiety. (And, because our stress is a primary source of social connection, I can kind of understand why). However, there are long term consequences of performing stress culture.

Neuroscience tells us that pretending to experience an intense emotion actually further induces the experience of that emotion. Ruminating on your problems usually only makes you feel worse, and more helpless, in facing them. Expressing your frustration might lead to some suggested solutions from friends, but directing a sustained focus towards your bad feelings will usually make that anger grow and remain longer than it would otherwise. Not to mention that human beings can really only focus on one thing at a time. This should come as a surprise to no one, but focusing on being stressed isn’t helping you address any of the tasks that are making you stressed.

Not only do these behaviors create harmful personal effects, but they negatively impact our social interactions as well. Truly beneficial friendships aren’t built on negativity. And now, when someone is genuinely struggling in a way that might normally cause concern, we brush it off as if they were performing an accepted social ritual.

So what do we do about it? I mean, just asking that question presents an important solution. For me, saying “what can you do?” in response to my own unnecessary rants has been particularly helpful in identifying when problems have a specific solution. This question works to undo the self-sabotage of complaining about my problems without making any effort to solve them.

If no specific solution arises, I know that getting to work is the only way to truly combat my stress. When it comes to doing that work, I would really recommend getting out of high-stress environments on campus. Instead of working in notoriously sweaty libraries, I like to gather a few of my friends and haul them to cafes on the Upper East Side, the lawns, or even empty classrooms to do our homework. During study breaks, I text a few not-Columbia friends to avoid going insane with the fear of inadequacy. This is all to say that environment impacts learning immensely, so stop sabotaging yourself—construct an environment that encourages productivity instead of stress.

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More on Mental Health on Campus:

What Campus Mental Health Centers Are Doing to Keep Up With Student Need

If You’re a Student Who’s Struggling With Mental Health, These 7 Tips Will Help

The Hidden Stress of RAs in the Student Mental Health Crisis

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