I frickin’ hate the word “stress”. But I use it all the time. And hear it all the time.
Throughout “Upper School” (private school way of saying middle school without the emotional and physical connotation that comes with that horrible time period), I was stressed.
All of a sudden I got to high school and things just stopped stressing me out. I had so much I needed to get done and was way over-involved, yet I felt happy and free. I definitely had reason to be stressed, but I wasn’t.
Then I got to Duke and I got stressed again.
So lately I’ve been trying to figure out what spurs this stress and why it stays.
And I think I know.
What spurs this stress is the overwhelming feeling that I need to do everything perfectly or else I’ll let someone down. Or, worse, that I’ll let myself down.
I went to a small private school growing up and anything you did, everyone knew about. Anytime you didn’t get an A, someone knew. Anytime you got an A, someone knew. Anytime you had a party over the weekend, anyone who wasn’t invited knew. And the teachers knew. Anytime you weren’t on your best behavior or were just having one of those days, everybody freaking knew.
I’m not bitter; I’m just saying.
Some people love that. But I didn’t because I wasn’t mature enough to respond to that environment in a way that kept me from feeling extremely stressed and judged.
By knowing that so many people were watching my every move, I felt intense stress—this feeling of overwhelment—that I couldn’t let anyone down. I had to be superwoman and do everything perfectly, always be on my best behavior, be best friends with everyone, love all my teachers, and just be perfect in general.
But that’s impossible. And it was so exhausting that I was just constantly stressed. In an environment that promoted being your best all the time, I responded in a way that wasn’t healthy. And now here I am at Duke falling into the same trap.
The irony of all of this is that I’m causing myself so much stress over something that’s impossible.
I WILL let someone down.
I WILL fail.
I WILL be a bad friend.
I WILL be a bad student.
So here’s how I’m destressing myself:
I’m forming relationships where I don’t have to pretend I’m superwoman.
I’m distancing myself from relationships where I feel like I’m judged if I’m not superwoman.
I’m loving myself for all of my unbelievable faults. I’m cherishing the people in my life who love me despite those.
I’m admitting that I will let someone down, and I’m accepting it when it happens. I’m asking for forgiveness, then not dwelling on it if the person can’t comprehend that there really are imperfect people out there.
Just last week I made a huge mistake. I read on the syllabus for one of my classes that we had to read two super long novels. One was due last week, and one is due this coming week. I knew I had two presentations coming up, three papers, an exam and a bunch of club meetings around that time, too, so I tried to get ahead.
I read the first entire book well ahead of the due date so that all of this week I could just read the second book at a slower pace when I had time.
On Wednesday I got to class feeling proud of myself for having finished the book over a week before. I was handed the pop quiz that ensured whether we had read, looked at it, and panicked. I didn’t recognize a single question. After my mind calmed down a bit, I realized I had gotten the two books confused. The one I had read was for next week. In trying to get ahead, I had confused myself and now was going to get a zero on the quiz. I ended up writing an incredibly detailed summary of the book for next week on the back of the quiz, apologizing for my stupid mistake, and telling the professor that I understood I would get a zero and was okay with that. In addition to feeling embarrassed, I felt sick and worthless. I had let my professor down: I was supposed to be his A+ student who always participated and knew what she was doing. I had let myself down: I was supposed to be a good student who always stayed on top of her work.
But then something amazing happened next. My professor looked down at my quiz, smiled, looked me straight in the eye and said, “I am so sorry this happened to you. I would never punish you for working ahead. Thanks for reading, even if it wasn’t this week’s reading.” And circled a giant 100 on my quiz.
All of a sudden that stress I had that was based around the fear of letting myself down or letting someone else down disappeared. For some reason, I felt the most relaxed I had felt in weeks. Why? Because the stress I had been feeling was based around the fear of letting myself or someone else down. Now that I had done both, there wasn’t any fear because both of those things had already happened. I had nothing to fear about, because the result was that it was okay.
That professor represents the kind of person with whom I should surround myself. He recognized that I let him down, I made a mistake, but that I’m still me and I’m still trying. He accepted that and loved me anyway. And he even gave me a 100.
The right people know that you aren’t perfect. And they love you even more when you admit that you failed.
So, you stressed person reading this right now, I mean this in the kindest way possible: I hope you let someone down. And I hope you let yourself down. Because then you’ll see that you had no reason to stress. Life moved on, the right people loved you anyway, and you’re still you.
Stress is just fear of the unknown. Make the unknown known, and realize that life goes on.