Lesson learned: Defining my self-worth as a freshman

I don’t know what I expected for my first year of college, but this was definitely not it. I can’t help but feel like I missed out on a major chunk of my first year of college — most of all, I miss my friends. I went from feeling like I was forced to grow up too soon with the rapid transition of living away from home for the first time, to wishing that I could have this independence again now that I’m back home. Don’t get me wrong: I love my family, but saying, “Go Bears!” doesn’t hit quite the same as it did at 1 a.m. with my friends while we were waiting in line at Top Dog and being guaranteed an enthusiastic, “Go Bears!” in response. But there’s been one silver lining. This time away from college has really forced me to step back and make sure that I don’t take for granted the remaining time I have at UC Berkeley. 

I hadn’t realized the extent of the mental toll that academics and the college environment had taken on me. Spending time away from the hustle and bustle of UC Berkeley has helped me realize that dedicating time and tending to my feelings was not a trivial, impractical indulgence, but instead a core necessity of my being. I did not realize how much I struggled with resting, because I taught myself that my self-worth was determined by my productivity. In my first year of college, I drowned myself in work and stress to achieve a sense of validation for myself. 

I had thought that by constantly remaining busy and working, I could keep myself accountable and removed from dysfunction, but eventually this need for productivity became the dysfunction itself. When I wasn’t being productive, I felt guilty that I was not only letting myself down, but also all the others in my life who had worked so hard and sacrificed so much for me to be where I am — at the world’s No. 1 public university. The ambitious student culture at UC Berkeley may have contributed to this feeling, but more than that, it was the unbelievable fortune I had had to be able to attend this school that made me feel like I had to constantly prove that I belonged there, that I deserved to call myself a Golden Bear. 

The transition from a high school with only 164 students to a university filled with more than 40,000 students made it impossible for me to not constantly compare myself to others. No matter how many enlightening conversations I had with upperclassmen whose main piece of advice for me was to avoid engaging in such behavior, every move I made, every club I joined, I thought, “What else can I be doing to give myself a leg up from everybody else?” The voice in the back of my mind constantly told me that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t enough, and it got louder whenever my mind wasn’t occupied by a task. So, I began to take on more and more responsibilities in my freshman year in an attempt to ignore these feelings of fear, guilt and grief, pushing myself past my limit and keeping myself busy just so the voice in my head would shut up for more than two seconds. 

Although that worked for a short while, I began to burn myself out, and my fall semester at UC Berkeley took a great toll on my mental health. This spring semester, I tried to reset my mentality and dedicate more time to rest and recuperate, but slowly these feelings of needing to be productive and not doing enough began creeping up on me again. I was beginning to do more and more, and burning out little by little, until all of my activities were halted by the movement of classes online, and I moved back home.

With all of this extra time suddenly on my hands, I tried to teach myself how to rest again — Zoom movie nights with friends, watching Gordon Ramsay cooking videos on YouTube, taking my dog for a walk — but the feeling of guilt didn’t leave. There was nothing for me to do, but I was still feeling like I wasn’t doing enough. Every morning, I woke up in a panic because I thought I had overslept and I had missed a deadline, or I was supposed to be somewhere, doing something. I’ve realized that in order to learn how to rest, I had to first feel like I deserved to rest; I needed to accept and convince myself that I needed to rest. 

Spending time away from school has allowed me to recognize that mental and emotional exhaustion can directly transform into physical exhaustion, with all being actual and valid forms of affliction. Especially during these troubling times, it is crucial that we all take care of our bodies and minds. Even though I am unable to physically attend the remainder of my spring classes, this semester has taught me an invaluable lesson. It has guided me in my progress toward understanding myself and my needs. It’s still a work in progress, but when I come back to campus for the fall semester, I hope to come back with a healthier mindset that is attuned to both my self needs and academic goals.

Contact Jenny Lee at [email protected].