Understanding purpose anxiety: A personal essay

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Ryan Kendrick/Staff

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As the holiday season kicks into full gear, perhaps some of the most dreadful questions college students receive surround their ambitions. Although we know they come with good intentions most of the time, questions surrounding our academic journeys and career paths such as “How’s your degree going?” or “What’s your plan for after college?” tend to fill us with dread because our academic and professional progressions are often anything but linear. In the process of getting our degrees and starting our adult lives, many of us become overwhelmed by a phenomenon that’s starting to gain more recognition: purpose anxiety.

According to researcher Larissa Rainey, purpose anxiety refers to “the anxiety we feel when we don’t have a sense of purpose but are all too aware that it’s missing.” In this way, it is a term applicable to the common feelings of uncertainty that come with discovering personal and professional paths, but is also broad enough to encompass the grander struggle of finding meaning in existence. Plenty of students experience the familiar struggle of purpose anxiety in this transitory and formative experience of higher education. In choosing majors and minors, exploring career paths and embarking on our professional goals, we realize the finality of our actions in a manner we might not have before. These choices make much more permanent impacts on our lives, and come with the gravity of our financial responsibilities because the cost of our education and weight of supporting ourselves bear a new and serious pressure.

In my opinion, purpose anxiety goes hand in hand with the idea of imposter syndrome. According to Healthline Media, imposter syndrome, “also called perceived fraudulence, involves feelings of self-doubt and personal incompetence that persist despite your education, experience, and accomplishments.” In this manner, these phenomena represent the intrusive, illusory and internal self-doubt that people feel about their own abilities despite their qualifications. In many cases, imposter syndrome causes people to falsely feel like frauds regardless of their hard work and well-deserved accomplishments.

In my introspection, I’ve found that my own anxiety generates purpose anxiety questions within my mind like “Why am I here?” when I think about my major or my career ambitions. My imposter syndrome, on the other hand, comes in the form of thoughts like “Do I belong at UC Berkeley?” — which is often a far worse question. UC Berkeley was a “reach” school for me when applying to colleges. When I first visited campus, I remember taking one look at the welcome brochure and feeling like it was completely out of reach. I had competitive grades, job experience and extracurricular activities in high school but still walked a fine line with the school’s averages for incoming students. Acceptance, therefore, was such a lofty goal for me that I put the application out of my mind after I submitted it — until I received my acceptance letter.

Like so many other current undergraduate students, I grew into adulthood during a pandemic. After the lockdown, my days went by slowly. My first classes at UC Berkeley were administered through Zoom and I worked a minimum wage job as a hostess in my hometown to save some money. Although I look nostalgically back upon those times, it was hard to find purpose during those many days when time seemed to stop and the months blurred together. One of the hardest things to grapple with during that time was the overwhelming feeling that those days were not how I envisioned them to be. Throughout my life, I had found great purpose in academic validation, so being so separated from school was an immense challenge that made me question if I was where I was meant to be.

Eventually, I found a fresh start at UC Berkeley when school began in person again. As I found myself walking under Sather Gate mapping my way around campus, I was ecstatic, breaking through the tedious last eighteen months towards a fresh start in academia. I soon found that attending a university like UC Berkeley brings immense opportunity but also, at times, intense intimidation.

Take one look at the website and you’ll find plenty of statistics: UC Berkeley is the number one university in the world, with 32 Nobel prizes, four Pulitzer prizes and more than 200 Olympic medals won to date. Set foot on campus, and you’ll feel the electric air of a university which proudly boasts a reputation for student movements and social change. It’s often easy to feel like a fish out of water when immersed here, especially when your attendance tasks you with the opportunity and responsibility of challenging, continuing and shaping such a great legacy. Perhaps we too often internalize this sense of otherness and risk propagating unnecessary self-doubt when we feel daunted by the standard of excellence and discovery which surrounds us.

It’s often easy to feel like a fish out of water when immersed here, especially when your attendance tasks you with the opportunity and responsibility of challenging, continuing and shaping such a great legacy.

I remember some of my first few days on campus, walking through Sproul Plaza to look at the clubs tabling. After observing a few, it dawned on me that many of them required applications. I found this surprising, since I was coming to college to gain experience. The paradox of needing experience to gain experience spiked my own anxiety and led to intrusive thoughts fueled by my own self-doubt. How was I supposed to find my purpose and reach self-actualization if I could barely get my foot in the door? I’m not sure that this uncertainty ever truly goes away, but an academic counselor lecture in one of my classes gave us advice that changed my perspective. She said navigating UC Berkeley truly comes down to how you advocate your individual skills, big and small. When you do, you’ll find more opportunities, and these can lead you to subjects, careers or professions that you find meaningful. It’s important to remember that we come in as blank slates, and we each deserve to be here.

She said navigating UC Berkeley truly comes down to how you advocate your individual skills, big and small. When you do, you’ll find more opportunities, and these can lead you to subjects, careers or professions that you find meaningful.

That advice left me feeling more equipped to go after opportunities I found interesting. My ambitions here felt more within reach because I was no longer insecure about lacking experience or feeling behind in comparison to my peers. I joined The Daily Californian as a staff writer and I started feeling more confident in my classes, which in turn improved my grades. I now have interests that I’m keen on exploring further, and they have become increasingly fulfilling to me.

Maybe we dread the intrusive questions of our friends, relatives and acquaintances during the holidays because they give voice to our internalized insecurities and speak out loud the questions that reflect our own fears. Regardless of the intrusive thoughts which tell us otherwise, each of us fill an irreplaceable spot which would otherwise be left empty. We come bearing the skills we need to be successful because we have each earned our place at the table. I think that it’s completely normal to feel purpose anxiety, but I now reconcile those anxious feelings with constant nourishment of my interests, goals and skills. Perhaps purpose is not necessarily something that we achieve, but is something that we grow into with intention and have earned the chance to discover. Perhaps the anxiety we feel around finding our purposes is not easily reconcilable, but the belief that we will find our purposes with time can provide some consolation.

Contact Katie Cota at [email protected].