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Under pressure: Social pressures to overcommit affect students’ emotional well-being

Julia Stone

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Illustration: Julie Peterson

I came to Whitman two years ago as the model Whitman student. I had many interests and quickly sought to join clubs; I committed myself to student organizations, academics, friendships, community service, sports and music. I lived “hard,” and rarely had a spare minute where I could be considered to be doing “nothing.”

While I seemed to be excelling in life, had a wide social circle, was going out every weekend, studied hard and got top grades on exams, I found myself being ever defeated by my depression and anxiety. I felt the pressure exerted by the Whitman culture that values involvement and student engagement in all areas of life and sought to fill the feeling of emptiness, disconnectedness and apathy with more activities, more friends and more schoolwork.

The result? In truth, the more of myself I put out, the more I felt disconnected, unhappy and overwhelmed. At the end of the day, I was uncomfortable being alone, still and unable to relax. In short, overextending myself did not fix my emotional self––rather, it exacerbated the feelings I had been struggling with.

This is a common story that I know many Whitman students experience. I was shocked to find that the percentage of women seeking counseling support was the highest among seniors, perhaps suggesting that females feel more psychological stress as their college years progress (According to the report issued by the counseling center, depression, anxiety, stress, poor self-conception, feeling overwhelmed, and eating disorders were the top reasons why students were seeking counseling services).

It is ironic to me that Whitman is considered one of the happiest campuses in the country. When you begin to dissect the collective identity we as a student body have developed, the emerging ideal “Whittie” is at once seamlessly academic, social, athletic, socially and politically aware and active, and involved. There is the academic pressure (we are in college, after all) to take the hardest classes; get acknowledged by professors; be on top of career development, internship and research opportunities; and be ready to spend Friday nights in the quiet room.

But the Whittie must also be a social butterfly; the pressure to maintain friendships in a social environment where you seem to know everybody is challenging. Likewise, physical health in terms of physical fitness is a commonly held value among Whitties, and if you are not on one of the many sports teams, it is assumed you will be in the gym or on the rock wall. Creativity is also highly valued, and most Whitties pursue their artistic tendencies in the many musical ensembles, art classes or literary publications. And that is excluding all of the other broad involvements––the activism, clubs, community service, social networking and leadership opportunities developed and heavily promoted to the student body.

Don’t get me wrong––I am forever grateful to be surrounded by inspired, driven, passionate and engaged people, who care enough to put so much intention and energy into all facets of their lives. But I do think that the expectation to be involved and successful in all areas of academic, social and political life can breed a certain peer pressure that can lead to unhealthy lifestyles. While this is ideal is perfect for some, I have seen that for others this expectation to be involved and engaged to such an extent can lead to overextension and overcommitment. This can leave students feeling exhausted, and, ironically, emotionally undernourished and overwhelmed.

While there is the pressure and expectation to be happy, excited and carefree when interacting with the rest of the student body, many students end up masking greater problems of depression, anxiety and self-destructive activities in striving to present themselves to the public as the perfect, carefree and cheery Whittie. It can also alienate those who are not innately apt to get involved in clubs, activities, sports or other social groups. It is not a coincidence that nearly a quarter of the student body (23%) sought therapy from the counseling center for mental illnesses like depression, anxiety and eating disorders.

Beating against the pressure to overextend and overcommit can be difficult, but if resisted, I have found that Whitties tend to be more satisfied when they pursue activities that truly make them happy. Perhaps all it takes is some self-reflection and self-evaluation to gauge the degree to which your current lifestyle fulfills you.

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Under pressure: Social pressures to overcommit affect students’ emotional well-being