Then: Freshman Year Winter Break – December 2016
Coming home after being away at college for an extended period of time is strange. It feels impossible that my house has existed all this time without me, and that it has remained the same while I have undergone so many changes.
I feel out of place in my childhood bedroom, a stranger to the four walls that housed me for nearly two decades. My dresser holds clothes I had forgotten about; my bed feels foreign; the posters on the walls feel like an outdated reflection of myself—showcasing who I was, rather than who I am.
I’m bombarded with well-intentioned but overwhelming questions from relatives, family friends and neighbors. “So, how are you liking school? It looks like you’re thriving!” “These are the best four years of your life! Savor them while they last.”
Their words feel heavy—like burdens to carry, expectations to fulfill. I don’t love school, not by a long shot. It’s stressful and confusing and while I’m making a ton of friends, they feel shallow in comparison to ones from home.
I’m being told how much I should be loving life, but the truth is, I don’t. I feel like an imposter, nodding along and agreeing with my inquisitors, afraid to disappoint anyone with the truth.
A few more weeks into break and I feel more drained than ever. I’ve seen people I’ve missed dearly and yet, when I see them, something’s off, like I’ve forgotten where I fit in their world and they in mine.
I feel distant from the version of myself they once knew, and I can’t seem to navigate this new dynamic. The worst part is I don’t know how to articulate any of the internal worry, chaos, or sadness I’m feeling.
How do you tell people you love, who are funding your education and want the absolute best for you, that you aren’t as happy as you’ve led them to believe? How do you explain that you’ve forgotten how to be yourself without them there reminding you just who that person is? How do you explain that, outside the context you occupied for just under two decades, you’re not sure who you are or where you fit in?
These questions looped and raced through my mind the entire time I was home—a place I couldn’t quite settle back into but feared leaving nonetheless—until I boarded a plane and was gone again.
Now: Junior Year Thanksgiving Break – November 2018
I’m 30,000 feet up, sitting on a plane back to LA after spending Thanksgiving at home. It was exactly the relaxing break I needed. I binge watched Netflix with my siblings, ate a ton of home cooked food, told stories from school, and spent an absurd amount of time in front of my family room fireplace reading Harry Potter.
This time at home was nothing like my first college break experience in 2016. I wasn’t panicked, I didn’t feel out of place, and this morning when I left I was excited to get back to school while also acknowledging that I would miss the relaxation and slow pace of home.
Time has certainly helped my situation. Any large life change, especially moving across the country for college, demands an adjustment period. These past two years satisfied that demand. I became used to the coming and going from school to home; I became comfortable and happy at school as I forged deeper connections with friends; I found two majors I love and extracurriculars to match, and I changed my living situation for the better.
These things were all huge, tangible changes in my life that greatly impacted the happiness and peace I feel both at home and at school. But of all the life changes I have undergone these past two years, the most influential one was ironically the most intangible: I began seeing a therapist.
The Influence of Therapy
I started therapy with the intention of stopping the persistent sense of panic that overwhelmed me for the majority of my freshman and sophomore years of college. I craved a quick fix—medication, coping strategies, or a light bulb moment—that would turn off the feelings I was ashamed of. But that was far from the experience I got.
I quickly realized therapy isn’t something you necessarily see results from on a day to day basis. When I left my sessions I often felt more drained than I felt going in, I frequently became overwhelmed by the revelations I made and considered stopping, and more than once I felt guilt for “wasting” my time introspecting rather than focusing on school or work.
But in hindsight, the hours I “wasted” in therapy were some of the most influential in catalyzing my drastic transformation from freshman to junior year. Even though I might not have been able to see differences day to day, even though there were times when therapy seemed more emotionally draining than cathartic, I was slowly transforming into the person I am now—the person who is learning to enjoy and navigate life, whether at school or at home, in all it’s overwhelming, happy, sad, and bittersweet moments.
Don’t get me wrong: just like anyone else, I still have a long way to go. But I’m also comfortable and confident in acknowledging that I’ve made a lot of progress.
Above all else, therapy taught me to question the stories I told myself about what I was supposed to be or do. I had always treated these narratives as absolute truth, so it was groundbreaking when I realized that any perceived timeline of how my life was supposed to go, or how I was supposed to be feeling, or what I was supposed to enjoy, was self imposed.
At first this revelation was scary, and I felt a lot more unstable without the stringent expectations I had subconsciously put on myself. But then, this new knowledge became liberating. I suddenly yielded the power; I was no longer bound by feelings of guilt and anxiety for feeling how I felt. Instead, I started to let the feelings come and go and to accept them as a natural ebb and flow.
Even my experience while heading to the airport this morning for my flight back to school—freshman year I would have resented my sadness of leaving home and been overwhelmed with guilt, thinking I was ungrateful for not loving college. But now, I can acknowledge that I will miss the comfort and familiarity of my house while also being excited to get back to my school routine. It may seem trivial, but these little moments of self compassion add up, and they make a big difference.
That’s the second biggest thing therapy taught me: self compassion. Compassion is a word most often used to refer to how one should treat others. But in reality, it should also be how you treat yourself. You should not be the exception to the rule of compassion; you should set the precedent.
Therapy taught me to stop treating myself like the exception to the rule—the one person in my life undeserving or exempt from the benefit of patience, understanding, and the acknowledgement of human fallibility. When I started to analyze my life through the lens of compassion I use in the analysis of others,’ the game was changed.