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Feb 13 2018
by Sarah Shih

How a Clean Slate at University Made Me Realize the Importance of Mental Health

By Sarah Shih - Feb 13 2018

People are excited about university for many reasons. It's our first chance to be independent, to meet like-minded people, and to explore a completely different place that will prepare us for real life. While all those reasons applied to me as well, there was another one that stood out above all other reasons: university means a clean slate for me to start over. After feeling trapped in the small town where my high school was for five years, I could now finally be a completely different person. Someone who is confident and willing to stand out in social situations instead of blending into the background.

My plan started out with good intentions -- I have always wanted to be more involved with school activities but was too intimidated by my peers in high school -- and for awhile I was happy with how I have changed. I became more proactive and started to make more small talks with everyone on our floor, whereas in high school I would only talk to people I deemed "safe" to talk to. I signed up for a few different clubs and even applied to be an executive for one of the clubs. Without the constraints of how people in high school used to view me as an uninvolved and quiet person, I felt free for the first time.

At some point, however, I couldn't help but wonder if I had somehow overdone it. Slowly I started to agree with everything other people said just to stay on their good sides and make as many friends as possible by making sure they like me. I never said no to an invitation to hang out despite my long to-do lists with all the school work I need to do. There was unease inside of me as I started to sideline what I wanted to do little by little just to have a good time with other people, but I kept telling myself that it didn't matter. I am happy now, I tried to say to myself. I am a lot more social and confident, and this is what I want for myself.

What is even worse is that with the image I wanted to create for myself, I adopted an unhealthily perfectionistic mindset along the way. I thought just being a more involved and outgoing person wasn't enough; I also wanted to achieve the marks I could back in high school in all the challenging university courses. I desperately wanted to prove that the 10-15% drop in average wouldn't apply to me, and I beat myself up if I messed up on a quiz or a test. For two months or so, I was stuck in this frenzy and overworking myself simply because I wanted to be a brand new person. And all of this was what resulted in me sidelining one of the most important things: my own mental health. When I finally couldn't keep up with it, I crashed hard when all the stress kicked in. 

Fortunately, the crash happened just as winter break was about to start, so I had three weeks back at home to reflect on what the past few months had been like. After hanging out with my high school friends, during which a friend that went to the same university with me told everyone how much I have changed, I allowed myself to carefully analyze my plan to start myself over as a brand new person. 

What I found is that to be liked, all I ever had to do was to be myself and be more open with other people. I didn't have to reinvent myself because even if I made a lot more friends a lot faster by hiding my true personality, they never knew who I really was. I am still introverted and I still prefer staying in instead of going out. I should have realized that by being comfortable with myself, I would have made friends that are more alike to me too, albeit at a slightly slower pace. After all, my high school friends liked me just the way I was -- so why should I think that changing myself instead of being myself is the only way to achieve affiliation?

I also realized that university life isn't meant to be perfect. The whole reason I wanted to be a different person was because of my dissatisfaction with high school, and I was too preoccupied with making university perfect and I thought transforming myself was the solution. But like any other experience, there is bound to be disappointment, and even a place as amazing as university is no exception. I wanted to make friends and be good at academics too desperately, and in trying to make myself happy I ironically put too much pressure on myself that hurt my mental health.

Now that I have been back to university for the new semester for a little more than a month, I have decided to take things slow. I will work hard and continue to try being more social and open, but not at my own expense. It may be hard for people, including me, to come to terms with imperfection, but I hope I get there one day. And most importantly, I hope that I will be able to recognize when my mental health is at risk and seek the right people to help me out if I ever need to.

Lead image credit: Unsplash

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Sarah Shih - University of Western Ontario

Sarah is a First Year student attending the University of Western Ontario studying Psychology. In her free time, she can be seen reading or writing. If she is silent during a conversation, she is most likely plotting for her next article or the next chapter in her novel.

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