Where’s the balance between changing myself and accepting myself?
January 16, 2013 3:41 PM   Subscribe

Help! I’m having trouble adjusting to college and accepting myself, and it’s stressing me out. What can I do to fix this? Lots of details inside.

Sorry for the length. :(

I’m a female college freshman in the US. A majority of the time I feel fine, like my normal self. I’m intensely interested in learning things and making things, as usual; possibly even more so. But recently (for the last 2-3 months) I’ve started feeling both a general dread of being at college and pangs of acute unhappiness.

First, for example, when I returned to campus after a month, I felt this physical resistance as I was walking back to my room, like either I didn’t want to be on campus or the campus didn’t want me here. Thinking about various places on campus, I can’t remember many happy memories. Second, I never used to cry in high school. I can remember barely one or two instances over four years. But in the last 2-3 months, starting over fall break, I’ve started becoming emotionally unstable. I cry on average once every two weeks, sometimes multiple times in a day. The frequency seems to be linked to my period and PMSing, but I’m not sure why this would be happening now if it never happened to me in high school.

The crying is weird. I feel these physical pangs of sadness running through my body, and it seems to be triggered by specific thoughts. For example, one of my professors sent me an email including the phrase “I just want you to be happy,” and that really made me cry. It also seems to be triggered by thoughts like “I need to take care of myself,” “I feel totally alone,” “I feel profoundly unhappy” (even though the feeling is localized to this moment, and most of the time I feel okay), “I really need help,” and “I really wish someone would care about me.” Writing this is making me tear up. I know something’s wrong, but I’m not sure what it is or what I can do to fix it.

One thing that stresses me out is that I don’t feel like I have many friends here. I had a close group of friends in high school that I cared about a lot, and we would often hang out after school. Here, I feel like I haven’t met many similar people. I know the stock advice is to hang out with people different from you and each person will teach the other interesting things, and that’s true, but I would really like to find similar people. Part of it is that I have niche interests spanning two very different fields, but that’s not extremely niche. Another part of it is that many freshmen I meet are undecided about their major, whereas I came in strongly set on my major and my goals. I know there are definitely other decided and passionate people here -- my school is known for ambitious overachievers, actually -- but I’m not sure how or where to meet them. I feel much more comfortable talking to professors and upperclassmen, because I feel like we’re similarly driven and I become inspired by their achievements.

The cycle of loneliness gets worse because the fewer friends I have, the less likely I am to meet new people through them, and the more likely I am to avoid people. I’ve already started avoiding dining halls. It’s an irrational and expensive habit, but sitting by myself makes me feel insecure, and it’s awkward if I see people I know. So I prefer to buy food and eat by myself even though I’ve paid for a meal plan. During the beginning of the semester, I was outgoing enough to introduce myself to strangers in the dining hall, but now every meal feels like a struggle.

Also, I don’t understand why I feel so lonely. I’m an introvert, and I strongly prefer being by myself (I would spend days in the summer just reading things), but something in my mind is making me unhappy now that I’m by myself. I guess it’s the fact that I don’t feel like I have a choice in being by myself. I like being around people, in the long run: I’m pretty extroverted around new people, and I have no problem making small talk. My friends matter a lot to me, and if people need help, I’ll always try my best. I also have a boyfriend who goes to a different college (who happens to have very similar interests, so I know people like us exist). Talking to him has helped a lot, but I don’t want to spread my negativity to him.

I’ve considered transferring to another college. I often feel like I don’t fully belong here, and there are two I can think of that I’ve visited and really liked because I’ve easily found people with my interests. It’s probably too difficult to transfer, though, and I have extracurricular ties here that I value.

One concrete thing I’m doing to meet people is that I try to go to as many technical events on campus as I can, time permitting. But they’re usually lectures or co-working events, so nothing has really come of it. What other things should I be doing?

Also, I’m very confused about the conflict between finding myself and being myself. The stock advice for new college students includes both “try new things, meet new people, and improve yourself” and “pursue your passions wholeheartedly, gain deep skill, and ignore what other people are doing.” These don’t seem that contradictory, but I’m having problems. For example, I like music and dancing, so I decided to try the college party scene. After going to pregames, formals, and clubs, I realized that I’m personally not interested in drinking, dressing up, or hooking up. I have a boyfriend that I’m devoted to, and it’s more fulfilling to me if I spend my nights on making something or learning something. I could “improve myself” by learning to be more social and having a good time, or I could be myself by pursuing what I’d normally pursue. Should I work to change myself or should I work to really be myself? I know it’s a spectrum, but each task demands time, and time is limited.

I guess I already knew the answer to this; I just needed someone to talk about it with. In the last few weeks, I’ve learned that if I really want to be myself, I need to take a pretty unusual path and give a lot of my time. I feel like the combination of interests I have, the things I enjoy doing, and the things I want to do mean that I should concentrate fully on things that most other freshmen aren’t doing now. I’m seriously considering graduate school (with open eyes -- I’ve talked to professors, I’m fully devoted to my major, and I see several paths that really appeal to me). This means I need to focus on my GPA and doing research as an undergrad. My passions include coding and writing and combining the two, and even though just getting good at one skill is a life’s work, I want to gain deep skill in both and produce as much as I can. This is tough and time-intensive and often a solitary task. I don’t really have free time and I don’t hang out with people often, because I always have a personal project or four that I want to work on. (I guess I prefer to make my work my life instead of dividing it into “work” and “free time.”) I know I don’t have to do this alone, and I would love to work with people who are similarly driven. But how?

Thanks for reading. I guess these are the questions that have been bothering me:

Why did I become so emotionally unstable and what can I do to take care of myself?
What can I do to meet more similar people and/or stop feeling so alone? (How did you meet your closest friends?)
Where’s the balance between changing myself and accepting myself?

Throwaway email: 5o2884197169@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Pay a visit to the counseling center on campus and make an appointment to speak to a therapist. S/he can help you work out if you're depressed and/or if you truly do want to transfer. FWIW, transferring from one college to another is not really hard at all and, IMO, easier the sooner in your college career that you do it. But definitely try to work through things with a therapist before you decide to go to another school, because it would suck to get to a new school and find you're still stuck with the same problems.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 3:53 PM on January 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I had an experience not unlike yours my freshman year of college. Since then I've discovered it's incredibly common. It's not something unique to you - it's a rough transition and colleges really do very little to ease this aspect of getting started. Do talk to a therapist - connect up with your school's counseling services. They may connect you with a therapist in the college city, or see you on campus - either way, use what they have.

Definitely act on this sense of aloneness and unhappiness and enlist some help. It really will help. The main thing to remember is that a lot of people have been exactly where you are. I know it doesn't seem like it when you look around you, but that's the truth.

As far as how to spend your time - you have a strong idea of what you want to do and you should pursue that. DOn't force yourself to try things that have zero appeal for you - but do look for things that intrigue you and have some overlap with your interests. There are going to be a lot of opportunities, and you don't need to pursue everything. A lot of people would love to have as clear an idea of what they are all about as you do - follow your instincts, but try to identify a few clubs or projects that you can bring your skills to and meet like-minded people, so you don't become withdrawn.
posted by Miko at 4:07 PM on January 16, 2013

I've been where you are ...

Why did I become so emotionally unstable and what can I do to take care of myself?

For a lot of women, PMS can take years to sort itself out: sometimes it gets better before it gets worse. It's possible that the stress of starting college has made previously mild PMS a lot worse for you. I'd check in with your student health services clinic about checking in with a doctor and a counselor. It's so so so so normal to feel how you are feeling, but you don't have to stay stuck in those feelings. You're not alone. By the way, it's totally ok to try some hormonal BC or antidepressants if your doctor indicates that it's appropriate. More tools in the toolbox, right?

What can I do to meet more similar people and/or stop feeling so alone? (How did you meet your closest friends?)

Fun group activities! Everything you do at college doesn't have to be a super-serious resume builder. It can just be fun. Does your college offer non-credit fun classes in dance, gaming, intramural sports, ecology? Sign up for those that sound fun to you. I am partial to partner dancing because a) I love to dance, b) opportunity to talk to new people. Maybe for you it is trail-building? cook-offs? game nights? It does take time to make real, strong friendships, but you might as well have fun and make new acquaintances.

Where’s the balance between changing myself and accepting myself?

The balance comes from taking care of yourself! You're more than halfway there - you realize that things are not quite right for you now, and you are reaching out for assistance. So don't set up the false dichotomy. Reaching out for help, so you can take care of your wellbeing, is the best thing for you to do.
posted by stowaway at 4:21 PM on January 16, 2013

1) Impossible for us to tell you over the Internet. I know it never happened in high school but it could totally be hormonal--girl, you don't even KNOW what kind of fucked up shit your lady-hormones have in store for you over the next 30 years of your life.

FWIW, have you considered that your boyfriend's absence might just be making you straight-up sad? You don't mention how far away he is, but if you guys are used to seeing each other all the time and now you don't, well, that kind of sucks.

2) Pretty much just lived with people, and met who I met between them, their friends, and classmates. Found people whose styles I dug, did a lot of hanging around in the library and on the quad. But, I was a drinker and a drugger, so that was admittedly a big part of the scene. The "college" party scene--formals, etc.--is like living death, ugh. It's where *boredom* goes to get bored.

3) Freshman year is a lot harder than people like to admit. Everyone, yourself included, is in for some massive personal changes, everyone is in flux, and that's you too. Hell, in one paragraph you call yourself both extroverted and introverted. ;) It is natural to grieve the loss of certainty and be really thrown by all the changes. Things will settle down a bit one day, but believe me: you don't have to "work" on changing yourself. You are gonna change. In five years you won't recognize you. So what you have to work on is being kind to yourself while it's happening, and being aware in case you start changing in ways you don't like. Right now you're changing in a way you don't like, and you have a strong impulse that says I NEED HELP. So seek it!

And maybe you're just really at the wrong school. But more likely, you're depressed and anxious and therefore feeling extra resistance to the things that would lead you to the kind of people you'd like to meet.
posted by like_a_friend at 4:23 PM on January 16, 2013

I had an idea - you did mention that you enjoy music and dancing. When I was in college I knew some people who joined the amateur choral group and seemed to have a lot of fun doing it. I don't think they were great singers to begin with.
posted by stowaway at 4:25 PM on January 16, 2013

You're socially isolated, of course you're sad. It's probably not just PMS; why wouldn't being sad be a totally understandable and expected consequence of being challenged in a new place with no close social support?

Give it a little more time, keep looking for your type of person. Think hard about where they likely are and don't waste your time in clubs and bars if they're not there. It's fine to ignore all that if you get nothing out of it.

You might be a bit more mature and focused than most freshman and that will be an advantage in the long run as long as you manage it now. Do whatever you have to do stay distracted (gym, projects you're really interested in) when you're stuck in a sad mood. Keep writing and coding, but also consider that one of the equally valuable things you can learn in college is how to deal with a bunch of different people. You don't need to make friends with most of them, and it's fine to write off people and scenes you've determined from experience that you're not compatible with. But your definition of friend potential needs to include more than a common major and high academic drive. Think harder about what made your high school friendships work and try to expand your notion of friendship a little - you'll still probably make close friends with people like you, but it's good practice for life to look for friends everywhere.
posted by slow graffiti at 5:39 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Where’s the balance between changing myself and accepting myself?

Accepting yourself doesn't mean not changing. But there's a difference between making a change because you dislike yourself, feel inadequate, or are anxious to fit in even with people you don't particularly like, and a change you make because it supports your goals and is something you care for or will make you happier.

And to look at it from a different perspective, we are always changing. If anything, change is inevitable, and we just try to point ourselves in directions that will make us happier.

Having been in similar situations to yours, the thing I would go back and tell my college-age self is to get aggressive help for mental health, and also to recognize that social skills are important and start working on them. (Although your skills already sound better than mine).

Eat at the dining room even if you make it a quick meal and even if you bring a book to read with you.

I met people through classes or through my campus job. And I'm very socially awkward, so I'm sure you can manage it :) You may just need a little help from a therapist, and maybe a little extra kindness towards yourself.
posted by bunderful at 5:58 PM on January 16, 2013

It's hard to explain the difference between finding yourself and accepting yourself but I will offer that lately, I have been trying to work out more. Not because I'm trying to lose weight, though that's something I certainly wouldn't mind, but because I like it and doing it makes me feel better about myself. I accept that my body looks like the way it does. I'm not trying to become skinny, just healthier me. I enjoy baked goods but that doesn't mean I can't also go to yoga and find time to run. There's a tension there. I'm not starving myself and I'm not eating ice cream for all of my meals. It's a tension I am comfortable with right now. Maybe it will be different in a few weeks but that's where I am right now and I think that's okay.

As for how to meet people, I believe in faking it until you make it. Can you imagine what it would be like to be super confident? What would someone who was really confident say in awkward situations or when meeting new people? Try doing that. You might learn that you like acting like a confident person, which is pretty close to actually being a confident person. And if not, maybe you'll emerge with more confidence in your current self. Win-win.
posted by kat518 at 6:17 PM on January 16, 2013

You sound pretty self-aware/introspective and it sounds like you're taking the long term view on your situation by thinking about grad school goals/ transferring/ things that will make you happy in the future. I think these are good things, and it seems that you've got a lot of perspective.

It sounds like maybe you're lonely in your new situation. College is a big adjustment, and I think it's normal for people to really find "their people" in such a big, new environment. You're not the only one who is not interested in drinking, hooking up, etc. You sound like someone I'd have liked to be friends with in college. I bet there are some kindred spirits out there. You may not have found them yet though.

I'm sorry you're feeling this way. It sounds like you're in a rough spot. I imagine things will get better for you because you seem pretty proactive.
posted by mermily at 6:28 PM on January 16, 2013

I think that you're lonely, but also am concerned that you are depressed. I strongly second the advice to talk to the counseling service. Did you move from a sunnier place to a less sunny place for college? Could you be perhaps suffering effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD) in addition to the usual freshman year loneliness/isolation?

Of course, feeling lonely and a bit out of place when you start college is normal. It really does take time to find your people and the things to do that you will enjoy. There is no reason to feel self conscious about eating alone in the dining hall. You've been there a few months, why would anyone expect you to have a built in crew of buddies at every meal? What's more, in situations like that, although you are hyperacutely aware of being alone, it's likely that everyone else in that dining hall is wrapped up in their own struggles (bad hair day, hangover, getting dumped, bad grade, whatever) and isn't paying you any attention in the least. It's college, not grade school, and sitting around pointing at people and going "ooh, look, Susie's got no frieeennndss!" would be beyond immature.

I get the impression from your post that you think that you are highly unusual because you don't want to go party, drink, and hook up, and that you ought to be pushing yourself to do these things. Society does impress upon us that we're supposed to spend college partying the days away and having wanton hookups, but there are plenty of people who don't do that, and they probably have a more meaningful and worthwhile college experience (after all, it's costing like $50K a year, right?! Seems like a waste to pay that much to play beer pong and grind on people at frat houses!)

I think you just need to be able to know yourself enough to be able to do the things you like, but in a way that you are most likely to enjoy them. You like music and dance, but you don't like drunken parties. For you, something like dance club or a dance elective class you could audit (if your school offers these) would be much better choices. You want to get out and meet people, but you are a serious student and you work hard. Therefore you should be meeting people in pre-professional societies and study groups, not at fraternity events.

Anyway, keep doing what you're doing, I think you're going to do really well in college!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:02 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

There are a lot of shoulds in your question. Accepting yourself means asking yourself what you should do, not others. It means trusting yourself enough to answer honestly, and listening to the answer, and forgiving your mistakes, weakness, fear, uncertainty and sadness.

Finding yourself is just the part of self acceptance when you finally hear what you've been answering, and believe it. It gets its own name because it's often such a surprise.
posted by ead at 9:18 PM on January 16, 2013

You kind of remind me of me almost 20 years ago (before you were born, egads). For me, being a college freshman was the singular hardest thing I've ever had to do. I think the sadness and crying is somewhat normal because you've gone through a huge transition (homesickness, being a real adult for the first time, being away from everyone you've ever loved.) It's a lot, a lot to take in at once. And I remember hating the cafeteria too for having to sit alone.

Here's my advice:

1. Seeing a therapist or counselor can really help. I avoided it when I was your age because I didn't want the stigma of being depressed, crazy or mentally ill. But now I realize that the good thing about having a therapist or counselor is that you get someone who is totally in your corner. Also if you keep ruminating on something or thinking about it one way sometimes they can help you think about things another way. Therapists are useful for when you are going through a major life change.

2. I think you need to prioritize making friends even if it means a little less time for school work or research. Why? Because it sounds like until you get a solid group of friends you are going to be miserable and if you are miserable you are not going to do your best work.

3. Try out as many clubs on campus as you can. I finally found my friends through a sorority (admittedly greek life does not sound like your thing), but I think it would be good for you to find a club. That's the easiest way that I know to make friends.

4. Exercise. It actually improves brain function and alleviates depression.

5. I think if I could talk to myself from twenty years ago, I would say something like, "relax kid, everything's going to be fine. You'll get into a good law school. You're going to have a great husband and a great job in the future and make some awesome friends along the way. Right now you might be a little lonely and homesick, but that's normal. Try not to let it bother you too much. Read more, eat better, exercise more and don't stress so much. Don't waste be young and having your whole life in front of you on constantly being stressed out.

6. Call your friends from high school every now and again. Nothing like talking to an old friend to get me out of the dumps.

7. Next year will be better usually because you'll get to pick your own roommate. That usually goes a long way toward helping.

Take care. It gets better! I swear.
posted by bananafish at 9:56 PM on January 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is sort of side-stepping the issues you outlined, but have you started taking birth control? If so, try another brand. I don't mean to make light of the possible external things you're dealing with, but every time in college I got emotional and depressed it was because of the brand of birth control I was on, and that can be easy to forget about because we're generally inclined to try and make sense of depressed feelings. You say your feelings seem linked to your periods, so that's what made me think of it. I totally rehashed what could be causing it over and over, and nothing got better until I got off or changed the birth control.

Alternately, since your feelings are linked to your periods, going on birth control might make you feel better. It just depends on the brand, and every brand is capable of producing wildly different effects in different women. You can be on one brand and literally want to kill yourself, and on another you feel optimistic and fantastic. It's crazy stuff. You can have wildly different effects just switching to a generic, even; I recently went off birth control because apparently all Kariva (the birth control I loved) is only available in the generic now (name escapes me) and after two months of being totally emotional I realized oh, maybe it's that! And then I looked it up and sure enough, every single comment about the new generic was that it was a total nightmare whereas Kariva had been wonderful for the women who had chosen it. The inactive ingredients aren't so inactive and little things like that can make a difference of how/when/where/how fast the hormones are absorbed. The laws governing generics also mean they don't have to exactly match the amount of active ingredients, just come within a percentage of ranges that iirc was surprisingly wide.

Also, birth control or not, your body keeps developing once you're in college, and in my experience and my friends' experience, it's not unusual for your cycle to settle down into whatever it's going to be until you're 24 or 25 or so. Mine was pretty whacky until I was 24, and now I'm 28 and it's been pretty much the same the past four years aside from this recent birth control incident. I never really got PMS until I was in my early 20s. I also used to bleed like a fountain until halfway through college, birth control or not.
posted by Nattie at 1:15 AM on January 17, 2013

You just described a lot of people's introduction to college. It's a big life change. I'll share a few thoughts, take or leave them as you see fit.

1) Some of the people that had the most difficult transitions in college were the ones that had very strong social circles in high school. I was talking about this to a mate last night. I had a friend from high school who literally fell apart in college. Looking back, in high school, we were holding him together. We protected him from a lot of things, and took care of him as bro's do. When he got to college, there was nobody to take care of him, and it all came out.

Point being, that you are used to being very comfortable in a social circle, and your social circle operating in a certain way. That is gone now. Now it is time to grow and become a different version of yourself, and that is wonderful. In fact, reading your post, I felt very excited. I hear that you are on the verge of growing. You're literally outgrowing yourself. And you're trying new things. And you're rejecting things that don't fit. This last part is important, for you are not trying to cram yourself into something that you don't feel. You're going it alone, and, believe it or not, that is shaping you into your own person.

So don't feel alone. A lot of us have gone through it. )

2) Now, that being said, if you continue to sink – mood-wise – and become properly depressed (three to six months), you need to talk to someone. That's what campus psychological services are for, and more people than you know use them. As said, it's a stressful time, and the college has provided a support mechanism for that exact reason. So keep growing, but you cannot grow without resources and support. Be absolutely ruthless about getting that support for yourself. That's what it's there for. I saw depression around me in college, and it goes one of two ways. If you deal with it, it's a speed bump. If you don't, it gets very disruptive. Not saying you have it, but it's much better to get a flu shot than the flu.

3) Re-evaluate your life. And by that, I mean your boyfriend. Distanced relationships can be very trying. Sometimes they can be great – I'm not saying it can't work – but they can also be very difficult. The key to distance relationships is seeing the end of it – a time when you guys will be together. If that's not there, you have a weird situation where you have an emotional companion, but not a physical companion. It's a bit of cognitive dissonance sometimes.

That person is in your life, and you are very close to them. But they're also not in your life. They're not participating with you on a daily basis. You're not fully engaging with the world around you, because there's an entire part of your life that exists in another place. You're in a period of growth and change, so you need support and connection, but at the same time, a key pillar of that support and connection is not immediate, but distant.

Now, if you guys are across town and can have a pizza and hug it out, than all good. But if he's an hour or more away – to where together time is separate from the rest of life – I would seriously look at this.

Reason being is that you have said you had a close group of friends in high school. And now you don't. You're having trouble getting going. What are you holding on to that is preventing you from being excited about the place in which you are? Are you holding onto the boyfriend because he's familiar and comfortable? An echo of your previous social life?

If so, then that which you think is keeping you sane, may be that which is making you insane, for it could be keeping you from being fully present.

That being said, I have seen heaps of relationships work, but in those cases, each partner was perfectly happy being apart, and then double happy when together. If you're not happy alone, you need to sort that out. To do that, you have to put everything on the table...

4) Which brings me to the last point. There is a possibility you are in the wrong place. It happens. But be very careful of grass-is-greener. There is no place that is going to be like where you were before, you're beyond that. Wherever you go, you are going to have to deal with it being new, and growing into it.

If you are really in the wrong place, and your growth is stunted because of that, by all means, get on your way and sort something else out.

But, if you are thinking it will be easier somewhere else, be careful of that. Wherever you go, there you are. If you go somewhere else and aren't happy, what are you going to do then? In that sense, it's always better to run toward something than away from something.

If you said, I arrived at XXX Place and my god I was born to be there. They have this, and that, and this, and that, and personally, I feel like I'm already there. You are running toward something.

If you said, I cannot make it here. It's too hard. My life isn't happening. I'm sad and exhibiting signs of anxiety. This is shit. Even the cute bear mascot makes be feel soulless. Then you are running away from something.

It's probably not very clear, but maybe it is. Chances are that you know the answer for yourself. Whether that is transfer or not transfer, break up with the boyfriend or not, try scary new friendships or not, let go of parts of yourself.

The answer should be there. And college is doing what it should, and forcing it to the surface.

All that said, know you're not alone, and in all likelihood, you are going to be amazingly wonderful. You will look back in five years from a life of your own choosing, and think back to this time of growth with a bittersweet fondness. Bitter because it tasted bad at the time, and sweet because it made you into yourself.

Good luck. I think you're doing just fine.
posted by nickrussell at 6:46 AM on January 17, 2013

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