A few weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a friend in the library and she looked over at me and said “You know what the Herald should cover? The culture of exhaustion on this campus.” She continued to explain to me that she felt a good number of students at HWS faced pressure from a myriad of directions in their lives to “Do more!” and “Be the best!” to the point of it taking a toll on their mental health, and no one was talking about it .
I think I might have heard actual angels sing when my friend suggested this to me. It felt like someone had finally put the phenomenon I experienced in my own social circles into words. I saw my friends pushing themselves to the limit day after day and had no idea what to do about it. So, within a few seconds of my friend mentioning the idea to me, I had made it my personal project.
Perhaps my immediate enthusiasm for this topic should’ve been my first clue that I was ignoring my own role as someone who was part of the problem. Until a few weeks ago I don’t think I’d ever said no to anything a professor, peer or administrator asked me to do. No commitment was too large. No club too much time. Whether it was by skipping meals or hours of sleep or socializing I was always taking on more because I knew I could “make it work.”
Armed with my own definition of the “culture of exhaustion” as “the college culture which encourages and rewards students for being overcommitted, overtired and overachievers,” I did a few interviews with people I knew to be very involved on campus. I heard stories about people who joined ten extracurriculars because they were told that people who aren’t involved on campus “don’t matter.” People for whom doing homework until 1 a.m. every night is the new normal. RAs who’ve decided to be vulnerable enough to show their residents that they don’t have it all together either. Many of those individuals had also found or were on the journey to finding balance and listening to them I knew that that was something I was lacking.
My lack of balance came back to bite me, during a particularly difficult weekend. Knowing that I had no time, but ignoring that fact, I accepted an on campus job on a Friday and panicked about how I knew I had no time to actually do that job all weekend. Monday morning, the day I was supposed to start the job, I burst into stressed out tears the moment my boyfriend asked me why I was so moody when I saw him at the gym.
“Just quit” he said. “You clearly can’t take on any more.”
As we walked in circles around the gym track trying to talk out my problem, my thoughts ran in circles around my brain looking for any scenario in which I didn’t have to admit to myself the thing I’d been avoiding acknowledging since the idea of this article was first proposed to me: that I was part of the problem. I was “overcommitted.” I was “overtired.” I was an “overachiever” and I was at my breaking point.
By the end of that conversation at the gym, I had made a decision. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my mental health in order to have a few more bullet points on my resume. From here on out I wanted to prioritize mental health and encourage my peers to do the same.
It’s easier said than done, however. The culture of exhaustion at HWS continually rewards students who push themselves to the breaking point trying to be as involved as they can. I don’t think anyone is doing this purposely. Professors and administration encourage us to take opportunities that they think will benefit us either as people or professionally because they want our time at HWS to put us on the best track for the rest of our lives. Friends never question when we take on more things because we’re supposed to support our friends’ achievements. This is something that’s more complicated than quitting a few clubs or reevaluating what’s important to you, it’s about changing the culture of our campus. Though reevaluating is an important thing to do if you feel the need, know that, because of how deeply engrained this practice is in our campus culture, the journey to breaking the cycle of exhaustion will not be a linear one.
For the people who are reading this and think that I’m advocating for laziness, let me reassure you, I am not. I still want to be surrounded by students who are driven, passionate and hardworking. But I know students who never get the recommended seven hours of sleep because of the amount of time they spend on homework, and our school culture convinces us that that’s some sort of a point of pride. We’ve all done that strange and terrible thing where we start a competition over how tired we are. “Oh, you only got five hours of sleep last night? I’ve only gotten five hours this week!” I’ve held my friends while they cried for the hundredth time in the library because of how stressed out they are. I’ve barely had a second to myself since the minute I stepped on campus and still there are people who create an environment that makes me feel like I am not doing enough for my education, my resume and my community. I am not advocating for laziness, but I am advocating for knowing when the things we take on fatigue us rather than fulfill us.
I think it’s time for this to change. It’s time to stop allowing ourselves to be crushed under the color-coded blocks of business that fill our schedules. Time to choose the quality of our extracurriculars rather than the quantity. Time to start making healthier choices for ourselves and encouraging our friends to do the same.
If you have spent any time on the HWS campus you have likely heard the about the idea that HWS is place where we are committed to “cultures of respect.” I’d like to challenge everyone on the HWS campus to think about this phrase in a new way. What if the respect that we strive for is respect for the mental health of ourselves and our peers? What if we respected our mental health enough to know when we need to leave the library instead of pulling yet another all-nighter? What if we respected the mental health of our peers enough to tell them when we think they’re doing too much instead of encouraging them to take on another extracurricular, class or project that we’re worried they can’t handle? What if we respected what balance looks like for everyone instead of judging people based on how involved they are on campus? What if we respected and congratulated our friends just as much for taking care of themselves as much as we currently congratulate them for taking on another extracurricular?
HWS is supposed to have the 18th happiest students in the nation, but many people I’ve talked to here have scoffed at that statistic, citing the pressure like the kind I experienced as a reason why they’re not as happy as they could be. So today, as a small first step towards changing the culture, acknowledge and affirm when someone around you makes a choice to put themselves before the culture of exhaustion. Thank the professor that gave you that extension. Or gently tell someone who is succumbing to the culture to think about what’s really most beneficial for them. I believe if we make a commitment to respecting the mental health of ourselves and others, we can work towards making a culture of balance, rather than exhaustion a reality and be better prepared to lead “lives of consequence” as balanced, healthy individuals.