College can be disheartening. Granted, there are so many upsides: great opportunities for learning, exposure to different ideas and perspectives, fun and fulfilling activities and extracurriculars, independence and freedom, plenty of amazing friends, and, of course, some pretty exciting parties. Still, college can beat you down. As successful as you may have been previously, you lose control, while many of your college peers look like they really have it together. These kids have their shit together, getting to class on time, doing the homework effortlessly, scoring well on tests and problem sets, and maintaining their appearance and dorm, all while still being happy and social.
Personally, I see these kids as everything I’m not. I have to run to class and practice, just to get there in the nick of time (sometimes a moment or several late). I’m finishing the last problems on my homework thirty minutes before the deadline and thinking I’ve learned absolutely nothing, as I cluelessly sit for exams. I sit on mounds of laundry, go days without making my bed, and pick the first pair of dirty jeans I can find when I get dressed in the morning. All the while, I still hole myself up in my room, turn down social plans to attempt to do homework or just take a nap, and miss meals, outings, and parties just because I’m too damn overwhelmed. Everything in me screams I don’t have my shit together. I should be as smart as the guy downstairs, organized as my roommate, or put together as that girl on the team. If they can maintain balance and poise while Princeton is trying to crush their souls, I should be able to as well, but still I find myself running around frantically, just barely trying to make it.
The appearance of having everything under control is just that: an appearance. Caught up in my own anxiety and disorganization, I am blind to the difficulty all my peers experience. It’s inevitable the guy downstairs will rip up his homework and start over in the wee hours of the night, but that’s not clear when he turns in a clean and organized problem set. My roomate certainly will panic about a lost sheet of notes, but that’s not obvious in her colored-coded binders. The girl on my team has probably collapsed on her bed after several practices, but no one can tell when she walks out of the boathouse after a hard workout, still with well-brushed hair and a clear complexion. No one has their shit together, but we’re all just too caught up in our own problems to see in our peers the reality of chaos fundamental to college life. For all I know, I may look like I have my shit together from their perspectives, even though I know I’m drowning.
It took me a great deal of time to understand everyone donns a facade of something better than what he/she truly is, something that each person wishes he/she was but isn’t. The moment of clarity came when my friend claimed I was assertive, empowered, and confident. To him, I appeared to know exactly who I was and what I was doing, that I had my shit figured out, but I am all too familiar with my insecurities, self-doubt, and struggle to even get out of bed most days, let alone to know who I am and what I have to do. All I hear are the sounds of self criticism; all I see are the mistakes on my papers and my flaws in the mirror. I can stand up and speak in a big voice but with empty words I arbitrarily stick together in sentences that sound more confident and informed than they are. The last thing I think I am is empowered, but apparently at least one person out there–likely, many more as well– thinks I am.
That is the illusion of life, specifically at college, where no one is old enough or mature enough to see beyond the mirage. We all just fake it until we make it, even when we’re convinced it’s impossible to make it. We only do what we can to pretend we’re doing just fine, whether that is through scheduling every moment to try to keep up with all the responsibilies, cleaning our rooms to make them more organized than ourselves, or putting on makeup to mask the evidence of our exhaustion and stress. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with doing that; in fact, it’s a healthy way to give ourselves control over some tiny detail when everything else is in utter disarray. The challenge is to accept that as fact. Our lives, with their ever growing obligations and desires, swirl around us quickly and messily, and all we can do is hang on. No one will ever institute enduring order. We’re all just barely keeping up, even if we convince ourselves we’re alone in our struggle.
So I don’t have my shit together, as much as I may look like I do. My friends, peers, family, mentors, professors, and bosses don’t either. We just fake it until we make it. There is no use in trying to actually control ever aspect of our lives perfectly, but there is value in radically accepting the mayhem everyone is facing. Perfection is a myth, but, in our conviction of our own imperfection, everything else feels like perfection in comparison.
So, don’t worry about getting your shit together. Just hang in there. We’ll make it eventually. Until then, I’m going to open my laptop to look like I’m writing my paper, eat a single vegetable to look like I know how to take care of my body, and quickly smear on some concealer to look like my forehead isn’t covered in stress acne. Eventually, the paper will get written, I’ll figure out how to maintain self-care, and the stress acne will subside. That’s the reality.