Ask Polly: Did I Waste My College Years?

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Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

Sometimes, I look at my life and feel this deep sadness and harsh regret. Not that my life isn’t good. I'm a senior at a good college about to graduate, planning on applying to medical school. I have a family who loves me and lots of friends. I was blessed with a strong work ethic, intelligence, and looks. But right now, all I see are the things I should have done differently.

I always believed that senior year should be the ultimate in bearing the fruits of my labor, like it had been for me in high school. I had envisioned fantastic grades and high leadership in all the extracurriculars I'd join.

But I am not on the board anymore in the one organization I dedicated a significant amount of time to. And my throat feels tight from holding back crying. I love being involved! Leading! Mentoring and having a positive impact on younger kids! I look at my sister enviously for the top positions she holds right now. What will be under MY name in the yearbook?

And then I think about how I was very depressed for most of my college time. Depression was so very, very painful and something I had never expected. It turns out not caring about my life while depressed was not particularly useful when I started caring again. I got straight A's last term and it pains me to think of how my other terms could have been the same way. It's worse to think about how my professors, whom I admire, think of me in a way that does not reflect how I actually am. I want them to be proud of me. I am too ashamed to ever tell them why I can seem so capable at the beginning but end up disappointing them. I am too ashamed of the days I stared at the wall wanting to kill myself and of the days I tried taking medication that ended up making me feel like a brainless zombie.

People see me as a happy girl doing just fine, even great, but I don't want to be just fine. I can't help but scream in my mind that I FAILED and DID NOT LIVE UP TO MY POTENTIAL and I AM A DISAPPOINTMENT.

I'm sorry if this letter offends you and I sound like an entitled, immature brat. But what do you do when you look back on college, "the best time of your life," and feel ashamed of yourself? Because I feel so ashamed. How do I come to terms with my past?

Respectfully,

Girl With Downcast Eyes


Dear Girl With Downcast Eyes,

You're ashamed that you're a human being and not a robot. When you hold supercharged, overachieving robots in high esteem and feel that they represent the best possible way of living and anything less is a giant disappointment, you're at odds with your very humanity, your soul, and everything that's good and fresh and real and original about you. I love that you care about mentoring young kids. But you won't be a truly good leader and a balanced, happy person until you understand and accept yourself for who you are.

That includes accepting that you're a sensitive person with very strong feelings. THAT IS A GOOD THING. The more you can embrace it instead of fighting it, the better off you'll be. Please trust me on that. A lot of us learned that the hard way, by beating ourselves up for having feelings, year after year, and wondering why the hell we never felt happy. When you treat your feelings like bad weather, cringing and hoping they'll go away as soon as possible, eventually your whole life is a storm — and not in a sexy Stevie Nicks way, either. The rain never lets up. The lightning and thunder keep you awake at night. So you stare at the wall and blame yourself for it. "Why can't I be more like my sister?" you ask. "What will be under my name in the yearbook? How can I ever change things that I feel? Would you stay if she promised you heaven? Will you ever win?" 

But in the immortal words of Fleetwood Mac, YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT IT MEANS TO WIN. Your professors aren't massively disappointed that you weren't perfect, and your classmates only care about their own lives and their own achievements. Your family loves you no matter what. If anyone in your family sees you as a screwup because you got a few B's, then you need to work very hard to banish their unrealistic expectations of you from your mind once and for all. Many people have written about how it feels to live with demanding parents and expect perfection from yourself, and how these things can lead to feelings of emptiness and depression and suicidal thoughts. Go read The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller. Read Perfectionism: What's Bad About Being Too Good? Expecting way too much of yourself takes a real toll on your body and your confidence and your ability to be happy.

College and high school are not the same. It's far easier to excel in high school. You're at a college inhabited primarily by high-school valedictorians. Many of them are trying to scoop up ALL of the accolades, just like you are. Do they look happy to you? Because a lot of them are pretending, too. Set yourself apart from them by letting go, by taking it easy on yourself, by learning to love yourself for who you are, even when you falter a little.

I still remember walking home early one morning my junior year of college, and crossing paths with the president of the sorority I was in the process of quitting. She was about to plug in her earbuds when she spotted me. We looked each other over, from head to toe, at the exact same time. She was blonde and clean and well-rested, and was dressed from head to toe in form-fitting, sweat-wicking athletic gear, perfectly outfitted for her morning jog. My hair was a tangled mess, my makeup was smeared, my head was pounding, and I was still wearing a black miniskirt and tall boots from the night before, perfectly outfitted for my morning pizza, followed by my late-morning nap. Our eyes locked and the smallest smile appeared on each of our faces.

"Hey," she said, in the most unfriendly tone. "Hi," I said, my tone matching her hers. I didn't like her, but I felt a little sorry for her. It seemed sad to be so hell-bent on perfection, even here, even now, when a world of glorious cold beers and smoking-hot men lay at her manicured fingertips. Instead, she was studying and sleeping eight hours a night and washing her hair with clocklike precision, just like she'd probably do for the rest of her boring-ass life. But I could see my pity reflected in her face: She didn't like me, but she felt a little sorry for me. It probably seemed sad to her, to be so hell-bent on drinking to excess and slutting around, forsaking my dignity and my health and my college transcript just to demean myself with random dudes, just like I'd probably do for the rest of my messy, mediocre life.

The moral to this story is that shame is in the eye of the beholder. Little Miss Perfect and I were so sure that we had cracked the code, and everyone else was doing it wrong. We were just following our own paths. She was organizing sorority functions and I was vomiting into the bushes. She was taking three-hour biology labs and I was popping Advil, humming Fleetwood Mac lyrics, and showing up late for Intro to Jazz. I'm sure she graduated magna cum laude, went to med school straight out of college, and now has 3.5 kids and a mini mansion in Connecticut. Meanwhile, I graduated and flailed around San Francisco, still drinking too much with random dudes while holding down a series of half-assed jobs.

But if I hadn't done that, I never would've become a writer. When the dot-com boom happened, I was perfectly poised to jump right in and write the kinds of mean-spirited cartoons that spring from the mind of an angry drunk. I don't really want my kids to follow the same fucked-up path to happiness, frankly. But I don't have a lot of regrets when it comes to college. I had fun and graduated with a 3.8 and it doesn't matter much either way.

The point is, even though your path may seem disappointing now, you may eventually get something out of the so-called mistakes you made in college. And when you drag your feet with work, when you fail to please your professors, when you leave your leadership positions, when you cry and stare at the wall, something inside of you is refusing to march forward on this path to perfection. Something inside of you wants you to reveal your true, imperfect self to the world. A big storm is kicking up, and it's telling you: STOP. YOU ARE NOT A FAILURE. YOU ARE NOT A DISAPPOINTMENT.

You can't live up to your potential if you don't know what your potential is yet. You have worlds inside of you — gorgeous, sad, surreal, thrilling landscapes that you haven't explored yet, because you've been so focused on doing everything right, checking all the boxes and getting pats on the head for being a good, obedient child. There are all of these imaginary judges in your head, telling you that the second you vary one millimeter from the proper path, you're a fuck-up. Who are these imaginary clowns to tell YOU what to do? How did a gaggle of small-minded ghosts gain control of the wheel and start steering your divine, wild, infinite universe around so recklessly? 

Senior year, spring semester is tough. Staring down the barrel of the real world, it's easy to feel uncertain. If feeling uncertain fills you with shame, it will lead you down the path to depression, to feeling paralyzed by fear and self-loathing.

But you don't even know what the world is made of yet, because you're too angry at yourself for not being perfect to see clearly. If you don't already have a therapist, you need to find one who can help you start to feel less shame over your feelings. You need to learn how to feel proud of your accomplishments, instead of focusing on what you DIDN'T do. Because, along with that storm raging inside you, there's also beauty and light and joy in there. You have to welcome the storm in order to get to the good stuff. You are not filled with computer chips and bolts and metal springs. You have so much to offer, but you'll never know what you have inside if you don't let go of your shame and see how beautiful you are when you stumble, when you feel fragile, when you are angry, when you cry. Ask yourself what Stevie Nicks would do, and the answer will come to you: You can go your own way! You can ring like a bell through the night! You can rule your life like a fine skylark, and when the sky is starless!

College is not the best time of your life. I had a great time in college, but it doesn't come close to touching my life at age 44. Nothing can compare to knowing who you are and working at something you believe in. Taking risks and reaching for something you love and making big mistakes and being vulnerable without feeling shame about it: These are the prerequisites for building a life you love. It's time to stop trying to be a robot, and instead be a human. Stop looking back, and instead look forward, to a new life, where rankings and lists by your name don't matter anymore. All that matters is your ability to feel — happy and sad and proud of yourself. You have so many gifts and you can do anything you want with your life. Learn to feel your feelings without shame, and everything else will fall into place.

Polly 


Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.

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