Collected on the surface, struggling underneath?

by Rebecca Asoulin | 7/30/15 8:16pm

My younger brother came to visit me this weekend. He mentioned to me how happy everyone seemed and how nice, how cool, how fun, how accomplished. Seeing Dartmouth through his eyes reminded me of my first impression of the College. I wanted to come here because everyone seemed so happy and because, frankly, alumni scared me with how much they seemed to love the College.

But all the emotional baggage that comes with daily life does not disappear because we attend a school like Dartmouth. In fact, elite institutions can exacerbate many of those problems. Often, students feel pressure to mask personal struggles rather than deal with them openly.

At Stanford University, the term “Duck Syndrome” describes the pressure students feel to appear outwardly collected even while dealing with inner turmoil, a phenomenon documented in a recent New York Times feature on University of Pennsylvania student Madison Holleran’s suicide.

John Damianos ’16, an undergraduate advisor and peer advisor, said that he often uses the image of a duck floating effortlessly while frantically kicking to stay afloat to describe “the pressure to be perfect at Dartmouth.”

Students feel the need to present a self that lives up to a standard that is a construct of student’s insecurities and masque the effort that helps them “stay afloat,” he said.

Kathryn Lively, a sociology professor who studies emotion, said that students, especially over the past five years, bring up the issue in class when discussing emotion norms on campus. She said that the issue relates to the sociological theory of emotional deviance.

“When you’re unable to bring your feelings in line with existing norms you’ll begin feel emotionally deviant,” Lively said. “I think the students who come to Dartmouth who hit a wall either in their personal life or with classes feel emotionally deviant.”

Students look around and “normatively everyone looks like it’s easy, everyone else looks like they love Dartmouth, everyone else looks like they couldn’t be happier,” she said. These students therefore feel unable to admit being anxious, unhappy or other negative emotions.

Lively said that feelings of emotional deviancy can lead to “a negative spiral” that compounds the original negative emotions.

“You now also have to deal with this feeling that you don’t really fit in or there’s something wrong with you because you’re not happy enough, you’re not chill enough, you’re not able to handle everything the way everyone else is,” Lively said.

Amara Ihionu ’17, a member of Active Minds, a group that promotes awareness of mental illness, said that an important part of countering this pressure is breaking down “social scripts.”

She pointed out that in interactions like asking how someone is doing people often follow scripts rather than being honest. Ihionu said that being vulnerable and admitting true experiences can be difficult for students.

“I’ve started doing that, saying I’m tired or I’ve had a bad day,” she said. “Even though it’s hard, someone has to be vulnerable and it lets people know that it’s okay for them to be vulnerable as well.”

Damianos said that many students who speak with him in his role as a student advisor discuss feelings of inadequacy and not being able to compare to peers’ achievements or abilities. The most common phrase he hears is, “I don’t belong here.”

“My next question is always, ‘What makes you think that?’” he said. “The most common response is a comparison to other people.”

In Lively’s first-year writing seminar “Emotion and Culture,” she said that she asks her students to look at a particular emotion and document norms around that emotion on campus. Students began describing this issue when examining emotions like anxiety, fear or homesickness.

Damianos said the pressure comes from a variety of sources. He noted that at institutions like Dartmouth, with statistically high achieving students, research shows that students suffer from mental health issues at higher frequencies than the general population.

Higher than average levels of anxiety lead to motivation, and so its no surprise students at college or university deal with higher levels of anxiety, he said. When that baseline high anxiety compounds with the pressure of College, pressure from peers, parents and other sources we see the Duck Syndrome, he said.

Lively noted that at elite institutions students are often “image conscious.” Students come from successful backgrounds and so can find the transition to being among “4,500 people equally as smart as you” difficult, she said.

She said that in larger institutions it could be easier for students to defer from the norm.

“I hear students talk a lot about the fishbowl effect,” she said. “Because the College is so small everyone feels highly visible and that drives a stronger need to fit in.”

All norms can have positive and negative effects, Lively said. But norms become an issue when viewed as an imperative, she said. In this instance, one can feel like if the standard can’t be met one doesn’t belong there.

Lively said that a few years ago she spoke to a student who had been having difficulties began to feel grounded after becoming a tour guide. She said that the student grew confidence through talking up Dartmouth and grew to believe what she was talking about in that position. This is an example of how norms can lead to a positive outcome, she said

Lively said that from an institutional perspective, she would like to see more “honest discussion” about this pressure especially surrounding the transition to college. She noted that first-year students would benefit from these conversations.

“I think you can still talk about the fact that people love it here, and the students are really happy here and that we have this work hard play hard mentality,” Lively said. “And acknowledge that some of this stuff is really hard so no one feels like there is something wrong with them, or there’s something broken, or that they don’t belong here.”

Damianos repeated the need for all students to engage in honest discussion on the Duck Syndrome in order to counter its effects. He noted that students could leverage anxiety through techniques like mindfulness for personal development.

“We can use something traditionally viewed as a weakness to become a stronger person,” Damianos said. “We all have anxiety, let’s admit it and figure out how we can use it to make ourselves better and contribute to society.”