Let go of your need to be perfect or above average. There are no perfect people; only people who pretend to be perfect. If there was a way to validly measure who is the least intelligent among you, that person would still be pretty darn smart with loads of potential. Besides, believing that the only people who are worthwhile are those who are elite or above average is simply arrogant. We all have value whether we are leaders or followers, or most talented or least talented.
Don’t fall for the Notre Dame stereotype. Everyone is different in some way. Normal is way overrated. Be proud of your differences, even those that may be less flattering. Hiding these differences and struggles, and blindly conforming only leads to shame and marginalizing differences.
Don’t buy into the fairy tale. Notre Dame students often look like ducks on the pond— very graceful above the surface, but paddling like hell below the surface. If you compare your insides to others’ “facebook selves,” you will always come up short. We ALL struggle!
There is no “yellow brick road.” If only you can find the perfect major, career, partner, etc. and stay on that path, everything will be OK, right? Unfortunately, we neither have perfect knowledge nor can we predict the future, and life will throw us curve balls. For this reason, there are rarely perfect decisions, especially with regard to complex matters. Further, how things turn out also depends a lot on what we make of it. So, it is wise to not get too rigidly attached to how your life should go without making room for other possibilities.
You are a work in progress. Be kind and patient with yourself. Of course, it is important to have goals guided by your values. However, if you are racing to reach an endpoint, saying that “I will be happy when…” —-you are doing life wrong. Life is a process. Savor the ride and all the excitement, simplicities, bumps, joys, precious moments, struggles, failures, and drama along the way.
Learn to fail and overcome failure; this is the formula for resilience. Life involves lots of failure and disappointment, so you’d better get used to it. Learn to roll with it and compassionately pick yourself back up again and again. Some of the greatest lessons in life and hidden opportunities come from failure and our most difficult experiences. If you lack experience with failure, this means you probably lack experiences that have truly challenged you.
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”—Oscar Wilde. Own your differences and imperfections without shame, and learn to discover and appreciate your strengths. It is normal to struggle to figure out who you are. Own that too.
Learn to ask for help, reveal your own struggles, and receive support. We evolved as social creatures because we function much better in groups, supporting one another, than we do alone. You are missing out on a huge evolutionary advantage if you are trying to go it alone. Get to know one another on a deeper level—the good and the not so flattering. When you are able to be genuine and vulnerable with each other (e.g., personal struggles) then you don’t have to waste energy hiding these things. Then, you can relax. Further, when people disclose vulnerabilities to each other, this leads to closeness and intimacy. Close, intimate relationships can be huge assets in times of struggle.
Find balance. Avoid unrealistic expectations and pursuing “success” at the expense of everything else that is also important. You only have so much time in the day. Things will only get more demanding as time goes on and you assume increasing levels of responsibility: (spouse, kids, mortgage, etc.). Now is the time to establish your priorities. Accept that you cannot give your “absolute best” at anything without sacrificing something else that might also be important (e.g, social life, sleep, performance in another class).
Learn to accept your feelings. We all have a range of feelings, positive and negative. Emotional pain is a given in life. Emotional suffering, however, is optional. Emotional suffering often comes from judging our feelings and judging ourselves for having those feelings. For example, if you believe that you shouldn’t feel anxious when you are feeling anxious about a test, then you will only feel more anxious. If you believe that you shouldn’t feel sad about a breakup, then you probably feel both sad AND frustrated. Judging yourself for not being as blissfully happy as you believe you should be only makes you feel less happy. A life well-lived has lots of painful feelings. To ask someone out means to risk rejection. To attempt a goal means to risk failure. To grow attached to someone or something, means to risk the pain of loss. Anxiety and stress are natural feelings that come with uncertainty, as nothing in life is guaranteed. Learn to embrace uncertainty. These experiences are normal and will happen to everyone. Happiness does not mean feeling good all of the time or even most of the time. A sustainable life of eternal bliss is a myth because feelings come and go.
Learn to live more mindfully. Your time at Notre Dame and beyond will quickly pass you by if you waste too much time doing things that don’t really matter, get stuck ruminating about the past or excessively worrying about the future. Many of us struggle with procrastination or numbing (e.g,. through substances, other addictive behaviors), or seek constant stimulation (e.g, through technology) to escape feelings (e.g., boredom, loneliness, anxiety, or sadness) or to seek immediate gratification. These short-term strategies cause us to miss out on the present moment and can become longer-term problems. Of course, we all need breaks from time to time, but breaks turn into avoidance and mindlessness when they consume large amounts of our time or takes us away from what really matters to us. Mindful acceptance, which involves being fully present, in the moment, without judgment, is a skill that can be cultivated with practice.
Practice self-compassion. Treat yourself as you would treat a good friend—with kindness, patience, and understanding. Research shows that harsh self-criticism undermines motivation and contributes to procrastination and mental health problems such as depression and anxiety. Self-compassion is associated with just the opposite: higher well-being, lower depression, and lower anxiety. (see self-compassion.org)
Be kind, inclusive, and look out for each other. As you try to find your place here, don’t let your peers (especially those with more obvious differences) fall through the cracks. Besides, being kind to others can actually improve your own well-being.
Be curious and open-minded about differences. Just as we can bond over similarities, we can also bond over differences. Allow others to be and figure out who they are without judgment. Get outside of your comfort zone and open yourself to others with whom you might not ordinarily be inclined to befriend. Get to know them, their backgrounds, and interests. This can enrich your life. From them, you might learn a new perspective or develop a new interest.
Be willing to listen to and support others. There is no need to fix others’ problems or bear their burdens. Offer advice if asked, but advice is often overrated. What is most important is that you listen without judgment and express empathy without trying to paint a silver lining. That being said, you are not a psychologist and if you find yourself in the role of a psychologist (e.g. a friend’s problems are burning you out and you have no idea how to help them), consult with others, and/or refer to the UCC.