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Perfection paradox

When we walk through the FitzRandolph Gate, we walk into a mold — take advantage of all the opportunities Princeton has to offer you. If you’re not happy here, then you’re in the minority. Love it or learn to.

We are expected to work hard but not struggle. Get good grades and do a million activities, but also sleep and be social. Time and logistics become elusive friends. It’s a simple inequality — the hours required to excel in class and activities alone tip the scale away from the hours necessary for sleeping and socializing. I call this the “perfection paradox.”

My favorite moment this year did not have a grand beginning. I had pulled an all-nighter and showed up to work obviously exhausted, beginning to lose my voice and not subtly wearing the same outfit for two days in a row. I’m not proud. My boss asked, “How are you?”

Before I could respond, however, she said something to me that radically changed the way I view this question: “Azza, just take a second. You don’t have to say that you’re feeling great, because you’re great just the way you are.”

I find that, when asked how I am doing by family or friends, I catch myself in superficiality. When I call my mom and she asks how things are, I’ll instinctively reply that I’m doing fine, that my classes are great, that my friends are great and that I’m sleeping enough. Usually, however, only three-quarters are true at any given time.

I should feel more comfortable casually replying, “Actually, now that you’ve asked, I’m feeling very behind in my classes, am worried that my friend hasn’t called me back, am overwhelmed with work, and am really hoping Firestone has this book that I need for my JP … ” This is usually reserved for a time when I feel truly unbalanced. I don’t believe we need to pour our hearts daily, but I’d like to raise the question: how often do you lose your sincerity by hiding yourself behind an orange-tinted mask of perfection?

Mental Health Week is an excellent spark to this conversation — encouraging dialogue is always the first step to addressing any issue. But the conversations I’m talking about are not only the conversations we have with each other, but the conversations we have with ourselves. Why do I feel obligated to tell others that I love everyone and everything and am totally in control, and why do I feel obligated to tell myself too?

We are all incredibly accomplished, and, more than that, we are constantly told about how accomplished we are. It’s a natural extension of this pride to feel that complaints are unwarranted, and that we should be able to always easily juggle all the pieces of this Princeton puzzle. We certainly should recognize that we are very lucky, and whenever I leave class inspired by a professor’s passion for teaching, meet an interesting new person or walk past Nassau Hall lit up at night, I feel grateful this is a place I get to call home. And for all those nights I’ve felt sick with worry about finishing a project, for all those hours I’ve spent feeling like I didn’t deserve to be here, for all those class periods I pinched myself to stay awake because I didn’t sleep enough the night before, I feel grateful, too. In these moments too, we are great. We are great when we are exhausted and far too caffeinated. We are great when we are grumpy and ignore our emails. We are great when we check out the Counseling and Psychological Services website or call home or cry. Greatness is not a state, but a process.

Perhaps, with this in mind, if you ask me, “How are you?” I can reply, “I’m great!” with absolute clarity. I am great because it’s a gorgeous day, and the snow is finally melting, and I just met with my adviser and feel inspired about an essay, and I’m heading to lunch with a friend; I am great because I am scared about a forthcoming exam and really need a nap, and I’m feeling behind and tired and a little lonely. We needn’t feel stuck in the perfection paradox — for we all are simultaneously fumbling and failing and dreaming and succeeding.

 Azza Cohen is a history major from Highland Park, Ill. She is a U-councilor for USG, which was involved with organizing Mental Health Week. She can be reached at accohen@princeton.edu. 

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