Earlier this month, I was interviewed by Brian Lehrer about my work on Columbia University Class Confessions, a project I launched through First-Generation Low-Income Partnership. I was caught off-guard when he asked me why we use the word confessions. The word denotes a sense of fear and shame—confessions arise out of the need to voice thoughts that are vehemently bubbling under the surface, in need of an outlet. When posting to the page, people often preface their submission by saying “I haven’t told anyone before because I’m afraid but…” These are confessions.
But they shouldn’t have to be.
Since starting Class Confessions, many students have felt comfortable enough to approach me in person to talk about their struggles, but this still happens far too infrequently. I have listened while people tell me about their feelings of cultural alienation, lamenting their need to economize by skipping meals, or speaking in hushed tones about the prospect of being homeless during the summer. And although these students feel secure talking to me, it is still too difficult to seek out listeners on this campus.
Attending one of the most selective colleges in the country, we are burdened with the legacy of excellence that this institution perpetuates. We fancy ourselves invincible. We talk constantly of what we can do, as opposed to what we cannot. And in many respects this is good. Our self-efficacy is contingent on our ability to do things, to do them well, and to be able to reflect on our success. We talk about our triumphs, no matter how small, because it makes us feel good about ourselves. But we don’t talk about our struggles.
We don’t talk about our struggles because of our deeply entrenched fear that we will come off as needy or bothersome to others. Instead, we keep our fears to ourselves, and head over to Butler or back to our apartments with a straight face, engaging in the same trite exchange of formality with the peers we pass by.
“I’m fine” becomes the automatic response to “How are you?” and we have diminished the space that language has created for people to be vulnerable. We have created the illusion that everyone here is doing just fine.
We have been conditioned to view talking about our struggles as a sign of weakness, and without meaning to, we project our own fear of self-disclosure onto others.
In not talking about our struggles, we lose one fundamental positive aspect of free dialogue—the exchange of information. Often this information is crucial to help our situations. If we actively create opportunities to either be vulnerable or to be a listener, we open up the window of opportunity for the exchange of information and resources.
About a week ago in Butler, someone who knew about my involvement in FLIP approached me and we got into a conversation about the prices at Morton Williams. What began as innocuous conversation about price inflation led to her casually stating that she skips meals because her grocery budget is down to $30 a week. Perhaps, if she had told someone else, that person might have pursed their lips and said something vague like “that sucks, have you talked to the financial aid department?” But as a person who consciously seeks to listen to others, I was able to tell her about a FLIP project that connects people with extra meal swipes with students who often don’t know where their next meal is coming from. That exchange of information would not have happened had she not recognized me as a trustworthy listener, and had I not stopped to talk.
Carrying our emotional and financial baggage is tough, but it’s even more difficult if we don’t tell anyone. Often, we dismiss the possibility of talking with peers and thereby help to perpetuate a stigma that is ultimately not only detrimental, but unsustainable.
Talk about your problems with someone you can trust. Identify yourself as a person who is willing to talk. In a time of need, whether you’re having difficulty affording your co-pays or having difficulty affording textbooks, listeners can tip you off about under-the-radar resources, administrators, programs, and peers who could help to ameliorate your situation. Talking about our personal weaknesses is stigmatized to the point that we feel more comfortable anonymously confessing our struggles than talking to people who could potentially direct us to resources, and in doing so, we might be closing out opportunities to find help.
The author is a Barnard first-year majoring in urban studies and an executive board member of FLIP. To see other pieces from this Scope, click here.
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