Lessons from Confessions
Debunking the myth that everyone else is happy and perfect
I started confessions.mit.edu after the suicide of a student whose death surprised everyone: a sociable, involved student who, I thought, must not have been talking to anyone about her deepest struggles or hearing firsthand the same struggles in others. There is a deafening silence on certain issues, and Confessions has shed some light on the kind of thoughts that proliferate in an emotional vacuum like this.
10/30/15: “I’ve been having this feeling lately that I’m so lonely compared to other people.”
“I’m lonely” — I’ve heard that said aloud so few times that each instance is distinct and vivid in my mind, and I’m always surprised at whom I hear it from. People whose extroversion I had personally envied were overwhelmed by feelings of isolation and envy at the happiness of others, an emotional impostor syndrome. Confessions opened up a chorus of people expressing these feelings, and expressing the need to express them.
9/30/15: “I hate research, despite being ‘good’ at it … I feel like a worthless human being, a total failure at life … I can’t help but see that all the PhD students that I see share some of this trauma to some degree. It’s something none of us talk about, but we could all see it in each other.”
Many graduate student confessions are characterized by this sense of disillusionment. It’s a difficult point in your life to realize that your life may not be moving in the direction you want it to, that in fact you yourself may be moving it in another direction, and have been doing so for years. We see the lives of people who have taken other paths, and many experience the painful epiphany that happiness is not a meritocracy, that we can do everything we’ve been told to do and still end up miserable.
11/6/15: “My parents are paying too much money for me to be here depressed. I try to mask it but I just feel so broken on the inside sometimes. I even feel bad for being depressed because I know that so many people would kill to be at MIT and to have access to all the resources that I have.”
Perhaps the most telling remarks are on the meta level. Loneliness, insecurity, and uncertainty are far from uncommon in the human experience, but the root of many of our problems at MIT seems to be how we feel about them. Posts are full of guilt, of merciless self-judgment, words like “broken” and “failure,” and the apparent conviction that it is a sin to falter. I realized that I had often wondered what I was doing wrong, or what was wrong with me, without questioning what “wrong” even means.
12/6/15: “More than anything, I just want someone to tell me that this has been worth it. That this has been worth the extra suffering that I’ve been through. I just want the machismo bullshit I have to put up to drop for just a second, and for someone to say to me honestly ‘I love you, and thank you.’”
It’s an act of courage to expose your vulnerabilities, to say that you’re hurting, or that you need love and acceptance. And it’s harder still to say it with a straight face, a bare face, without the veneer of irony or humor or sarcasm. Why does this seem particularly difficult at MIT? I think the desire for validation breeds a heightened fear of being mocked or judged as weak, which makes it hard to be sincere. But liberated by anonymity, people have revealed that it’s even harder to suppress these feelings. It’s damaging: it amounts to suppressing your humanity.
10/5/15: “Reading this felt like someone had gotten ahold of my journal from last year and published a page. I’ve had the exact same thoughts since coming here. Hang in there. Please. I care about you and I truly hope that things turn around soon. You are capable and can overcome this.”
I was completely floored by the outpouring of support and empathy in response to almost every post. People expressed relief to see they were not alone, and to be able to reach out to someone like them. And the tone is always so encouraging and gentle.
Personally, I find supporting others in this way helpful even for myself. Seeing our struggles in others allows us to look at them more objectively; in comforting others who were being harsh on themselves, I realized how vicious and unforgiving I had been to myself — and so unnecessarily. I had berated myself in a way I would never berate others, and I needed to stop. We all need to stop, and to help each other.
Confession: I went through a very rough patch last year. A close friend of mine was hospitalized for being suicidal, and tension with some of my family members had reached a boiling point. I felt weak and incompetent for being so impaired by this and for not knowing exactly what to do. And then my mom called me to tell me she was proud of me and that she knew I was struggling a lot but that it’s natural, that it’s okay. She told me, “You are not broken,” and I dissolved into tears.
This is exactly what I needed to hear and what so many people are clamoring to hear. You are not a machine, and you are not malfunctioning. You are not an aberration in an impeccable mass, and you can come and see for yourself that there are so, so many others like you, even though it may not be obvious at first glance. And they will tell you they exist, and support you, even though right now they might need to do it anonymously.
10/5/15: “If you can draw hope and strength from the journey of another, then know that I made it through the seemingly ever-present darkness you have fallen into and that I care deeply about you even though we have never met.”
Renee Bell is a graduate student in the Department of Mathematics.