Alternate blog post title: “Centering Myself so I’m not Self-Centered.”
I’ve been writing this blog post in my head for at least about five weeks now.
This past term kicked my butt. I feel like that’s something a student at my college can say about every single trimester of classes here for different reasons. I know I’ve definitely said it about a few terms myself before. But this term was unique. I was coming back from a semester abroad in Scotland, and the readjustment process has been hard. Written during the initial “welcome back” high, my “Home is Where the Heart Is” post now feels like I wrote it a little prematurely.
For the large majority of this past term, I was filled with a lot of resentment. I resented every occasion someone asked me the dreaded “How was Scotland?!” question, because it was so exhausting and so insulting to my beautiful memories to have to minimize all three and a half life-changing months to some variant of the four words “Oh, it was great!” I resented Naperville for not being Glasgow. I resented my peers who assumed I could just jump right back into life as it had been prior to my semester abroad. I resented myself for not being able to fulfill their expectations.
That’s where a lot of this “thinly spread” stuff lies. Not being able to fulfill expectations, whether they’re my own or my peers’.
I’ve learned a lot about myself this term. (Again, I also feel like I’ve said that about every single term. But then again, does that challenge the integrity of how much I’ve learned each term? I’d certainly hope not.) There really is a stark contrast between the lifestyle I had in Glasgow and the lifestyle I have here in the States, and while it’s been a painful challenge to reconcile the two, that contrast has shed a lot of much-needed light on unhealthy aspects of my life in the States.
During my first two years at college, I was often asked the question, “Aren’t you spreading yourself a little too thin?” I always took this question as a compliment — for one thing, my peers and mentors were expressing such sweet concern for my well-being, and I’m grateful that I’m in that kind of supportive environment. But for another, it stroked my ego. I found myself thinking, Yes, that’s right. I’m doing so much, it’s impressive, isn’t it?
When confronted with the question regarding how thinly I might be spreading myself, I would always respond with, “No, of course not! I mean, I have a lot to do, but it’s energizing me!” And for my first two years at college, those words were genuinely true.
And here’s why.
I started internalizing the recognition I gained from all the things I did. All the times someone told me “You’re making a difference” or “You’re a great student leader on this campus” or generally commented on my busy schedule or passions for activism energized me. It fed me and propelled me forward to continue doing everything I was doing. But it began to affect me in an unhealthy way. Sure, I was proud of myself for my accomplishments, but so were other people, and the latter started to matter to me much, much more than the former. Rather than exercise self-sufficiency and self-love, I began to rely on other people’s recognition of my achievements to feel validated and valued. I let them inflate my ego far too much. And I kept going. I kept going with the activities on campus that connected me to people, the leadership positions that gave me a role to play and feel important and seen.
All of that was fine and dandy. Nothing felt wrong with what I was doing, because it wasn’t wrong for me at the time. I was still thriving and successfully making a difference, whether as the president of a diversity club or part of the first-year orientation team. This new change in my life and in my frame of mind in no way discredits the work I have done. I’m just saying I can’t continue the way I’ve been going about getting that work done. Studying abroad in a different country — meeting wonderful people so diverse in their cultures and in their personalities — has given me a new perspective on where and how to find self-value and validation, and in order to successfully incorporate that new perspective into my life, I have to make some changes.
As if right on cue, a huge opportunity to apply this new perspective came right at the beginning of winter term. I was encouraged by the faculty advisor of the student governing association at my college to run for student body president. And I was torn for the majority of the trimester. Pre-Scotland Manilyn, with her hunger for connecting with others and making a difference on her campus, would have jumped on that in a heartbeat, absorbing it into her system enthusiastically and unapologetically. It makes sense to do it, I’d tell myself. Many of my peers would say the same thing when I’d talk to them about it. A woman of color representing a student population at a predominantly white institution sounded nothing short of incredible. Given my history of leadership and involvement on campus was reason all the more to go for it. But post-Scotland Manilyn, who has truly realized that an individual doesn’t need multitudes of positions of leadership and titles in order to make a difference or achieve success, felt nauseated and anxious about the whole ordeal. For the first time in my college career, I started to see how thinly spread I allowed myself to get, and how dangerous that was not just in terms of my performance in each of my positions, but also in terms of my mental health.
I realized that the leadership positions and recognition I’ve previously enjoyed were achieved because I already was successful. At the beginning, I was doing things without expecting or hoping for more recognition. Somewhere along the way, though, that got distorted and flipped, and though I’m regretful that it got to this point in the first place, I’m glad I’m recognizing it now rather than later. I could see that I would have loved the position of student body president because it provided another opportunity to be recognized and lauded on my campus. Though I know I would have carried out duties as student body president also because I genuinely do care about making a difference at my college, I couldn’t ignore that there would be an element of toxicity for me that I couldn’t afford to wrestle with on top of my short-term and long-term goals for myself.
And so, after weeks of vacillating back and forth, I decided that I’m not going to run for student body president after all. To say no to a position after I was basically hand-picked for it kind of killed me inside a little — but I think it killed the part that needs to go away anyway, the thinly spread and insecure pre-Scotland Manilyn who cannot coexist with self-assured and focused post-Scotland Manilyn.
Without student body president in the picture, I still have a lot on my plate with academics alone. I have classes. I have an honors thesis to worry about. Grad school applications. An extremely exciting opportunity to help a professor revise his book on race and ethnicity. I have violin lessons and a part-time job to commit to. I shouldn’t have to rely on climbing a ladder all the way to the top to feel successful — rather than continuing to fill my arms with so many things I can’t carry all at once, I can and should achieve success in the things I’m already doing. It’s a classic case of quality versus quantity and breadth versus depth. It’s not about amassing a collection of roles that I can fulfill, it’s about focusing on the roles that fulfill me.
Being that “big fish in a little pond” has inflated my head more than I’d like to admit, and after being spread so thin, I hardly feel like I even have a stable foundation to support it. After recognizing all of this, though, I’m excited to move forward, to shed the unhealthy dependence on other people to validate me and begin functioning once more as myself. Let’s see where that gets me. With this newfound self-love, I have a feeling I’ll be happy no matter where I end up.
Featured image of me on the 103rd floor of the Willis Tower by Annaliese, March 2017