My Freshman Experience: How Trying to “Fit In” Came at the Price of Well-Being

Insecurity and feeling an urge to fit in is hardly anyone’s cup of tea, and going through it alone in a new environment can be one of the most unsettling experiences a person could encounter. For me, I had experienced one of my worst periods the first semester I came to college. It was a period of time charged with many raw emotions and moments of vulnerability that pushed me to my mental limits.

I had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder three years prior to coming to college. When I arrived, I tried to convince myself that I could break free from my history of depression and anxiety by living away from my family and creating a new life for myself outside of home. I had a strong desire to make new friends at college the moment I arrived my first semester, and made it my personal mission to build a new persona for myself. I stayed true to that desire at the time, and in the first few weeks, I made a conscious effort to spend time with new peers and do things I never did in high school. I went to parties, went to downtowns (off-campus events that usually took place in Center City in Philadelphia), met up with people for brunch, traveled to different venues in the city, and at the time, it all felt great. I was doing what I thought was normal, and I truly believed I was breaking out of my own shell.

The novelty of the new experiences and the great vibes that came with them did not last, however. After the first month of school, I began to notice that I was acting in ways that made me feel like I was not myself. Every time before I went out with new people, I felt a deep visceral urge to put on a mask and conform to whatever social atmosphere I found myself in. The more I went out, the less I had time to reflect on how I was feeling and make sound judgments to nurture my mental well being. I never really liked the topical, asinine conversations about school, jobs, and gossip that would always inevitably come up, and I was never particularly crazy or passionate about spending more money on a weekly basis than I ever had before to sustain my new lifestyle. I felt empty, and I started to feel a disconnect between where I wanted to be and thought I wanted by going out. At the time, I thought I could make myself feel better by going out more and more and that I could somehow “shake” whatever negative feelings I was experiencing. It did not work, and going out became more of a chore with each passing week. Life devolved into a vicious cycle of going out and feeling drained, returning to my room and feeling on edge, and going out again to distract myself from the negative thoughts I was having.

It did not take long for depression to manifest itself in full force. Days felt like they would blur together, and nights would go by where I would hardly get any sleep. Naturally, I tried to seek help from the people I would hang out with. However, whenever I would talk about how I was feeling with them, I would always feel like hardly anyone really understood where I was coming from. I would get generic advice, like “Talk about your problems with other people,” or “Do stuff that makes you happy,” and while I knew that that advice came with good intentions, I never felt like people were really listening or understanding. I felt lonely and isolated, and I was absolutely miserable.

I began to unconsciously let my depression slip out in everyday interactions with dark off-topic side comments or obscure actions that I hoped would be subtle indicators that something was wrong and that I wanted someone to approach me. People didn’t get the message, and I only ended up making people around me concerned or uncomfortable.Things eventually reached a climax when I managed to generate enough concern among my peers for me to be referred to a school administrator. I was prompted to share everything that was on my mind regarding my behavior, and when I did, I was mandated to seek psychological help from professional resources at my school. I was also strongly encouraged to stay away from my peers. I was embarrassed that I had let things reach that point, and for a while, I felt like I had brought my unhappiness all upon myself. I felt like it was my fault that I could not properly open up to people around me without feeling judged or thought of as "lesser" because of my baggage, and instead resorted to attention-seeking behavior. On one hand, I felt sad and hurt that nobody approached me like I had hoped, but on the other hand, I felt like everything that was happening to me was somehow deserved since I failed to take care of myself. In only a matter of days, I had stopped hanging around my peers and spent most of my time either talking to psychological counselors or introspecting alone.  

A few weeks eventually passed, and while things were much more quiet, I had a chance to really reflect on the semester up to that point and refocus on caring for myself and respecting my mental well being. While my depression was still present, and I had stopped venturing out to meet new peers, I was able to bring myself to come to terms with all the events that had transpired and reorient myself toward different goals. I no longer blamed myself for what happened, and simply accepted that it was the natural result of me acting out of a very vulnerable place.

In the time that followed, I found losing touch with many of the friends I made that semester, but also found myself reconnecting with myself and my own emotions by giving myself the space I needed. I made sure to give myself time to reflect and be honest with myself, and while I felt a little lonely, I was content with where I was.

Insecurity can be a funny thing as you go through it, and I do not think it is ever something we are aware of until we can truly take a step back and reflect on what it means to us. After spending time alone and really processing why I left my own well being by the wayside my first semester, I was able to really understand that it was okay to let the shallow relationships I formed go if maintaining them came at the cost of my well being. Addressing an insecurity is a hard choice to make, and in many cases, it may not feel like the right choice to make in the heat of the moment. In my situation, taking a step back and spending more time to myself was probably the last thing I would have wanted as I was going out to meet new people. It took a breaking point and intervention to realize that I was after the wrong goals, but at the end of the day, I came out on the other side a more knowledgeable person-- I learned a valuable lesson that self love and self care were virtues that I had neglected and had to nurture within myself. I have since gotten more involved with the mental wellness community at my school, and have been fortunate to have met wonderful people who inspire me every day.

To those who are currently going through a tough time, I want to validate that your feelings are real and that you deserve to love yourself. If you also ever find yourself struggling, I want to encourage you that it is okay to ask for help. And to those of you who have friends going through a tough time, I encourage you to reach out to them and really listen if they confide in you. The world can be a kinder place, and we all have a responsibility to love ourselves and be there for one another.

Brian Chao, University Pennsylvania

We are truly grateful for Brian's original blog written for SBFC with the intention of helping other youth experiencing depression and anxiety by letting them know that they are not alone, and that there is hope.

You're not alone. View a SBFC video featuring Brian and his message for other youth coping with depression and anxiety.


Some recommendations from Brian:

Teen Line: 310-855-4673 Established in 1980, TEEN LINE is a nonprofit, community-based organization helping troubled teenagers address their problems. Its mission is to provide personal teen-to-teen education and support before problems become a crisis, using a national hotline, current technologies and community outreach. If you or anyone you know is going through a hard time and need someone to talk to, please feel free to reach out!

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8355 If you or anyone you know is having suicidal ideation or contemplating suicide, please don’t hesitate to call the suicide prevention lifeline

Active Minds is the leading nonprofit organization that empowers students to speak openly about mental health in order to educate others and encourage help-seeking.  By developing and supporting chapters of a student-run mental health awareness, education, and advocacy group on campuses nationwide, the Active Minds works to increase students’ awareness of mental health issues, provide information and resources regarding mental health and mental illness, encourage students to seek help as soon as it is needed, and serve as liaison between students and the mental health community.

Penn Wellness is an umbrella group that seeks to foster discussion, collaboration, problem-solving, and idea sharing among student communities and wellness groups at the University of Pennsylvania.