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How to be "enough" in an all-or-nothing culture.

I remember thinking junior year of high school that if I could just get into Duke I would have proven to myself that I was enough. I would have made it. From discussions with friends, I know a lot of us thought that way. At least we did until realizing that a Duke acceptance letter affirms our sense of self worth for just long enough that we are completely blind-sided when the university turns and tramples us, particularly those of us who don’t know how to redefine our definition of “enough” once we have made it into such a highly prestigious environment.

A far as I can tell, this concept of “enough” is founded on two paradoxical principles—conformity and competition. It’s a rivalry to see who fits into the “ideal” mold the best. When we look towards titles such as—top student, top athlete, top humanitarian, top beauty—to define ourselves, Duke certainly shakes our sense of what our identities are built upon.

I know this all sounds obvious, but I have seen far too many peers struggle to define a new sense of identity for themselves in this new and overwhelming context. I think the greatest part of this struggle with “enough” comes from the fact that Duke students tend to operate according to an all-or-nothing mindset. There is no spectrum, just a life according to a series of binaries—yes/no, good/bad, enough/worthless. Either I am, or I am not. It doesn’t matter if I was a hair away from achieving the goal I wanted. Either I have made it, or I haven’t.

Little did I know, this phenomenon would reproduce itself over and over again. First, there was the semester I didn’t feel smart enough to be here. I worked myself so hard that my brain shut down in the middle of my statistics exam during finals week. For two nights after, I lay in bed for hours unable to fall asleep because I was terrified that if I had messed up this one time, nothing would ever keep me from falling short every time thereafter. All or nothing—if I can’t succeed at it all, I can succeed at nothing. Once I figured that one out, there was the semester I sought help for an eating disorder that had taken over. At the time, it felt like I was pulling the plug on my self control and control of my world. All or nothing—I will either eat nothing and stay skinny, or I will binge and eat it all until I can no longer stand to look at myself in the mirror.

So much of all-or-nothing thinking comes down to a desire for control and predictability—if I prove I can be it all, I will be “enough” no matter the circumstance. We don’t realize that this logic is flawed, and the opposite is actually true. Whether we feel we are “enough” is based on the context of the circumstance, and we will never be able to predict these circumstances with absolute certainty.

But did I want to believe this? Of course not. I was too afraid to trust that I would still be “enough” if I stopped operating according to an all-or-nothing standard. I felt a false sense of control in believing I could analyze and perfect my way out of each situation. So instead, I began fixating on the pieces of myself I was convinced were broken because, if they were broken, that meant there was something I could fix to make my struggles go away. This mindset ushered in the semester in which I experienced a brief, though major, depressive episode. Every little thing that wasn’t working out, it was completely my fault because I clearly hadn’t worked hard enough to fix it. If you can’t be it all, you are nothing. You are nothing.

So, where do we go from there? Because that doesn’t seem like such a great ending to the story. I believe the question demanding to be answered in this all is: How to be “enough” in an all-or-nothing world? My answer may not work for everyone, but here are the mindset tweaks that changed everything for me. First, widen the width of perspective from which you are drawing conclusions—for from perspective flows awareness and gratitude—and be wary of the contexts in which you pull comparisons. Comparisons are relative, so if you are comparing yourself to the top 1% of society, expect to be a little disappointed. Second, if you can, try to stay away from comparisons all together. We are all on different journeys. I cannot compare the leg I am on to the leg someone else is on when neither of us know what each other’s journey is about. Third, recognize the difference between power, which comes from an external comparison that says I am bigger/better/stronger than you, and strength, which comes from an internal source that says I am big/strong regardless. If you can master this, “enough” will no longer fluctuate uncontrollably depending on relative context because “enough” will no longer depend on the reassurance and approval of others. It will come from a stable source within. Fourth, recognize that this concept of “enough” isn’t some small issue; there are major consequences because it is tied so closely to our sense of identity, which in turn impacts the extent to which we feel worthy of love. How much love and what kind of love we seek and accept highly depends on the love we think we deserve. Fifth, never look at yourself as something to be fixed. When it comes to humanity, there is no such thing as damaged goods. Sixth, we hear that which we listen for, so listen for affirmation just as much as constructive criticism. Author Courtney E. Martin wrote, “We are a generation… that was told we could do anything, and heard we had to be everything.” Be gentle with yourself and try your best not to misinterpret such messages. Finally, dare to believe that the opposite of control is not chaos, as we so often assume, but freedom.

Cara Peterson is a Trinity senior. This is her final column of the semester.


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