The independent news organization of Duke University

Islands unto ourselves

As we grow within ourselves and navigate our internal and external worlds, we come to a greater awareness of the multitudinous, if not infinite productions of the term “relationship.” There are the relationships we have with family—with our parents, siblings, and that one great aunt who insists, “You have to remember me! I held you when you were a baby!” There are the relationships we have at college—with that professor we make sure to FLUNCH each semester, the classmate we can always rely on to answer, “What the heck are we doing?” and that other person studying in Perkins at 3:00 am, with whom you sit in the silent, inexplicable comfort that you aren’t alone, that your sleeplessness is shared. I could certainly go on about the different kinds of relationships, but that would take, well, forever. We will engage in relationships having wildly different needs, expectations and codes of behavior for the entirety of our lives, be they familial, platonic, academic, professional, romantic, sexual, or the relationship with our very self. To be a healthy, happy, productive version of ourselves in each can be…overwhelming, to say the least. Here’s a secret though: all relationships, in their best form, stand on one, common base—effective communication. As we recognize National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, this column will reflect upon the centrality of communication and ultimately, how we can begin to really show up for ourselves and for others within our lives. 


We go to Duke, and the pressure to perform is tangible. For some, the building of generational wealth starts with this degree. For others, attendance at Duke was a given, this degree simply one more float in a long parade of suffocating practicality that wasn’t necessarily wanted. There are many reasons that bring us here and regardless of their exact nature, we come laden with expectation, some imposed by others, some conjured by ourselves. We take classes, participate in extracurriculars, frantically try to perform the college student having the “best four years of our life,” even though these four years are decidedly not that for many–particularly for people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, for students from families of low socioeconomic status, and honestly, anyone who doesn’t exist at the nucleus of Duke’s white and wealthy hegemony. Being a Duke student is akin to being a hamster on a wheel spinning into perpetuity—feeling that to stumble or rest for even one second means that the wheel will spin on without you. In an environment like this, it begins to make sense that our interactions with one another are grossly superficial; few have the time or emotional energy for much beyond a “Hey!” or the occasional solidarity of a drunken night out. Where does that leave us? Well, lonely. And stunted in our ability to know, and I mean truly know, the individuals around us. This isn’t a sealed fate, though. Even as our reality as college students attempts to rob us of authentic connection, this very connection can be seized back with active, intentional communication. 

So, what does communication do for us? In essence, it’s a guide to how another wishes to be regarded, spoken to, cared for, maybe loved. It’s a learning that never ceases. We learn what forces have produced the individual standing in front of us, the barriers they have overcome, the source of their greatest happiness and their greatest vulnerability. We learn their pronouns, how they identify, their strengths, their passions. We learn things that place their actions in context, producing us as more empathetic friends, neighbors, lovers, and classmates. Another person, in all their depth, can be the greatest muse our own creativity ever knows. And just as it is rewarding to know someone else, it is rewarding, too, to offer up information about ourselves, to be known in the same way. Honest communication also ensures that expectations of time, commitment, and emotional labor are aligned. Such communication is not the cureall to every hurt; hurt is and always will be a constant of life. However, congruency in expectation may alleviate or prevent unnecessary hurt, allowing for avenues of peace and mutual respect even in the dissolution of a relationship.  

I’ve done a lot of writing about the importance of communication, but not so much about exactly how to communicate. Effective communication starts at the site of the self, and empathy and care for others is preceded by empathy and care for the self. Yet, we each afford ourselves so little space to be imperfect that we don’t entertain our own, compelling, narratives of mitigation. These traits, for many of us, yielded the academic success that got us into Duke, all while our health and happiness continued to decay. At some point, there will be nothing left of ourselves to sacrifice in the name of success. Before that happens, we must learn to forgive ourselves for the imperfect, messy beings we are, and what’s more, to love ourselves.

So, sit in constant conversation with yourself. Where do your feelings come from? Explore their origins. I’ve heard once that “every feeling is a need trying to be met.” What do you need? 

Accept whatever you are feeling, without guilt, without shame. Know that it is ok to feel uncomfortable, to feel anxious, scared, depressed or alone. Know that these emotions are not indicative of any personal failing and that even in a place where you see no light, you are and continue to be worthy of love, support and friendship. 

Once you’ve identified what you’re feeling and what you need, ask for it. Lean on others for support, and know that this condition is a temporary one. I can promise it will pass, and I promise that there is no “always” to pain. It cannot possibly last forever because nothing ever does. 

The other secret to effective communication is asking questions and waiting for an answer. How often do we ask to simply listen to another speak without interruption? How often do we ask follow-up questions rather than rushing to relate? And when someone asks us of ourselves, are we so desperate to share, so starved to be heard, that we forget to reciprocate and provide this same space for another to share what exists within themselves?

My charge to you, my peers, is to ask honest, meaningful questions of one another. Even in the simple, passing, “How are you?” make space for answers other than “Good, and you?” Maybe, you will encounter someone who is considering leaving this Earth. And maybe, you will help teach this someone that to stay here with us is not a worse fate than death. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal ideation or other mental health challenges, please refer to the following resources: 

Blue Devils Care : Free, 24/7 mental telehealth support to all students at no cost

Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) : Specializes in short term mental health care and counseling 

DukeReach : Anonymous reporting service that refers a student in need to available resources

If there is an emergency situation or you are in immediate danger, please call 911 or contact the Duke Police at (919)-684-2444. 

PASH is a student-run organization providing resources for sexual health and relationship-building. Their column, “Let’s talk about ‘it,’” runs on alternate Mondays. To ask them a question about sex or relationships, submit to this form. This column was written by Carly Jones, a Trinity junior and vice president of PASH. 


Share and discuss “Islands unto ourselves” on social media.