DEALING WITH LOW SELF-ESTEEM AT UNIVERSITY: A DECADE IN REFLECTION
In less than two months I will turn 30. This is both scary and exciting. A small part of me is sad to leave behind my twenties. However, my twenties weren’t all fun and games. Most of it was fairly depressing; a decade full of regrets, marred by insecurities and full of bouts of very low self-esteem which impacted my studies.
There were many times where I felt directionless while I watched everyone around me achieve their dreams while I stood still, going nowhere. In that sense, I look forward to what my thirties will bring. I’m glad to say goodbye to that part of my life, but, it was also a time where I grew as a person. I learned so many new things and was thrust into unfamiliar settings. My twenties were the starting point where I learned to love myself and those around me. As I head into my thirties, I am glad to be on the path to finally becoming the person I have always envisioned myself to be. It’s only taken me the entire span of my twenties to realise that it’s okay to just be me.
I have come to DMU at a time when society believes that you should have your life sorted out. Perhaps you should already have a steady job, stable income and own your own home and a family. Navigating adulthood allows for so many different interpretations. Heading to university at any age is simply a sign that you are making a positive change in your own life. I know I am, I am finally pursuing my dream career through a wonderfully rewarding degree program in Allied Health Sciences.
It’s been a bit of a roundabout journey to get here. I have always pushed myself academically, but socially I have always been fairly withdrawn, never really engaging in activities and have struggled to make friends. This has led to me feeling somewhat lonely even as a mature student here at DMU. For the most part my experience at DMU has been extremely positive. I am enjoying what I am learning, though trying to fit in as a mature student has been a bit frustrating and I find that I don’t relate to students in my class.
Being 29, puts me right in the middle; straddling the divide between those students who are at university for the first time and who live on campus, unencumbered by the experiences of more mature students. My experiences are different even from other mature students, making it that much harder for me to engage with my class. I am Canadian, so I am not in tune with British culture and life sometimes.
I’m not young enough to relate to the younger students; I’m ‘too old’ because my twenties are over which is equivalent to being socially inept and past it. There are no other students near my age in my class. I’m ‘too young’ for the other mature students because I do not have children or struggle in the same way they do with balancing family life with university work. This makes it very frustrating sometimes and I feel lonely. I often get too caught up in what people think of me that I need to often take a step back and say to myself that what they think doesn’t matter.
I forget that I do have established friendships outside of DMU. Some which span more than 20 years. Just because I’m not physically near any of the people with whom I do have close friendships with doesn’t mean that those relationships don’t exist, it just means they need a bit more maintenance to bridge the distance. I also have to keep in mind that even though I feel lonely at times on campus, I do come home every night to my husband and my cat. Making friends on campus isn’t the be-all or end all of my experience at DMU. It forms but one part on my path to achieving my dream.
So what can you do to make the most of your time at university when you don’t feel that you fit in with your course mates?
It’s easy to get caught up in trying to appease everyone and try and fit in, but sometimes, being different is good. It’s hard sometimes to realize that what is right for you doesn’t have to be the same as everyone else. Just be yourself. Whether people think that’s cool or not doesn’t really matter. This is definitely easier said than done. Especially, if like me, you’re socially awkward, don’t drink, and don’t particularly enjoy talking to other people or dealing with big groups. This is fairly amusing as my entire course if based on communicating with people. Wanting to fit in is natural, and when you’re on the outside it can feel absolutely devastating no matter your age.
My advice is to join a society, even if you feel afraid to do it. If you have an interest, there’s probably a society where you’ll find like-minded individuals. From past experience, I can tell you this is true. When I went to university at 18, I was far too insecure to join the Anime Society at the University of Toronto. I am a huge anime fan and overall sort of geeky person. When I went to university I made all kinds of excuses to avoid having to attend society meetings because I had very low self-esteem. I longed to make friends, but I was so afraid of having to talk to people that I never joined the society. My best friend was attending a different university and the distance made it difficult to keep in contact. This further impacted the loneliness I felt attending a university in a huge city where everything felt nameless and faceless, even thought it was a university near my house.
I regretted it a lot. I felt very alone, and was fairly bitter throughout my 4 years at the University of Toronto, but in a way it was partially my own fault. I didn’t seek help when I needed it. My low self-esteem prevented me from seeing that I had the potential to make friends. Eventually, about 5 months into my first year, I made several decisions to try and improve my situation. I joined the gym to boost my confidence. If I could get over the fact that I had to actually be seen among people in a very vulnerable way (hideously sweating while working out), then maybe I could work up to talking to people. I forced myself into things I was uncomfortable with to instigate change. I had nothing to lose, and I didn’t need to focus on what other people saw, but focused on myself instead. I also made a decision to join an online message board for students at the university. I was still working up the courage to actually talk to people, and ended up making some really treasured friendships (I did end up actually meeting them in person).
Sometimes, you have to give it a go without holding back. It does feel scary opening the door to something unknown, but you have to think about yourself and look after your well-being, this includes mental well-being. In time, what you initially feared could lead to something wonderful. Being at university can be very isolating when you suffer with low self-esteem and fear being alone. It is okay to ask for help. I didn’t realise that it was until I was in my mid-twenties. I always felt ashamed of myself for being afraid of social situations and thought a GP might just think I wasn’t being proactive enough or think it was a non-issue so I didn’t think to ask for help in dealing with my self-esteem.
I moved to the UK in 2009 to pursue my Master’s Degree at the age of 23. I left behind my family and friends in Canada and was on my own for the first time in my life. I felt wildly out of my depth. I didn’t know how to cook, do laundry or generally be an independent adult and I was living in a different country. I spent the first 4 months hiding in my flat. I didn’t talk to anyone because I believed that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or pretty enough. I barely left my flat except to attend lectures. This was despite having made a bit of progress in dealing with some social situations. I did have a few close friends, but now I lived in England. Everything was so British.
I only made one friend on my postgraduate course at Kent. We bonded over our hapless thesis supervisor. We’re still very close friends today. He persuaded me to join the anime society, knowing that it was one of my biggest regrets. He told me I had nothing to lose, I wasn’t in Canada, nobody knew me, and it would lead to good things, if nothing, it would boost my confidence in dealing with social groups. I was okay talking to people one-to-one, but I shied away from anything bigger.
I knew he was right, and I had been thinking of joining the society for some time. I didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes again, but irrational fears prevented me from taking the plunge and joining. I did end up joining though, and it was also one of the best decisions of my life. Not only did I find a group of people among whom I feel completely at ease with and who I look forward to seeing at various conventions throughout the year now, but it was where I met my husband. I also made a decision to seek counselling to deal with my social anxiety and low self-esteem. I learned to love myself, and be confident in my abilities through my counselling. Asking for the help I needed helped me to get better. I returned to Canada in 2010 a very different person.
Looking back, as I approach my thirties, I am definitely not the same person I was when I was when I was heading into my twenties. I am more confident, happier and healthier. I know what it is that I want and where it is that I want to go and what I need to do to achieve my goals at my own pace. I am lucky to have a wonderful supportive network around me. I didn’t seek out help when I needed it to deal with my low-self-esteem when I was younger and this is one of the biggest things I learned in my twenties; it’s okay to ask and to seek help when you need it.
I know that being caught up in trying to make friends on my course isn’t the be-all and end all of my experience at DMU. Just because I am a mature student, doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to be fun, it’s just my definition of fun is a bit different now and that’s okay. I don’t need to fit in everywhere and with everyone.
Push yourself out of your comfort zone and you might well be surprised at what you can achieve.