Blue Devil Duck Syndrome

I love the idea of mindfulness. Since the age of thirteen, I’ve gone through waves of enthusiasm for meditation. Every few months, I’d get super excited and download all of the meditation apps and maybe buy a how-to book. My biggest success story is during sophomore year of high school when I did a whole six months of de-stressing self-hypnosis before bed. More often than not, however, I’d stick with it for a few days, and then inevitably let mindfulness slip off of my priority list. Even a five minute session became too much of a hassle.

When I got to Duke, I decided that holistic wellness would be a priority for me—and on paper, I’ve done all the right things. I exercise, do art, took Koru classes, visited CAPS, and am now enrolled in a massage class and a mindfulness based Writing 101. But something is missing. I go to these things because I want them to be important to me; but meditating is always the first thing dropped when I have a busy day, and I gladly take any excuse to skip exercise. Too often, I realize, I am simply going through the motions of self-care.

I know that I should prioritize my well-being and self-care practices, but there are simply too many other obligations, events, and experiences that which seem more important or exciting.

As a school, we are certainly taking steps towards prioritizing holistic well-being, as evident from the many opportunities and resources I have already taken advantage of. But it may take more than a fancy new Wellness Center to truly integrate self-care into our cultural norms and expectations. In an environment where self-care is often the first thing sacrificed to our busy schedules, how can we foster a culture where self-care is a valued and expected practice, rather than a chore?

Duke talks a big talk about health and wellness, but often the support is not there. Student Health, CAPS, and the Women’s Center are all closed on the weekends, which seems like a silly policy, as students certainly get the flu, or are sexually assaulted, or suffer from anxiety on Saturdays and Sundays.

Clearly, there are many students and faculty members fighting for mental health support systems and a culture that promotes emotional well-being. But as we advocate for change within Duke systems, we must also unlearn behaviors and norms that began far before we set foot on Duke’s campus.

At Duke, we talk a lot about “effortless perfection” and how this facade—the need to be a perfect student, friend, leader, etc. while never admitting to the struggle or low moments that go into those successes—can be harmful and isolating.

But we learn effortless perfection far before our freshman year.

Our learned repression of emotion can be isolating and can stunt our ability to empathize and form relationships. We are told from a very young age not to cry, not to get angry, or sad, or jealous. We’re told to

suck it up,

fake it ‘til you make it,

be a man.

Vulnerability, we learn, is not a good look.

We teach people, especially those assigned assigned the male gender at birth, that they must always be strong, that admitting sadness is particularly weak and “unmanly.” This repression of emotion is even more dangerous when considered through the lens of mental illness: how can we tell little boys not to cry and then expect them to seek support if they suffer from depression?

I believe that these phrases and notions are deeply harmful. Repressing our emotions stunts our own emotional development and self-understanding  as well as our ability to empathize and form relationships. We all struggle, but refusing to discuss obstacles, frustrations, or failures often leads to feelings of isolation.

I would like to live in a culture that embraces the humanity of emotions, that allows me to be honest with myself and with others, and that encourages me to prioritize my emotional needs over my math homework. These changes cannot all be made solely on the personal level. We need large-scale change to foster emotional positivity, and awareness at every level: from the individual, family, school, community, media, and popular culture. Policy combined with the example set by leaders of all arenas can begin to guide us towards this cultural shift.