For much of my life, my family has had problems. And by extension, me. By some measures, the problems have been quite extreme. By others, not so bad. However, when the problems started to diverge more widely from what my peers reported experiencing, I began to feel pretty disadvantaged. I felt so alone, so tired. I felt I had to grow up too quickly, that I didn’t have the luxury of relaxing and enjoying life.
Part of this was true – yes, objectively speaking, not many people of my demographic, who’ve sought to achieve what I want to achieve, have had this particular mix of life experiences. But part of it was reinforced by a negative story I was telling myself about being a victim of my circumstances, of having an invisible extra weight to bear that nobody knew about, or could know about.1
Some of this self-talk made me stronger (feeling more resilient than the average person), but a lot of it was counter-productive and made me feel distant from the people around me.
I’m in a good place right now, one where I don’t feel so weighed down by my family’s problems, where I can focus on fixing my own. Everyone’s journey is different, but I want to reflect on a few things that helped me get to this good place right now. It’s not a comprehensive list because I don’t want this post to get too unwieldy, but it includes a few of the primary things that come to mind.
Things that were more in my control
Grounding myself with stories of less privilege
I’m deeply interested in the lives of people who are different from (and traditionally considered “less privileged” than) me. There are a wealth of books and documentaries that have helped me appreciate how good I have it now, and help me recognize the “water” around me. If you’re a sensitive person, it can be easy to get depressed from reading/watching too many of these at once without having some outlet for making positive change to counter the inequity that you’ll see, so definitely pace yourself or bookmark these and come back to them when you’re ready.
Some of these resources (I’m hoping to expand this to a longer post later):
- Behind the Beautiful Forevers: A moving portrait of life in a Mumbai slum
- Chris Arnade photography: Drug addicts and prostitutes in NYC: Photographs and stories of women, men, and children struggling with poverty, addiction, and abuse.
- Invisible Child: Dasani’s Homeless Life
Movies (good for when you’re tired)
- Camp 14: Total Control Zone: Interviews with defector Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been born in and escaped from a North Korean prison camp. Available on Netflix.
- The Blood of Yingzhou District: Follows stigmatized young orphans in Anhui province, China, whose parents died from AIDS contracted from donating blood. Talk about an unfair life. Available on Netflix.
Stopping seeking data that reinforced negative, self-defeating thoughts
I admit, I used to be a LinkedIn and Wikipedia stalker. I would look up people I found impressive and pore over their trajectories. Or I’d look at team bios of startups. For some reason, a vast majority of the stalked peoples’ paths went back to Stanford or MIT undergrad or Stanford or Harvard MBA programs. I despaired at having failed to get into Stanford for undergrad, and for not giving MIT a serious shot.
Since I’d already failed to get into Stanford for undergrad, I became convinced by my “research” that the only way to achieve my dreams was to get an MBA from a top school. Or to become Jewish or Chinese-American with tiger parents. (Er, just kidding about the latter. Everyone has their own set of problems, and realistically speaking I’d probably be worse off if I had had tiger parents because of my stubborn personality.)
I realize now that I might seem to some people like one of “those”, as someone privileged enough to go to IMSA and Duke. To be honest, I didn’t find my networks and coursework too helpful in my journey (connections won’t get you a job as an engineer at Khan Academy), and that many of my capable colleagues at KA come from less well-known universities and backgrounds and don’t feel they had the best institutional educational experiences (part of what draws people to KA).
In short, beware of overfitting. In some industries, background matters less than you might think.2
Opening up to more people
I began reaching out to a few friends and co-workers who I felt would be sympathetic and could keep a secret and opened up to them. As I see it, doing this has two benefits:
- it distributes the burden (hopefully without weighing down the other parties too much), and
- you might find someone who’s been through something similar.
The latter happened to me a couple of times, and it has helped me enormously. Whenever I’m feeling alone in my struggle, I’m able to recall what they shared with me and to remind myself that I’m not the only one.
Learning to show more compassion to myself
Specifically, with past help from a good therapist (although a good fit can be hard to find) and with current help from gradually cultivating a meditation practice.
I have lots of rants about the stigma of mental illness and lack of support for cultivating mental health/hygiene in today’s distraction-filled, always-connected, navel-gazing (me included) culture, but it’s probably more appropriate for another post.
Things that may not be available to everyone
A loving and supportive partner
Having a partner who has loved me despite my infinite flaws (uhm, arrogance and insecurity, much?) and infused me with hope that I could get better. I consider myself ridiculously lucky to have had this experience. I know others have not been so lucky. I’ve thought a bit about creating “small group”-like forums for secular people to talk openly and learn from each other how to become better people and partners. But again, fodder for another post.
It’s a immersive retreat in which student volunteers facilitate open conversations on race, gender, and sexuality (and possibly a more broad range of topics now) between a diverse group of about 100 students. Holy cannoli, this was one of the best things I ever did at Duke. I came away with dumbfounded respect for what some of my peers had overcome and achieved, and saw first-hand how capable facilitators could forge deep, healing relationships between total strangers. If you’re at Duke and feel that this is the kind of experience that you can grow from, I highly recommend you apply.
This list is far from comprehensive and I’m probably forgetting a bunch of more crucial things, but it’s a start! I hope someone out there can find something in it helpful, or at least to not feel so alone as you shoulder your heavier-than-average burden and craft a brighter future for yourself.