I recently boasted to some friends that I had slept in until noon one Friday morning; this was a new achievement for me, having spent my formative years waking up before seven. Instead of congratulations, though, they offered the assurance that “my life is a joke.”
Despite their obvious humor — and a definite tinge of envy — the response belied a serious set of attitudes held on campus about our work ethic and sleep schedules. A twelve-hour night of sleep easily equates to laziness, a too-light workload or some other deficiency of ambition.
Yalies pride ourselves on our ability to juggle academic and extracurricular commitments of all sorts, but we habitually put them ahead of our personal well-being. Not that this is a characteristic in any way unique to Yale: It’s a habit we picked up in high school, around the time we traded a full night’s sleep for our first cups of coffee. College officially cements the dichotomy between academic success and personal well-being.
Most students don’t function or feel their best on minimal sleep, heightened anxiety and greasy snacks from a college buttery — that’s a basic fact of health, and a conclusion I’ve drawn from the glazed-over eyes of sleepy lecture attendees. Still, we voluntarily sacrifice our health in hopes that our efforts will pay off with better grades, wider campus involvement and stronger social lives. Society gives us a formula for achievement in college: Less sleep plus more work equals more success. This equation is false, though, because it fails to factor in the qualitative side of success: satisfaction, mental health and physical well-being.
I’ll sacrifice study for sleep, take frequent Netflix breaks and maintain a stress-averse attitude. These habits are indicative not of laziness, but rather a different set of priorities — one which puts personal well-being first. Students tend to devalue the relationship between our wellbeing and sense of accomplishment. The reality is that our self-image, and thus perception of our own success, is largely shaped by moods and attitudes reliant on our physical and emotional health. It seems intuitive to me, then, that our wellbeing needs to take precedence over external metrics of personal value. Many advocates call this radical self-care, but it’s not radical at all. Activist Audra Lorde put it perfectly when she wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.”
Why, then, are we so hesitant to practice self-care? Besides a cultural paradigm that undervalues health, there’s also the false association of self-care with selfishness. Prioritizing our own wellbeing takes some agency — in particular, learning to say no to unwanted responsibilities and obligations — that society is quick to label selfish and indulgent.
It’s easy to forgive someone for missing a class or a meeting due to an obvious physical impediment, like a stubborn cold or bad injury. Less visible challenges, particularly mental illness and other emotional concerns, merit care and attention as well. But social taboos and personal suffering make it hard to explain these challenges, and time off from commitments to rest our minds can appear unjustified from the view of another individual. Let me be clear, though: Mental illness and emotional suffering, including excessive stress, deserve as much care and attention as physical illness. Sometimes, you deserve time off just because you feel you need it. No justification necessary.
For a week, try making yourself — particularly your health and emotional wellbeing — your first priority. Say “no” more often. Give your body a break. Sleep an extra hour or two per night. Exercise. Eat well. Do something you loved back when you felt you had time for mindless hobbies. Treat yourself mindfully, and see how it makes you feel. It doesn’t mean that you’re putting success aside; it means redefining your metrics for achievement.
Caroline Posner is a freshman in Berkeley College. Her columns run on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .