Yale is the best thing that has happened to me. I’ve grown, learned and failed in absolutely spectacular ways. But the one issue I’ve had with my time here is that I haven’t always felt beautiful. I believe the strongest human desire is to feel beautiful — to love and be loved. Ultimately, everything we do is aimed at filling this need. At Yale we continue searching for this love, but too often in all the wrong places.
Earlier in our lives, this struggle for love manifested itself in much clearer ways. I can remember a time when I sported a bowl haircut, glasses (with the wraparound strap), braces and cargo shorts. During those years, I would do anything to gain the acceptance of my classmates. I hated myself to the point that I was willing to be anything except who I was. I mimicked the popular kids, subverted my intelligence and mocked my friends, all in the hope of gaining validation and love from the “in” crowd. I vividly remember the cliques I encountered and the sense that my self-worth was completely conditional on their acceptance.
Our struggle for validation and love in college happens in much more insidious ways.
During a lecture at the University of London, writer C.S. Lewis warned college students of what he called “the inner ring,” which he believed to be the main force motivating human decisions. The dominating element of this inner ring is the desire to be in an “in” crowd, as well as the terror of being left outside. Eagerly, we move through these concentric rings, all in the search for love. And unfortunately, the fear of rejection from the inner ring will motivate us to do increasingly self-destructive things.
At Yale, inner rings are everywhere. Whether through secret societies, internships, fraternities, sororities or other student organizations, we long to unpeel the onion of success at Yale. Our self-worth is pinned to these social constructions.
A freshman may initially join the Yale College Council, thinking that it is a group that will be a validation of success. Once in, instead of being happy, he sees the Executive Board as the new “in” group he should be part of. Once elected to the Executive Board, he tells himself that the position of president is where happiness and self-worth lie. But as someone who was voted the Yale College Council president, I can tell you sincerely that titles bring none of the love or validation we all so desperately seek.
I loved my time in student government because I genuinely cared about the causes I advocated for and the people I worked with. But I also understand the damaging effect these inner rings can have — the power of rejection from secret societies, internships and student groups can absolutely destroy one’s self-worth. You won’t find love if your sole desire is to be in the “in” crowd, your motivations extricated from enjoyment of the craft and your colleagues.
I’ve often felt a gnawing sense of insecurity, which comes with fear of rejection. It’s motivated me to join groups I wasn’t passionate about and attempt to impress particular people in the hope they would validate me. Through this self-doubt, I completely missed the point of why I was doing it in the first place — to love and be loved. Inner rings are, by themselves, devoid of this love. Simply being in the know doesn’t produce real pleasure.
Validation comes from self-love. I don’t mean to be pejorative about how self-love is easy and simple. I don’t want this to come off as a Buzzfeed list or an article on Thought Catalog that explains how you can find love if you only try a little harder or think more positively. It’s something I work on every day, and while some days I have it under control, other days I see my self-confidence steamrolled into a sliver of its former self. Yale often makes self-love much more difficult — we find ourselves desperately seeking acceptance to the inner rings we thought we left behind in middle school, seeking validation in ways that damage our self-esteem.
Unless we consistently fight our misguided urges, we will search for validation in all the wrong ways. While difficult and frustrating, tell yourself every day the only truth there is in this world.
We are all infinitely and impossibly beautiful.
John Gonzalez is a senior in Ezra Stiles College and a former president of the Yale College Council. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.