Baskaran, Basti: Through honest conversation, we can deconstruct perfectionism on campus

Archit Baskaran and Neha Basti, Op-Ed Contributors

Northwestern’s academic, extracurricular and social pressures challenge us toward an unreal standard. We celebrate and compete about our packed schedules, boast about sleepless nights and ultimately champion perfectionism. Yet, this competitive culture is a double-edged sword. We mask our stresses, self-doubts and insecurities under a guise of invulnerability.

But how can we counteract this culture? How can we help each other?

Self-care, the obvious answer, is debatably our greatest tool, but most of us are glaringly inadequate at using it. We’ll both be the first to acknowledge that our day-to-day lives are fictitious projections of hidden vulnerability. Many personal struggles simmer beneath the surface — the pressure to be included, the fear of failure, the grueling struggle to balance social, academic and extracurricular lives while appearing carefree (read: fun and flirty) — in person and via social media.

We know many of our friends face similar challenges. So, why pretend we’re impervious to them? What’s the point in saying, “I’m good,” if we’re genuinely feeling like crap? Where’s the authenticity, the honesty, the vulnerability?

Vulnerability generates trust, which in turn breaks barriers to humanizing people and building support systems. It’s at the core of what we ought to be doing. It follows that fostering an open culture — one in which sharing and discussing struggles, failures, shames and fears as ubiquitous — is crucial to our well-being.

This led to the inception of the Ad Meliora Initiative, a project that aims to deconstruct the culture of perfectionism on campus by making vulnerability appealing and accessible. We came up with AMI to create a space for students to discuss and work through their personal struggles, moving toward becoming more resilient and authentic people. To combat the culture of perfectionism head-on, AMI encourages honest conversation, something often ignored as students sweep issues under the rug to focus on responsibilities. We strive to create confidential, commitment-free spaces that are completely open to anyone, where participants can share personal stories and obtain support and solidarity from other students. We picked the name “Ad Meliora” because the Latin phrase meaning “toward better things” perfectly aligns with this initiative’s intentions and what we believe is needed for NU’s community as a whole.

In such spaces, the depth of disclosure should remain the student’s choice to prevent anyone from feeling prematurely pressured to share. The goal of sharing personal stories should always be to spark meaningful conversation and ultimately answer two important questions: How are we all similar, and how can we help each other (and ourselves)? Only then will NU’s culture be one in which students can find judgement-free support from their peers about personal problems. We hope that by hearing other students’ narratives, participants will come to realize they are not alone.

At some point in our lives, we are all victims of a perfectionist toxicity. In our experiences at NU, many of our friends have expressed variegated struggles across a wide gradient of issues, such as fear of judgment, need for external validation, insecurity about body image and feeling excluded or isolated. And while some hide behind closed doors — projecting ulterior, picture-perfect representations of themselves on social media — others feel the need to lie or disguise hidden struggles to obtain respect and influence among their peers. We are all privy to it — if not now, then at some point in our lives. In turn, campus spaces for honest introspection like AMI are necessary, as they can help students face the challenges of life with a stronger foundation of calmness, resilience and optimism. Let us help build one another up, not tear one another down.

Despite a campus culture that often says otherwise, it’s OK to have insecurities. It’s OK to feel worried, lonely, overwhelmed or lost. However, when students feel alone in their struggles, their greater experiences at NU can suffer. Moving forward, it’s essential to leave feigned perfectionism and unrealistic expectations behind to talk about the things that really matter.

As a campus, let’s commit to working together to care for ourselves.

Archit Baskaran is a Weinberg senior and Neha Basti is a Weinberg freshman. Archit can be contacted at [email protected] and Neha can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.