The summer before eighth grade, I went to Half Price Books with about 15 fantasy novels. I sat them on the counter and was offered $12 for all 15 books. Because I had no concept of the value of money — and was happy to be offered anything — I accepted. With the $12, I bought “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Bell Jar.”
Subsequently, I entered eighth grade feeling painfully misunderstood. I wore a rotation of three black shirts and sat in the back of class with a contrived, surly expression, refusing to talk. I would have tried drugs but no one offered them to me. My greatest rebellion during this brief period was sneaking a capful of Jack Daniels from the liquor cabinet on a Tuesday afternoon. I was – in short – a poser.
I spent my days privately scorning those who I thought were conforming (I previously tried fitting in and was met with lackluster results). So my decision to abandon the task of convincing the world of my legitimacy wasn’t entirely unreasonable. It at least gave me some self-satisfaction to combat the fact that I felt increasingly lonely and lost.
But I wasn’t sure exactly what I was or who I wanted to be. I just had the overwhelming feeling that it wasn’t what or who I currently was. I wanted a community of people who understood me, but no matter which direction I turned I felt as if I was pretending. Acceptance always felt feigned and my own sense of belonging never authentic.
This sense of inauthenticity followed me into my late teens. I wanted to be something I was not and once I achieved it I didn’t want to be it anymore. I wore personalities like they were outfits and switched them as quickly as I had put them on, waiting for the combination that received the greatest praise.
I can define at least 10 different stages in my teen years where my music, style and interests were drastic enough to be incomparable. I went from Lululemon to Hot Topic as swiftly as I went from A$AP Rocky to BTS. I convinced myself that my current personality was the correct one, and I fervently condemned my prior way of living.
The most discouraging part was that while I was fumbling trying to find myself, everyone around me seemed steadily comfortable. They didn’t even seem to be thinking about how they were perceived. It was natural, free of the bravado and uneasiness that accompanied my frequent, erratic personality changes.
Regardless of the validity of my insecurities, I was a woman possessed with self-discovery and I was certain college would be my time for that. I let my mind wander with images of red brick walls and professors in fraying wool coats. I dreamt of studying Tolstoy in sunny courtyards and laughing with faceless friends in dorms that had held students through events I had only read about in history books. But most of all, I dreamt of acceptance. I dreamt of finding myself entangled in a network of the approval I had sought out so desperately.
Obviously, nothing went the way I planned. At 18, I still had no idea who I was and I had no idea what I wanted. I entered bright-eyed, enjoying all the extremities the University of Wisconsin-Madison has to offer. Yet I found myself obsessed with quantity rather than quality because — for the first time in my life — friendship was offered to me freely. I was determined to show the world that I knew my place in it.
It came crashing down when I realized I didn’t. I was unsure of my major and who I surrounded myself with. I was unsure of the things I said, the things I did and the places I went. Nothing in my life had any conviction, and my personality was still as malleable as it had been when I entered that bookstore to pawn my old interests away.
More than ever, everyone seemed to know exactly where they were going. I imagined every other student on campus was walking in a straight line to their destination and I was running in a circle, breaking my legs. I felt an increased fear that everyone had created a better life for themselves. I had messed up and it was too late.
College was supposed to be carefree yet defining, filled with stories that you could relay years down the line with tender fondness. There I was, stupefied, unable to make a committed decision about my future — feeling that any choice would be the wrong one. Any bad moments, no matter how many counter good ones, felt like wasting my youth.
I selfishly thought that not only was I the only person who felt this way at my university, but I was the only person who had felt this way ever. On my 20th birthday, my aimlessness grabbed me by the throat and shoved me in front of the mirror. Every self-doubt and insecurity manifested itself in the fact that another 365 days had passed and I was still walking on a tightrope trying to balance my identity.
I was no longer a teenager, and my confusion could no longer be written off as a coming-of-age story. My peers were in exclusive clubs, prestigious internships and committed relationships. I had eaten potentially spoiled Chinese food for breakfast and slept through my one lecture of the day.
I confided in a friend and was met with an obvious — yet astonishing — answer: “You don’t have to know everything about yourself by 20. You’re allowed to have self-doubt. Remember in ‘Friends’? Rachel was going to get married and then she ran away to become a barista. You never know what’s gonna happen next.”
Their reference brought me a strange comfort. So what if I was unsure of what exactly I was doing? At least I was giving myself the opportunity to have regrets. It could be exhausting but also rewarding. If there is any time to explore yourself in a forgiving environment, it’s at college. You aren’t exempt from struggle just because you are in an environment conducive to happiness. Missteps may slow down as you age, but they don’t expire.
I used to be terrified of creating messes, of having a life that wasn’t linear, of leaving tracks in my wake — full of mistakes. Now, I embrace it. I may not have always reached the destination of the road not-taken, but at least I wandered around a bit. I think of that as more useful than having lived so quietly that you never have any regrets or embarrassment.
Priyanka Vasavan is a current editor of the Opinion section and serves on the editorial board. She is a sophomore studying Marketing. Do you agree that self-doubt is okay in college? Send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.