As the end of the quarter draws near and the intensity of studying reaches a fever point, the stress levels of Stanford undergraduates come to an understandable peak. The prospect of finals brings long nights spent holed up in the library, copious coffee consumption and plenty of school-related complaining. Students coalesce around their shared stress, lest they fall prey to the notorious duck syndrome and ride out the end-of-quarter stress alone and unassuming. Simply put, it’s difficult.
But it’s within these clusters of shared commiseration that arises a toxic culture in which students rank their personal problems on a hierarchical, competitive level. Wallowing in self-pity and trying to outdo peers in a “misery poker” of stressors, students fall prey to the mindset that their issues are more valid or prominent than others, that their list of p-sets and research work tops their peers’ loads of reading assignments and essays.
And this ideology isn’t new nor surprising; Stanford naturally fosters a stressful environment that forms from the rigor of the fast-paced quarter system and challenging academic classes. It becomes part of the academic culture to compare course loads and to mentally punish ourselves if we perceive our work to be less meaningful, less successful or less difficult than others’. Misery poker is thus an outward safety blanket for stressed-out students to justify their anxiety and academic stress and is perhaps a pushback from duck syndrome. We find more comfort in projecting and hyperbolizing our worry than in covering it up under a facade of calm and cool. The ironic thing about this is students may think they’re commiserating in solidarity with their struggling peers, but misery poker instead transforms into a pity party of relative suffering rather than a community of support – it’s a battle of one-ups.
This mindset seems ridiculously counterintuitive, but it plays into the common misconception that our problems are invalid relative to those who suffer more – it nurtures imposter syndrome on both sides of the game. Because students project their “I have it worst” mindset through misery poker, too many other students begin to talk themselves out of their problems and discredit them – the “someone has it worse” mentality of self-invalidation arises directly as a result of misery poker. It’s humbleness gone awry.
There thus forms a tricky balance in which students are encouraged to freely express their emotional struggles to overcome duck syndrome, but simultaneously stifle and rein in their competitive complaining to discourage a toxic community of comparison.
Comparative struggles are, however, an ingrained part of our human psychology. Under Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which spans from basic biological and physical requirements to self-actualization and personal potential, we categorize our different needs in life and hierarchically rank what’s more important to humans. Transcending each stage requires overcoming the hardships of obtaining said needs — finding food and water versus coming to understand our personal potential. But does that mean that ascending from lower stages of the hierarchy is more valid because the lower levels are the more basic tiers of human necessity? That struggling to realize personal potential – the highest level on the hierarchy – is a “softer” problem to have in life?
We can certainly recognize that not all difficulties are felt equally; the struggle of finding safety in shelter is a stressor completely different than that of trying to understand our personal academic growth through self-esteem. While some of our peers may struggle to make ends meet to cover Stanford’s hefty tuition fees, others already have that privilege and face problems that seem shallower or more face-value, as ascribed by Maslow’s hierarchy. We become uncomfortable acknowledging our own first-world, privileged problems when we realize someone else has perceived larger, more pressing needs – it is a mental misery poker that goes beyond simply comparing workloads and unit counts.
But is it really necessary? We should react with empathy and understanding to others’ pressing issues that rest lower on Maslow’s hierarchy, but still recognize that every student’s struggles – including our own – remain valid and important. Telling someone they can’t be upset because someone has it worse is akin to telling them they can’t be happy because someone has it better – there will always exist someone worse off or better off, but that doesn’t devalue any emotional struggles we experience as students.
With finals looming frighteningly near, the natural college stress culture becomes increasingly toxic and multidimensional. Finding the balance between healthy commiseration and the “hard life Olympics” is tricky, yet not impossible. Students can bond over a table of misery poker, complaining to their wits’ ends about problem sets and studying. But, we should still remain cautious of trying to outdo our peers in this dangerous game. Acknowledge and respect the relative difficulties others face, regardless of where they fall on our hierarchy of needs.
Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at elindqw ‘at’ stanford.edu.