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David Leibow M.D.


The Shame About Shame

Shame: the biggest impediment to dealing with emotional problems in college.

Shame is not just one of the biggest causes of emotional problems; it's also one of the biggest impediments to dealing with them. Shame makes your problems seem bigger and more intractable than they are. And it makes you feel smaller and more alone than you are. Shame makes you bury your head in the sand and pray that either the problem--or you--will miraculously disappear.

Everyone confronts psychological problems during his or her life. No one is exempt. Wealth, beauty, intelligence, a happy childhood, a good education, good parenting and good genes: none of these things can absolutely protect you against psychological problems. So why do you feel ashamed?

The reasons are ignorance and pride. You feel ashamed about having psychological problems because you believe--wrongly--that no one else is having those problems or, more likely, because you imagine--again wrongly--that no one else like you is having those problems. People like you--strong, smart, successful people--don't have psychological problems. Only weak, limited, inept people do.

Wrong! From a survey of over 80,000 university students conducted annually by the American College Health Association, we know that psychological problems in college are not the exception, they're the rule. In the spring of 2008, for example, the survey found that nine out of ten students felt overwhelmed at least once during the school year, eight out of ten felt very sad, and six out of ten felt hopeless.

Feeling hopeless is no small thing. It's more than "ordinary unhappiness," which, according to Freud, is humankind's normal state. Hopelessness is the state of having reached the limit of your ability to cope--or believing you've reached the limit of your ability to cope, which, subjectively, is pretty much the same thing.

Going beyond feelings to diagnoses: 32% of the students surveyed by the American College Health Association reported having been diagnosed with depression during the prior school year. And of those with a history of clinical depression, 24.5% were in therapy for depression and 35.6% were taking medication for depression.

I know that despite these facts, some of you will still feel ashamed of having psychological problems. It won't matter to you whether ten percent or ninety percent of students experience emotional difficulties; it won't be okay for you to experience them.

I respect your stoicism and self-reliance. Not every developmental challenge is a psychological disorder and not every problem needs to be professionally treated. Overcoming adversity, coping with painful emotions: these are the stuff of life--and of maturation. And yet there is the complicating issue of shame. Shame makes you want to look away from a problem. It makes you feel small and weak and inadequate simply because you're flawed.

Shame is a bigger problem when you're in college than it will be later in life. You don't yet have the worldly experience to know that problems are universal and that acknowledging problems is a sign, not of weakness, but of strength.

And college feels like a fishbowl. You imagine that you're being watched by your classmates and instructors, your parents and their friends, your relatives, your girlfriends, your boyfriends and your eventual employers--all of whom are expecting you to succeed brilliantly (or, in the case of rivals, secretly hoping for you to fail ignominiously). Even if this were true, which it may be to some degree, most people (and certainly the people who really matter) will be rooting for you and will understand that everybody flounders sooner or later. Your parents will come to grips with their own anxieties and disappointments--and your relationship with them will deepen because it will be more real.

Most importantly, since college is the beginning of adulthood, it's a good time to practice caring less about what others think of you and more about what matters to you.


About the Author

David Leibow, M.D., is on the psychiatric faculty of the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and the author of What to Do When College is Not the Best Time of Your Life..