College -- Is It Really the Best Time of Our Lives?

Is college really the best time of our lives?

Posted Jan 17, 2010

Laurie* was a student at a prestigious university when she first came to see me for therapy. "I feel so guilty," she said. "This was supposed to be the best time in my life; but I'm so unhappy. What's wrong with me?"

Her words reminded me of my own years at Duke University, where I was miserably homesick despite being less than ninety miles away from my family. Therapists often use our own experience to help us understand what might be happening in a client's life. At the same time we must be careful not to confuse what happened in our lives with what is going on in a client's.

I asked Laurie to tell me how she understood what was wrong, and why she thought it was something to do with her? She said that she had worked hard to get into a good college; and now that she had succeeded, she felt nothing but emptiness. Her parents kept worrying that she wasn't getting what she should out of college. Obviously, she said, it was her fault.

A memory of my grandmother's well-intentioned reminder, repeated often during those years at Duke, that "these are the best years of your life," echoed in my mind. Like Laurie, I heard her efforts to support me as criticism, a suggestion that my pain was my own fault.

I did not share this memory with Laurie, but asked her to tell me more about what she had imagined college would be like. She was surprised by my question. After a few beats, she said that she had never really thought about it. "It was just what was supposed to happen," she said. "It was the goal I was aiming for." "So," I said, "part of the problem might be that you've accomplished that goal and you don't really have a new one to take its place?" She nodded. "I guess so," she said. "But none of my friends seem to be feeling this way."

In a chapter I wrote for William Davis and Leighton Whitaker's book The Bulimic College Student , I talked about a problem for many college students: that they frequently feel that they are alone in their misery. The desire to present a self-confident picture of themselves to their peers makes it hard for them to share their worries with one another. This of course simply reinforces their sense of isolation and difference. I shared this thought with Laurie, who nodded again but did not seem convinced.

At this point I decided to see if it would help to let her know that I understood from personal experience. I said that I saw this in many young people I worked with, but I also remembered it from my own -- long past -- university days. Her eyes widened. I asked if she minded my telling her that. She said, "no, not at all. My parents talk about college as having been the best time in their lives. That's why they expect it to be so good for me. That's why I think it must be something wrong with me that I'm not getting what I should from it." Tears ran down her cheeks. "It's definitely not the best time in my life."

Like many parents, Laurie's remembered the good things from their college days, and had probably forgotten many of their own anxieties and sense of confusion during that time. I encourage all of my cients whose parents have rosy images of those years to see a film like "The Graduate" to get a different picture of how college was in the "good old days."

Adolescence, including the college and post-graduation years, is a time of growth and change -- and therefore, almost by definition, of confusion, self-doubt and insecurity. It often helps students simply to know that this is a standard, although seldom discussed, part of that period of life. It is also an experience that will pass -- and perhaps be forgotten when they send their own children off to college. 

Laurie and I worked together for several years. We untangled a number of different elements that contributed to her difficulties. But perhaps one of the most important things we learned was that she was not at the end of the road of her life. Because she was instead on one of a series of small pathways on the journey that would, hopefully, continue into old age, she would have many more opportunities for "the best years of her life."

*Not her real name - I have changed names and identifying information in my blogs to protect the privacy of individuals and families