The freshmen had never seemed this annoying to me.
Maybe seeking refuge in the high school common area wasn’t the smartest idea.
When I was finally able to tune out the sound of yelling, swearing children and the sight of their unnecessarily-frequent dabbing, I peered at my computer: a split screen with “Khan Academy Physics” playing in double speed on the left, and a series of impossible homework questions taunting me on the right.
The glossy textbook felt cold in my hands – or… was it just my sweaty palms?
My cramming sessions were always a mess, but they worked. This wasn’t because Khan’s voice somehow hypnotized me into understanding the hellscape that is physics. It was because last-minute cramming actually helped calm my nerves. It gave me confidence that I knew my material, or at least that I tried my best.
A sudden poke on the shoulder broke my concentration.
“Dude, tests replace quizzes, it’s fine, you could literally just fail this right now and nothing would happen.”
My friend’s light-hearted chuckle masked an underlying tone of scrutiny and disapproval. I knew exactly what he was about to say. I braced myself for impact.
“Just chill, stop taking things so seriously man.”
If I got a dollar every time someone said “just chill” to me, I’d own a mansion and three corgis by now. Don’t get me wrong, I know most people say this simply to care for my mental health and wellbeing. Most of the time, these remarks are tossed into conversation as a joke, and then brushed aside to make way for other matters.
The truth is, I can’t “just chill,” and this is why.
My mom said that I was born an inherently driven little bean; I did well in school, finished and excelled at the typical-Asian-kid piano exams, and managed to be recognized here or there for my achievements. It wasn’t until middle school that I realized my extreme mindset of perseverance was not shared. Amongst my loud, goofy, and fun friend group, I naturally earned the role of the “nerd” friend: the geeky one who cared a little too much about report cards. Despite being a part of the biggest, frankly, most popular group of the grade, I felt isolated and alone because I knew I wasn’t regarded as equally “fun” as the rest of them.
The first thing most of us are told about high school is that “everything begins to matter”, whether that be friends or grades. These words didn’t warn me like the 10-second PG-17+ disclaimer that precedes a horror movie; they oozed into my every thought and nibbled at me like the suspense of the movie itself. This was when I realized that my perfectionist/virgo/type A inclinations had evolved into something dangerous.
Academic ambition became intense panic when it came to accepting anything less than perfect. Befriending new people became planning and rehearsing my demeanour to portray myself in an exact manner. Hanging out with friends became over-worrying about whether I seemed like I was truly a part of my group or simply a pitied outcast. To contextualize my irrational thoughts, here is a list of things I actually and consistently over-worry about:
1. Whether walking behind my friends in a narrow hallway would make me seem like an unwanted third-wheel (literally everyday)
2. What people thought of me as they passed me on the streets – I would literally imagine specific things people would think about my appearance and/or behavior
3. Whether people judged me for my music taste based on my Spotify activity, and if so, whether I needed to change it
But above all, I became extremely self-conscious about how I was perceived academically. Having somehow finished freshmen year with perfect grades meant two things for me: (1) the only two options for the rest of high school were to maintain or to regress and (2) my reputation was now “that 4.0 girl.” It was the latter that destroyed me. I’m not saying that I was c00l 3nou3gh for people to talk about. But almost every time I complained about being stressed, someone would chime in with “what do you have to be stressed about, you have a 4.0” or simply “shut up 4.0”. People told me to take it as a compliment, but how could anyone feel complimented for an aspect of their personality that denied them the right to express struggle and dissatisfaction?
It wasn’t the grades that I was obsessed with. It was keeping up my reputation by earning those grades, because that’s how people began defining me.
All those times that people, classmates, friends jokingly called me grade-obsessed, uptight, neurotic, problematic, high-strung, intense, stingy, grade-mongering, defensive, too serious… I felt so misunderstood simply because I couldn’t share what I truly experienced on a day-to-day basis.
So I ignored the remarks. I laughed along with the jokes that people made based on my anxiety and struggles. Me worrying about no longer being seen as a language person became “she literally complains about a 94 are you serious”. Me wanting to prove to myself that I could excel in physics if I studied hard enough became “she’s so uptight she cried over a replaceable 73”. And at some point, these words became my reality. In addition to the panic, anxiety, and worthlessness that consumed me because of an imperfect grade, I now felt an overwhelming cloud of disgust and self-hatred for letting it bother me in the first place. I felt completely mute and helpless, unable to explain to the world why I couldn’t seem to “just chill”.
The truth is that nobody knows each other’s story. I choose not to tell people what I have trouble admitting to myself: the fact that I come from a bloodline where one relative died of anxiety and depression whilst another dealt with suicidal thoughts as an adult and was on suicide watch for weeks; the fact that I know I struggle with my mental health and yet have been called a “self-diagnosed pity-seeker” because I haven’t been able to receive formal help; the fact that there’s still so much I’m not ready to share now in this very article.
Seeking the balance between opening up about my mental health and dealing with being misunderstood continues to be a challenge for me. If I chose to be honest about the clusterfluff that was my mind, I would risk being doubted and called a liar, for how could someone seemingly fine not be fine? On the other hand, if I chose to remain silent, I’d have to continue being completely helpless when misunderstood by others. Words hurt, but an inability to use your own to defend yourself hurts more.
This isn’t something that I’ve miraculously come up with a solution for. To this day, I am still trying to look past the labels that people have forced upon me and accept my anxiety. How? By surrounding myself with people who understand me or at least don’t immediately judge me for being an uptight freak. By casting away “friends” that told me to chill and take part in hook-up culture so I’d seem “less boring and more relatable”. And sometimes, just sometimes, by opening up to one or two unexpected confidantes about what goes on in my mind.
It’s needless to say that I don’t feel qualified to give advice on how you should reconcile with your identity should you be going through something similar. But for now, I just hope that people can stop and think before they tease, joke, or judge. Your casual remark can become a permanent reminder of something someone else fears and despises about themself. Your words have lasting, even irreversible impacts on people’s self-image and wellbeing. So with that in mind, I only have one request: either make your words count towards someone’s recovery and self-acceptance, or at least let them be and just chill.
Not so easy, is it?