5 Lessons I Learned As A College Counselor (That Will Help Students Feel Less Stressed)

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1. Everyone is weird.

“Isn’t that weird?”

It’s a question I heard a lot, and, trust me, every single one of my clients was weird. I’m weird. You’re weird.

Your desire to slink back under your covers after a full day of classes while your roommates are comparing outfits for a night out? Not weird.

The fact that you’re in college now, but you can’t stop thinking about an old flame from high school, even though you’ve moved onto a new school or a new city entirely and are surrounded by plenty of new people? Not weird.

You’re interested in pursuing a major that’s unlike anything anyone in your family has studied in college? Not weird. (Please, look into it!)

You know that Habitat for Humanity will look better on your resume, but you can’t stop thinking about how much you want to join your local live-action roleplaying group? Not weird (and do it).

Some days, you feel like you have it all figured out, while other days leave you feeling like you can barely get through your week without questioning everything? Frustrating, but definitely not weird.

No one in this world has your unique constellation of likes, dislikes, strengths, weaknesses, passions, maladies, concerns, thoughts, perfections, or imperfections. There are so many things that make up your identity, your being, who you are. The world would be a much less vibrant place if we weren’t all our unique flavor of weird!

2. Do not let expectations dictate your actions.

So many of the concerns that my clients discussed had to do with failing to meet the expectations of others – parents, partners, friends, advisors, or, really, anyone that played a role in their lives. I understand that it’s easy to say, “Screw that, do what you want,” as an outsider, but the more I saw my clients struggle to do something that they didn’t want to do, the more pain I saw.

I had several clients who selected their program of study based on what they thought they should be doing or what someone told them they should study – rather than their own desires. Unsurprisingly, not only were they feeling unfulfilled in their academic life, but their thoughts about their lives and the future were taking serious blows.

“That’s just the way it is,” one of them said to me (after sharing that she had absolutely no interest in pharmacy studies, but pursued that major, because her parents thought it would be profitable).

But it doesn’t have to be.

Change is scary – incredibly frightening, in fact, especially when you have people around you telling you that you’re making the wrong choice. But let’s think of this as a pair of glasses, okay?

Let’s say your well-meaning friend wears glasses, and you don’t. You’ve noticed that you can’t see quite as well as you should, and you ask your friend for advice.

“Oh,” your friend says, removing their glasses from their face. “Try these out. I couldn’t see very well before I got them, but these work perfectly!”

You put on the glasses and they hurt. Something isn’t quite right about this prescription, and you tell them that you don’t think it’s going to work for you. So, your friend takes the glasses back and narrows their eyes in thought – still wanting to help.

“I really think you should wear these glasses,” they assert. “In my experience, they solved all of my vision problems!”

And you can see here how the cycle continues. Of course, it’s a simplified example – but that is the essence of this experience. Often wanting to help, people suggest their own preferences – or even what they think you will like, whether or not that’s accurate – onto your life, and there is no guarantee that their suggestions and beliefs will link up with what you’re looking for. S

ometimes, you might share a “prescription” with your friend/parent/etc. that works out perfectly! But more often than not, only you are going to be able to find what works best for you.

3. Do it anyway.

Another recurring theme in my clients’ troubles was, “I want to, but…”

“I want to study abroad for an entire semester, but I’ve never even stepped foot outside this state before.”

“I want to go to that club’s meeting, but no one I know is going.”

“I want to meet new people, but I’m worried they might think I’m awkward.”

“I want to ask her out, but she’ll probably say no.”

“I want to try studying economics, but I’ve never taken a class in anything like it before.”

“I want to go to that gathering, but I’m tired.”

Do it anyway. Your time in college is an inimitable period in your life that exposes you to new things, new faces, and new places. College students often have access to more new and unique opportunities than many would otherwise.

You will doubt yourself. You will encounter plenty of stress. You will be faced with things that you’ve never faced before – and never even expected to face. You’re going to want to educate yourself about what you’re doing, of course, but if you’ve made up your mind that you really want to do something – do it. Even if it’s scary, even if it’s new and awkward for you.

It might not always work out, but on the other side of it, you’ll be able to know that you at least tried. There is no safer place for you to fail and make mistakes at something new than in a setting like college.

And there are simply too many nights in college where the sacrifice of a few hours of sleep was well worth the memories made.

4. Counseling can be beneficial for anyone.

This gem actually came from my supervisor at the time. As counselors, we were all required to go to counseling ourselves to see what things look like through a client’s eyes. She explained, “Where else can you sit down for an hour and be encouraged to talk about nothing but yourself and your life? There are no expectations for reciprocity. You can talk until your heart’s content, and someone will be listening to the entire thing.”

Her point was that even if we felt fully functional and unhindered by stress, anxiety, or any other difficulties, we could still benefit from talking with a counselor.

A number of my clients kicked off their first session with an apology – something along the lines of: “I don’t think anything is really wrong with me, but…” or “I feel bad about coming here, but I just wanted to talk to someone.”

Nothing needs to be “wrong” with you to speak with a counselor. The process of counseling and therapy isn’t necessarily a rigid one that will reduce you to numbers and symptoms. It’s something that should be holistic, and if you’ve ever thought you were interested in speaking to a counselor – even if you were not concerned about a mental illness – I’d encourage you to just give it a try.

5. There will never be enough time.

You know the drill. Between classes, homework, massive essays, presentations, part-time jobs, full-time jobs, clubs, organizations, parties, research, conferences, workshops, retreats, holidays, travel—

Are you stressed out yet?

It might stress you out, but I’m going to tell you right now – there will never be enough time to take on every single opportunity that comes your way, no matter how tempting each and every one might sound.

And that’s okay. What’s important for you right now is to know yourself. If you don’t know yourself, make an effort to learn about yourself because, ultimately, this is going to help you prioritize and manage your time.

Burnout is a notorious, lurking danger for so many college students – because I’ve seen so many college students with so much on their plates each day. I’ve encountered truly admirable multitaskers, but even they have a limit – where their work, their stamina, and their interest begin to diminish because there’s simply too much stuff going on.

College is a time for you to experience new things and prepare for your future, so I encourage you to resist the temptation to throw yourself into everything. Pick your battles, find out what’s really going to advance your interests and skills, and focus your efforts on keeping yourself productive and healthy – in all senses of the word. There’s never going to be enough time to do everything, and please, do yourself a favor and avoid burnout if at all possible.

Even though college is a wonderful period of time with so many possibilities, keep it in the back of your mind that life actually does exist beyond these years. If you have something on your bucket list that you didn’t get to while you were in college, you can still find a way to do it once you’ve moved out of this phase of your life.

One of my final sessions with a client came around the end of the semester. She was a senior – bright, involved, caring, and battling with anxiety as her “future” grew closer and closer each day. Graduation was just two weeks away, and she knew she would receive her degree with high marks – in a subject that was “just barely” related to what she had decided to pursue after graduation.

“It’s funny,” she began, “that in high school, we were told to choose what our careers were going to be, and at seventeen years old, be basically ready to commit to a degree that’s supposedly going to dictate our futures. We put in all this hard work to get to graduation day in college, but then what? I don’t ever remember thinking about anything but a vague ‘career’ that I would somehow waltz into once I had my degree. No one ever told me to imagine anything that happens past the age of 21.”

(For those of you wondering, while this client was certainly scared about the future, she was happy to finally be pursuing something that she was passionate about.)

I hope that it eases your mind – your mind that’s swept up in the chaos, million demands, and growth that makes up your college years – to know that you still have so much life left to live after college.

You’re going to do so much, and you’re going to make yourself so proud. TC mark

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