The Three-Foot Rug; Or, The Prevalence of Repression

If you walk down the entire length of Middle Path on a weekday afternoon, you’ll probably overhear phrases like “I’m fine,” “It’s nothing,” and “I’m okay” at least a dozen times. We as college students spend a peculiar amount of time and effort covering up what distresses us most instead of allowing ourselves to experience those feelings and deal with them productively. This isn’t unique to college campuses, but it’s especially visible in an environment where 100% of our time is spent presenting an image of ourselves within the context of our social lives. In fact, there have been times when I get back to my dorm at night feeling like I’ve lied to my friends all day about being “fine” when I’m actually panicking under the pressure of so many assignments and obligations. My friend Jess and I have what we call the three-foot rug. It’s the idea that we brush so much under the rug that, eventually, the rug is three feet off the ground, suspended by all the emotions we’ve ignored.

The point is that when your rug is three feet off the ground, it’s really hard to stay on top of.

A recurring question we ask ourselves, then, is “Why do we put ourselves through this?” One reason is that it’s so desirable to put up a strong front. We don’t want others to see us suffer, especially if solving the problem involves a time-consuming, soul-bearing conversation. It’s so much easier to go about our days, never addressing the real roots of our problems.

Another possible reason for the popularity of repression is that our culture encourages people to downplay their accomplishments to make them seem effortless. For example, if someone pulls an all-nighter that ends in an anxiety attack at 6am to finish a paper that earned an A, they’re more likely to say it wasn’t too hard than that it caused them incredible distress. We like to make people think that what we do well comes easily to us. For some reason, it’s popular to hide the struggles that produce our accomplishments.

I realized just how prevalent mental health issues are among young adults because of a recent  interaction on Facebook. My aunt posted a video that said, “If your kids needed grief counseling after the election, you have failed as a parent.” Obviously, I disagreed. I left my aunt a comment about the importance of counseling and how beneficial mental health resources are. I also explained how many minority students felt that Trump and his supporters had no regard for their rights or equality. One of her friends commented that I was a “drama queen” and a “communist.”

Honestly, this would have really bothered me two years ago, before I got control of my social anxiety. Now, I think his phrasing is rather amusing, and I know that his argument is invalid. I’m not going to humor him with a response, because my aunt was the intended audience of my comment. It’s made me realize, though, that Baby Boomers have placed an even stronger emphasis on “toughing it out.” For our parents and their elders, repression is not just the norm; the lack of it causes outrage. Of course, repression stems from the cultural stigma against mental illness. Despite the fact that so many college students struggle with mental health, society makes it difficult to ask for help. We worry what people will think of us when we admit to struggling with anxiety, depression, stress, or some other problem, which are typical experiences for every college student.

Kenyon Confessions, a Facebook venue for students to vent anonymously about the school, posted this quote: ”I feel like I'm constantly seconds away from a psychotic episode and completely unable to put anything I'm actually feeling into a verbal conversation. Everyone around me thinks I'm pretty stressed but fine but I'm actually a warzone right now and I feel like my mind is dying and I'll be left with nothing when the dust finally clears."

Sadly, this sentiment echoes through nearly every student’s mind. It doesn’t even have to be academic stress, either; many of us struggle with personal or family issues that deeply affect our mental health, which can bleed into our academic performance.

A popular stereotype of a college student is someone who works hard and plays hard, but never feels hard. For a lot of us, we grew up with media telling us our college experience would be a time of intense learning and endless fun. We were almost never exposed to portrayals of college students seeking help or practicing any emotionally healthy habits. I can’t remember seeing one movie or TV show about college in my life that would have prepared me for the reality of how stressful and debilitating these four years can be. I can’t help but think that if we had more media—books, TV, movies, web series—that showed students an example of how to cope with their mental health issues, the repression I see everywhere on campus wouldn’t be so prevalent. There have been so many times when I’ve wished that my peers didn’t put up such an invincible front. None of us are really doing as well as we come off, and though we all know that, it still has a detrimental effect on campus culture. No one wants to be the one spending quiet time alone when their peers are at a concert or a party, but sometimes we need that time. No one would choose to skip dinner with friends to talk to a PC, but sometimes it makes the difference between distress and relief. No one actively tries to burden their friends with their own problems, but sometimes good friends (and good listeners) can put things into perspective.

I love Kenyon, but living here for a semester has shown me that we aren’t the image we portray. Ascension, the SQuad, Old K, Peirce—they’re all covered in three-foot rugs. Everyone here is clever, interesting, and passionate. Everyone here is also struggling with their own stressors and pressures; we just don’t like to show it. The student body represses emotions that make us human, that often inspire us to produce art and literature and music. I wish that my campus could create a better culture around mental health, and the first step is to stop brushing our emotions under the rug.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2, 3