Do You Have Your Own Version of “Penn Face”?

October 24, 2018 § Leave a comment

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“My experiences at Penn so far have been overwhelming,” writes Karisma Maheshwari in the Daily Pennsylvanian‘s 34th Street. An exchange student from Mumbai, she says,

My idea of time has changed; it turned into little blocks, each with an allotted productive function, with a few stolen gaps to watch BoJack Horseman. The blank wall above my desk turned into a system of aggressive yellow Post–its detailing my to–do list, which ranged from attending resume workshops to buying razors.

Not only is Maheshwari experiencing a new culture in the US, she’s also acclimating to the University of Pennsylvania’s “hyper-productiveness”—and learning to cope by putting on what her fellow students at the Ivy League school call “Penn Face.” Penn Face is the outer look of I’ve-got-it-all-together even though my stomach is in knots. It’s matching the smiles of those around you, regardless of how you feel. It’s . . . well, Penn students can define it better themselves:

Those on the Penn campus aren’t unique in how they handle stress. Students at Stanford have their own version of hiding what’s inside, calling it “Duck Syndrome.” It refers to the image of a duck placidly floating on the surface of the water while underneath its feet are paddling frantically. Tiger Sun writes in The Stanford Daily,

We put on a brave face and a wide smile when we go to our classes and see our friends, but on the inside, the pressure is slowly tearing us apart. During one of my first weeks at Stanford, I had a talk about this with some other kids: It sometimes feels like the Stanford experience is shrouded in a cloud of superficiality. I think it really helped to talk about this, and I encourage others to engage in this kind of discussion. What’s really going on inside everyone’s heads? Are people what they seem?

Chances are you’re not studying at an Ivy League school (or at Stanford), but that doesn’t mean you aren’t familiar with your own type of Penn Face. Maybe you’re part of another group that puts on masks to make a show of strength.

Below is how Lucy Hu, another Penn student, illustrates Penn Face in The Daily Pennsylvanian. As you read it, replace the occurrences of Penn with your job title or the name of the place where you live. Does it describe your version of the face that you put on for others to see?

Last semester, I was depressed. I had separation anxiety. I planned to take a leave of absence. Above all, I was convinced that I wasn’t strong enough to be at Penn. But sitting at Commons one lunch, I laughed along with friends even though I was too anxious to eat. I described how busy my classes were even though I couldn’t swallow my food.

When your mind tells you that you weren’t cut out for Penn, you desperately protect yourself from others finding out. The last thing you would do is reveal that you cannot handle this place and risk being seen as weak. The facade of being OK manifests as a shield for your reputation.

Hu says this type of behavior “is intrinsic to competitive environments.” And Yana Milcheva, an exchange student from Bulgaria, agrees that competition is a factor. “I think that students [at Penn] are more inclined to be competitive rather than collaborative,” she tells Maheshwari. “They would prefer to work on their own and get a better grade, rather than just helping each other out.”

Funny that the students at the University of Pennsylvania feel as if they’re in competition with each other when they’re all part of the same team.

Funny, too, when the rest of us do the same thing.

(Karisma Maheshwari, “Exchange Students Share Their Experiences with Penn Face,” 34th Street, March 16, 2018; Tiger Sun, “Duck Syndrome and a Culture of Misery,” The Stanford Daily, January 30, 2018; Lucy Hu, “Penn Face Is a Part of Who We Are,” The Daily Pennsylvania,” September 26, 2017)

[photo: “Smile in Subway,” by Maxime Guilbot, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Unmasking What’s Inside for Others to See

September 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

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In the past, I’ve written about “the need for safe confidants in the lives of cross-cultural workers,” using parallel anecdotes from the world of athletics to illustrate my point. In that vein, here’s some insight from UK professional bicyclist Molly Weaver into how, in the area of mental health, the need for outward perfection conflicts with the inner need for honesty.

Actually, my introduction of Weaver is somewhat misleading. Technically she’s not a professional bike racer, at least not right now. On her website, she labels herself “Former Cyclist. Future Cyclist? Current Media Type.”

Early last year, during a training ride, Weaver was hit head on by a car and suffered 13 broken bones, including fractures in her back and neck. And yet, less than six months later, she was competing again . . . until she wasn’t. In May, she wrote a blog post announcing that she was stepping away from racing.

She makes her announcement and then continues:

I originally wrote this blog without the next part. I simply stated that I was taking a break from professional cycling, and then moved straight onto the ‘what’s next’ part of the story. I wanted to keep things private. But I’ve decided now is the time for an honest reflection.

Her physical injuries weren’t the issue, she writes. Those healed over time. It was the “mental scars”—the depression—that had stolen her passion.

My biggest mistake was doing nothing to stamp it out at the first signs of trouble. But at the time, in the grips of the demon, I couldn’t see this. I didn’t want to admit I was struggling. That isn’t who I am. I’m stronger than that.

Turns out strength has nothing to do with it. Depression can find anyone, and most of the time you don’t even see it coming.

But finding help, at least within bike racing, wasn’t easy. She tells BBC Sport that only one of her former teams had a sports psychologist. She calls this a “fundamental problem with the industry.”

Victoria Garrick is another high-level athlete who deals with depression. She’s a senior starter on the University of Southern California volleyball team, and last year she gave an in-depth TED talk in which she covers her experience as a D1 athlete, the stigma of depression and anxiety in sports, and the cultural environment athletes live in:

The culture of athletics preaches, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” “The best don’t rest,” “Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.” Mental illness is associated with weakness. To appear weak is the last thing an athlete wants.

Not showing weakness is something that Weaver speaks about as well. Cycling, she writes in her blog, “is as much about your image as anything else.”

The social media lie is all too present in the world of cycling. Riders outwardly presenting the picture of the perfect life. The dream of being a professional athlete documented for all to see. For some this is probably the truth: for a lot of people it’s not.

The constant distortion of reality can be more destructive than we recognise. It looks like everyone else has it better than you. Everyone else is happier than you. But you don’t ever know what’s happening behind the filter.

I hid away my depression and put on a smile through it all. I said the right things. Some of which were true, and some of which I just wished were true. This felt like the only option. I thought I needed to paint myself in a certain light if I wanted to be successful. Mould reality around what people wanted to hear.

Then I would get home and take off the mask.

Now, by taking off their masks publicly, Weaver and Garrick are encouraging others to do the same, to be honest about mental-health issues, to be vulnerable in our humanity, regardless of our profession.

(Molly Weaver, “Behind the Mask,” May 22, 2018; Katie Falkingham, “Cyclist Molly Weaver on the Crash That Led to Depression and the Unhealthy Drive for Perfection,” BBC Sport, June 10, 2018)

[photo: “Venetian Mask,” by Rawle C. Jackman, used under a Creative Commons license]

You Don’t Have It All Together . . . but Neither Do They

June 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Episode four of CNN’s Mostly Human is about tech-company entrepreneurs, but when I watched it, I couldn’t help but think about another kind of entrepreneur—cross-cultural workers. Both invest themselves in often risky start ups that can put pressure on their financial and emotional well-being. And both feel the need to live up to the expectations of stakeholders.

Jerry Colonna is a venture capitalist turned certified professional coach. He works in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley, and he knows firsthand the prevalence of depression in the tech world and sees daily the mental-health toll that the start-up culture takes on its CEOs. In Mostly Human‘s “Silicon Valley’s Secret,” he talks about the disconnect between public success and private struggles, saying emphatically,

Nobody’s crushing it. Nobody is crushing it. Nobody is killing it. Nobody has it all figured out.

I have authority to say that because I’m honest with myself. It would be a mistake to think, Oh these poor little rich kids. Nothing that we have talked about is unique to the technology industry, but because the lens happens to be particularly sharp and clear right now. . . . It’s that the tech industry and the startup community in general brings to the surface forces that are at play in every aspect of our society. The human condition includes broken heartedness. The myth is that it doesn’t.

Author Anne Lamott, too, sees the reality behind the myth. She recently recorded a TED Talk with the title “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.” Her truth #4 is this:

Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together. They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides. It will only make you worse than you already are.

Also, you can’t save, fix or rescue any of them or get anyone sober. What helped me get clean and sober 30 years ago was the catastrophe of my behavior and thinking. So I asked some sober friends for help, and I turned to a higher power. One acronym for God is the “gift of desperation,” G-O-D, or as a sober friend put it, by the end I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.

And pastor and author Kyle Idleman writes that each week he gets to sit down with newcomers to his church and listen to their stories. “Typically,” he says, “we have two separate kinds of people in that room.”

There are some who have been around the church and God for a while. They know the rules. They know what to say and how to say it. They know what words to include and what parts of their stories to leave out. They’ve learned to wear a mask.

Then there are those who are new to Christ and the church. They haven’t learned the rules. And when they tell their story they will include a family that fell apart. It’s not uncommon for their stories to begin “I’ve been sober for . . . ” and sometimes it’s been years. Sometimes it’s been days. They don’t know any better. I’ve heard ex-cons talk about their crime. I’ve heard men of every age talk about pornography and women tell about credit card debt. Parents will talk about how much they are struggling with their kids. Kids will talk about how they’ve been lying to their parents and going behind their backs. They’ll tell about eating disorders, gambling problems, suicide attempts, and drug addictions. They just don’t know any better. And I hope nobody tells them that they’re supposed to act like they’ve got it all together. You don’t often get to see people without a mask. And it’s such a beautiful thing.

(“Silicon Valley’s Secret,” Mostly Human, Episode 4, CNN; Anne Lamotte, “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing,” TED, April 2017; Kyle Idleman, Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus, Zondervan, 2011)

[photo: “Broken Strings,” by Teunie van Hernen, used under a Creative Commons license]

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