During Reading Period of freshman spring, I developed a strange study habit.
I would enter my favorite campus study spot, the Julian Street Library in Wilcox, and walk right past the seats that I had preferred all year. Previously, I would have claimed one of the chairs closest to the door; their advantageous location allowed me quick access to printers, snacks, or breaks outside to escape the silence of the room.
But that week, instead of staking out a prime spot by the exit, I arrived early every morning and headed as far back into the library as possible. I took a chair and turned it around so that my back was to every other person there. I put in my headphones, faced the wall and pretended that I was completely alone in the room.
I couldn’t rationalize my sudden allergy to other human beings at the time. I only knew that I was stressed and exhausted and felt an extreme desire for solitude. But looking back, it seems that I was reacting to an imbalance of my public and private personas. On one hand, there was the positive-minded, friendly, polite, altogether “edited” version of myself I felt I had to be in public. On the other hand, there was the private, uncut edition — where I was free to be cranky as well as upbeat, reserved as well as sociable, careless as well as considerate of others.
When I was around other people for so long, I felt like I was always trying to revise myself to fit a neat and tidy word count, slashing out huge swaths of my personality with bright red ink. No one cares about this section — leave it out. That part is too weird — change it to something else.
Being in public felt like being endlessly assessed and graded, like everything from my appearance to my interactions with others was under scrutiny. I felt like my life in public was like a never-ending social media post, there for everyone to view and comment on. Online, I could selectively cultivate a perfected profile for all of my new “friends” to peruse. But in reality, I couldn’t hide a breakout under a Snapchat text bar, or disguise my dark circles with an Instagram filter. I could fill my Facebook timeline with pictures of fun times with friends, yet I still ate plenty of meals alone in a crowded dining hall. I could log off of social media, but my real-life peers surrounded me twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Wherever I went to eat, sleep or work, there were bound to be other people around, and I was continually recalibrating my behavior based on who else was there. I felt like I was always auditioning, for a new role each time. Scene with professor: You are intelligent, well-spoken and competent. Scene with classmates: You are funny, casual, under-prepared for class but unconcerned about it. Scene with roommate: You are respectful, easygoing and most definitely not a reclusive hermit who never wants to leave the room. Scene with newly introduced peers: You are witty, fascinating and charming. Action!
Even when I wasn’t trying to interact with anybody around me, I still had to regulate my every action to comply with the unspoken rules of common spaces. Don’t eat noisy snacks, don’t take up too much space, don’t laugh or cry or cough or sigh. Even in my assigned room, a double, I couldn’t escape the endless negotiation of how to live in harmony with another person.
Finally, after suffering through a long, frozen semester cooped up with other people, I couldn’t take any more self-editing. By reading week, I was feeling frustrated and on edge, all the time. I needed to devote all my concentration to refining my essays, not my public presence. So I tried to make a private space out of a public one, by isolating myself in the back corner of J-Street and pretending to be alone.
My weird study strategy was a successful, if temporary, solution to reclaim my private persona. In the future, I didn’t want to reach the point where, in order to function, I had to make believe I was by myself. Since then, I’ve put together two main tactics to maintain a healthier equilibrium.
First, I find ways to retreat to total privacy (or the simulation of it). Becoming an early riser is a good way to experience campus at its emptiest hours. Going outside is also nice. Even if there are other people passing by, the environment will be quieter and more peaceful than more confined indoor spaces. Of course, this is New Jersey, and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. Exploring campus is the only way to find the best inside spots for seclusion. I’ve had success with laundry rooms, which are warm, soapy-smelling and often deserted at the right times of day. There I can make phone calls, do readings, or just sit in meditative silence amongst the rhythmically churning machines. If anyone enters, I simply look like I’m waiting there for a load to finish.
Next, I purposefully carve out time in my weekly schedule to relax my public persona, to create for myself the balance that doesn’t come naturally to such a common space as college. I enjoy looking nice in class, so I’ll make time before heading out in the morning to put together a more “elaborate” appearance — makeup, shoes, jewelry and all. But on my days off, I prioritize being comfortable — I’ll throw on sweats, yoga pants, free t-shirts I’ve accumulated. I try to remember that I am often more self-conscious than the attention of others truly merits. Who do I imagine is passing such severe judgment on me? And, should such people really exist, do I even care what they think?
Privacy is not often a topic in the discussion about transitioning from living at home to living with thousands of other people. Plunging into a constantly public environment for the first time freshman year, I struggled to reconcile the social requirements with my private disposition. Before college, I had taken for granted the simple freedom to walk into my own home, close the door and be entirely alone with my family. All of a sudden I had to channel so much energy into figuring out how to interact in so many shared spaces, or how to ever be alone.
This September I returned to Princeton early for CA leader training, and I loved living on a nearly deserted campus. I had a year of college experiences behind me, but when I saw the school filling up around me on regular move-in day, I still felt a familiar anxiety. I knew that from then on, I would need to be conscious about creating my own opportunities for privacy.
So far, so good; this semester I feel much more in control of my interactions with the Princeton community. Achieving a healthy amount of private time has improved my sociability, because I feel like I am offering parts of myself to the world rather than being unwillingly exposed. Moderating my expectations for my image has made me less self-conscious. My allergy to humanity has passed.