Relational Dynamics Triggered in College
College students, freshmen through doctoral, come to my office wondering how to overcome the stress they experience. Symptoms of anxiety and depression along with somatic complaints such as stomach aches, headaches and insomnia make it hard to study. Interns worry about how they will be evaluated. Social pressures often trump complaints about academics. Fitting in with sororities, fraternities and other groups occupy much time and energy. FOMO (fear of missing out) and concerns about rejection confuse and preoccupy. Sometimes partying gets out of hand. Why is relational turmoil so persistent?
College presents challenges inherent in group dynamics. Participating in a group commonly evokes needs and experiences we had within our family of origin and other intimate relationships. People take on roles and have expectations for how they will be perceived and treated. For example, Steve approaches new encounters thinking that in order to gain acceptance he must prove he is valuable. He goes out of his way to “be nice” and finds himself working hard to please friends – staying up late helping others with homework, listening to their romantic problems and lending money until his budget is strapped. He feels glued to his I Phone, unsettled until he gets a text accepting his invitation for a date. As we explore why his concerns for acceptance are “taking over his mind” he tells me that throughout middle and high school his father was often working out of state while his mother was home struggling with cancer. He felt it was his job to “keep her spirits up.” His daily life involved trying to keep his mother’s mood positive; he secretly wished that this would increase her capacity to love him.
People who are hyper vigilant about proving their worth are often struggling with insecurity. Unresolved loss and trauma impacts our confidence in relationships. We react to needs for connection with attachment styles that are not necessarily conscious. In the above example Steve’s drive to secure relationships was guided by anxiety. He feared that unless he provided for others they would avoid or reject him. He learned that as a child he felt that his chances for attention would increase if he could prove that he was a good caregiver. In therapy, he learned that he was approaching his current relationships with the same idea. He developed awareness of how this attachment style became a guiding principal. His ability to apply analysis when he felt threatened improved his capacity to calm himself and make more balanced choices.
Transitioning to the culture of college can trigger relational patterns which have not been previously explored. Meeting new people and beginning new studies can bring forth wishes for acceptance along with coping styles that developed in childhood. Developing awareness as to how one’s mind comes to think about, anticipate and organize experience can go a long way in navigating these turbulent currents.