It was just a year or two ago that Covid-19 befell us all, forcing us to adapt to a new way of life. While many introverts and NSFs were happily hunkered down at home, others worried about whether we have enough toilet paper. Members of some social circles were threatened that they’d be excluded due to the dining restrictions. On a more serious note, Covid-19 presented us with an unprecedented situation. In addition to its serious strain and impact on public health, it had more insidious social consequences. Let us remember the social distancing measures, lockdowns, dining restrictions meant that numerous events and gatherings were illegal and had to be canceled. The essence of school life was uprooted as we found ourselves thrust into the virtual world of zoom and online learning. The very nature of our interactions had to be rethought. Consequently, it comes with little surprise that the emotional and mental health of youth declined (Baker, 2022).
Gone are the draconian measures that once defined our lives, the social distancing protocols and lockdowns once seemingly endless. We find ourselves in a world that has largely been restored to its former normality, where social interactions are once again a vibrant and integral part of our daily lives. We are now in the midst of 2023, where the memories of Covid-19 pandemic seem like a distant dream. We can only speculate about the damages or even benefits the pandemic has brought us.
Whether you are a freshman or a seasoned university student, ours is a University that recently transitioned from Covid-19, presenting us with a new stage of life. For seniors, the sudden shift can be no less than jarring: the image of a deserted or socially distanced dining hall to one that is fully seated comes to mind. Now University has come fully alive. We have stepped over back into normalcy.
The university experience is nothing short of a world in itself – a microcosm of society. And also a transitional juncture towards the ‘real’ world. How we spend our time here will have a substantial effect on us, subtly or saliently crafting the individual we will become. Here, countless new activities, numerous opportunities, and a never-ending amount of people incessantly jump out to us, attempting to seize our attention. The bombardment by endless opportunities and activities beckons and invites us to participate. In that invitation is an implicit expectation of a necessity to explore and not be left out, which nudges us to join in. It is only natural to feel a sense of unease when we find ourselves with too much free time in our hands. Subsequently, we allow ourselves to partake in a few of those activities, indulge in its novelties, and talk to more people. Especially so, within the “Home of Possibilities” of Tembusu. Often enough, I observe it to remain as a realm of possibilities, possibilities that remain as unfulfilled— unseen through the end. And yet, this sense of exploration is one of the core essences of the university experience. We are encouraged to explore without the fear of commitment.
The issue arises when we cede too much of ourselves to the incessant indulgence of school life. Too much and we might get consumed. We might sometimes even get confused by losing sight of our purpose in university and life in general as we submerge ourselves in the routines of the university experience. We ultimately put ourselves at risk to conform. From one tutorial to the other, one submission to the next, unknowingly, we can live our lives on autopilot.
Renowned psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung described this phenomenon as the “persona”. As Jung postulated, “The persona is a complicated system of relations between the individual consciousness and society, fittingly enough a kind of mask, designed on the one hand to make a definite impression upon others, and, on the other, to conceal the true nature of the individual.”(C. G. Jung, 2014). In other words, the persona we put up is not us, it is an amalgamation of social expectations. The persona we adopt is not a reflection of our authentic selves, but rather a product of social expectations and extrinsic pressures. It is everyone else but us. Fundamentally, the mask is nothing real per se— for it is not the self. We take a role, a major, exercise certain expectations and functions, and assume them. But it is only a secondary reality to our true Self. The Self encapsulates the totality of the conscious and unconscious of the psyche (terms I will define later). The self organizes and directs us if we pay attention. While the mask we wear serves a psychological and social function, the danger arises when we become over-identified with it or we are unconscious of the fact that the mask is not you. It is here that you melt into the flow of events you put yourself into, and you cede your individuality to the crowd. While it might be argued that the Self is the sum of all our enactments, the Jungian perspective appreciates the Self to be a discovery beckoning with a journey within.
The following inner thought processes might sound familiar to you: “I’m not interested in this, but I’d not want to feel left out.”, “ I’m tired but everyone seems to be going to this party, I ought to join.” Such thought processes might have popped up to such a frequency that you can barely remember having them, or you may think this is “just the way it is” – university is supposed to be this place where busyness is the norm. Again, that is fine. But when our participation becomes excessive and leads to disequilibrium, I invite you to ask yourself – is this really what you want? Are you really attending to how you’re feeling inside? Do you still know how to pay attention anymore, or have you internalized the conventions around you so much that you live and breathe your persona and have muted your true self? Every time you agree to do something before taking a conscious step to affirm with yourself if this is what you want, every time you follow a crowd because you “might as well”, every time you intentionally or carelessly overlook that faint inner voice of hesitation, Jung would argue you stray further and further away from your true Self. He would observe are an amalgamation of every little choice we make. Everything matters.
What is that faint inner voice? Jung further postulated the idea of the “personal unconscious” and the “shadow” that explains this. The personal unconscious consists of all the acquisitions of personal life that have been repressed, thought, felt, forgotten, and subliminally perceived. The shadow is an aspect of that personal unconscious. As the name itself might hint, the shadow contains the dark side of our unconscious, it is the destructive side, the repressed resentment, jealousy, envy, addiction, indolence, apathy, projection, denial, and so on. What is especially intriguing is that as much as the shadow is the “dark” side of ourselves, it also contains the potent, creative, and novel side of us. Our hidden talents beckon to be released, our destructive side screams to be heard. Practically, the shadow manifests in our moods, our fantasies and impulses, and even our dreams. According to Jung, through the process of socialization, of being deemed deviant, of being called “weird”, the shadow side grows ever darker and more unconscious as we keep it locked away. The shadow voice becomes fainter, not because the shadow loses its potency, but because we are becoming deaf to its sound. Without confrontation and listening to our shadows, shallowness and overwhelming concern with the opinion of the crowd possesses us. We then over-identify with our persona, allowing our individuality to be subdued. The more we over-identify with the persona, the more our individuality will be crushed.
From a Jungian perspective, the healing integrative process begins when we pay attention. We integrate our shadow by paying attention. We listen to the faint inner voices. We gather the courage to say no. Reject that which we deem frivolous. Move towards the events that touch us, that move us, that evoke great meaning. Catch yourself when you feel tired but you see yourself joining something. Catch yourself when you feel lonely even amongst friends. Catch yourself when you are doing things you do not want to do or say. Catch yourself when you are disinterested and ambivalent. Do less of these. Start saying no. On the upside, catch yourself when you are meaningfully engaged by something. Catch yourself when you feel sincere joy. Catch yourself when you are in flow and lose track of time doing something. Do more of these. Say yes to them. Steadily, we garner strength. In Jungian terms our shadow becomes more and more integrated with the Self.
A pertinent question that might arise in your mind: why should I care about this at all? Perhaps your life seems decent. You are content. This whole article seems like excessive overthinking. After all, some people just like being part of social activities. Some people think that the social nature of these things is the point, not the content. Does that mean that they invariably compromise their identity? Jung would contend, “Even a small group is ruled by a suggestive spirit which, if it is good, can have very favorable social effects, though at the expense of mental and moral independence of the individual.” Within a group, something possesses us all. Recall moments when we are in groups and we act in ways we would not have if we are alone. “Most people are afraid of silence; hence, whenever the everlasting chit-chat at a party stops, they are impelled to say something, do something, and start fidgeting, whistling, humming, coughing, whispering.” Perhaps you can resonate with this. The nervous silence. But silence, and by extension, solitude are the core features of living consciously. By Jung, the more we get entangled in social functions and look outside of ourselves, the less aligned we will be with our Self. The development of our Self is separating ourselves from the “undifferentiated and unconscious herd”. Invariably so, with our attendance at social functions, we play a persona. It is then in silence and solitude we regain ourselves.
This Jungian perspective, though just one of many perspectives, has been a guiding light in my university life. It led me to unearth a more truthful and genuine version of myself. Jung’s emphasis on distinguishing between the persona—the outward projection—and the shadow—the concealed facets—profoundly underscores the complexity of our identities. As we navigate this intricate interplay, the realization that our persona is but a fraction of our totality becomes clearer. We are never simply who or what we think we are. We are mysteries to ourselves, waiting to be explored, understood, and grown.
Jung once postulated the idea that till one becomes conscious, one may be directed by the chaos of life, unconscious of its innumerable forces, and one may call it fate (C. G. Jung, 1998). You may well find the Jungian perspective to be valuable, too. For you might wake up one day and realize you have been living a life not yours. A persona as demanded by your parents. A persona as imposed by society. A persona that is stipulated by everyone else but you. Particularly, when we are reaching the period where we are comfortably settling into the rhythms of university life. According to Jung, as we grow more comfortable, we invariably entrench ourselves deeper in our positions and opinions, and the more it appears as if we have discovered the right course and ideals. We cling to them as if it is us. We overlook that such achievements as validated by society are won at an expense—our individuality. It can be valuable and perhaps imperative to at least pause from time to time from the flurry vortex of university life. And in that pause, be present and attend to your inner world. Give yourself space and time, to simply feel. Allow yourself to reconnect and evolve further to your truer, more authentic Self.
Baker, J. A. (2022, July 14). People in 20s and 40s feel mental health declined due to pandemic, elderly report feeling better: IPS study. C NA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/covid-19-pandemic-young-middle-aged-elderly-emotional-mental-health-effects-ips-study-2809436
Jung, C. G. (1998). Visions: notes of the seminar given in 1930-1934 by C.G. Jung. Choice Reviews Online, 36(01), 36–0630. https://doi.org/10.5860/choice.36-0630
Jung, C. G. (2014). Two essays on analytical psychology. In Routledge eBooks. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315725895
Front Cover Photo by Ashly Batz on Unsplash