In summer, the weather in Princeton is far more oppressive than ostensibly tropical Singapore. The neo-Gothic architecture does not necessarily lend itself to air-conditioning, so the dorms turn into ornate stone ovens. This also explains why the verdant lawns are a sea of polychromatic Ralph Lauren sundresses, polo shirts and salmon-hued shorts; long daylight hours are spent reading books outdoors for as long as the light will endure.
In my final year of university, amid the sweltering summer heat that signified the final months of our youthful innocence, I sat with the close friends I had made at university. We discussed the most important lesson we were going to take away from our Ivy League education. She was a fellow Singaporean whose path through life had been the mirror reflection of mine, a national top student who had sailed through Hwa Chong Institution with a casual flick of her jet-black hair; he was an American kid who wanted to travel to Africa and create a start-up there.
“It’s knowing that you can’t afford to fail,” she whispered, her expression as grey as the Gothic architecture against which her practical yet charming sundress blossomed like an oversized flower. It was true. World-famous Princeton alumni such as Michelle Obama and Jeff Bezos had conquered the world; all of us were expected to change the world in some way no matter how small – or else we were abject failures. We called it the Golden Handcuff.
“No, it’s confidence. The confidence you get from having been here and thus knowing that if anyone can do anything to make this world a better place, it’s you,” the American boy replied. I saw that faraway look that so many ambitious young men and women get when they are thinking about how to conquer distant worlds and universes. Constellations.
My heart was pounding soundlessly, as tranquil as a lightning storm in slow motion. Wordless understanding. It was a moment to reflect on how far I had come from the shy, insecure, self-loathing child who ran around feeling inadequate, undeserving; I always tried so hard to prove myself to the random adults assigned to me at various life stages, never quite knowing to whom I was really trying to prove something. Finally, I felt as though I knew who I was. Finally, I believed in myself.
It was a lesson I had taken a quarter of a century to learn. One which I only learnt by leaving Singapore and travelling to three continents to truly reflect upon and understand myself.
This is how I learned to stop worrying and love myself.
I realised that nobody owed me care and concern.
Radical self-care is paramount.
Growing up in Singapore, I was taught that we are all responsible for our own lives. As the classic Singaporean adage goes, nobody owes you a living. However, the unspoken extension of that, the thing that so many of us have yet to truly understand, is that nobody owes you care and concern, either.
With some distance between me and my childhood, I realised that so much of my life had been spent running into walls. So much of wasted time had been spent trying to please everyone, because that is the default life-coping strategy which we are raised up with and unconsciously internalise. I sought external affirmation for everything – my grades, my physical fitness, the opinion of my peers, the opinion of my teachers. And of course I was disappointed. Because, ultimately, nobody could give me the affirmation I subconsciously desired. Nobody would give me a little Merlion trophy and say, “Congrats! You passed the nth stage of life. This is your reward.”
In this life where self-reliance and self-sufficiency are the only way to survive, the only person who is obliged to care for you is yourself. Even more so, in a society which has transitioned from a mediaeval port town to a global city in less than a generation, you can’t expect anyone else to micromanage your emotional life and care for you. Everyone is too busy worrying about their own issues; they may be too emotionally impoverished to deal with their own mental well-being, let alone yours.
There comes a point of enormous clarity when you realise that if anyone is going to recognise you as an individual with emotional needs, it’s yourself. So affirm yourself. Tell yourself that you’ll be ok in the end. Give yourself a pat on the back. Self-care may seem like a radical option in an Asian-ish society where collectivism has been the dominant ideology for millennia, but only because we have been culturally trained to ignore what we need – oftentimes to our own mental and psychological dysfunction.
As radical as it might seem, just remember: it’s like the announcement on the airplane where you need to ensure that you have secured your own oxygen mask first before trying to help others.
You can’t take care of anyone if you don’t take care of your own mental and psychological well-being. You can’t take care of anyone if you go off the rails. (And there are so many people who do go off the rails, as evidenced by the astonishing quality of near-deranged comments one typically sees on social media. Usually in the form of bizarre rhetorical questions.)
I realised that everybody else’s opinion is just an opinion.
Only you – or those who are actually personally and emotionally invested in you – are in a position to offer yourself any life advice.
There are so many strangers in the world who claim to be experts on what the best option for your life is – these characters are tropes, modern versions of archetypes: snake-oil salesmen, street-side fortune tellers and other historical charlatans. Generally, a toxic admixture of self-serving and patronising.
I define the end of my adolescence as the moment when I stopped listening to what these people had to say. They did not really want to help me; they merely wanted to broadcast their issues to the world. Unhappiness and frustration are the default positions of people who subscribe to an ideology they do not truly believe in or live their life in a manner that is inauthentic – these people are the ones who lash out at others and spiral into depression and anxiety. Their coping strategy is to make others as miserable as themselves in order to prove that their lives were not in vain. I didn’t want to become one of those people by osmotically absorbing their self-loathing and despair.
Today, I only listen to advice from people who are actually invested in my well-being. Everything else is just mindless chatter.
I identified these toxic people and left them behind.
Which brings me to my next point. One of the most celebration-worthy – yet undervalued – aspects of socioeconomic development is that on the whole, we all begin learning how to identify toxic people and ignore them.
Toxic people abound. Their impact is so great that they can ruin a perfectly good company or even poison discourse on a global level. But the wonderful thing about being alive in the 21st century is that we now have a choice – opportunities abound for us to create our own worlds. Take those opportunities and create your own culture. Leave the naysayers and haters behind – they can no longer contribute meaningfully to the project that is your life.
If I had a dollar every time someone put me down, economists would have called my life a cryptocurrency bubble. Had I listened to their garbage, I would have gone down a path consisting of a mid-life crisis, a 2/3-life crisis etc. and all the indignities that accompany it. I did better – I chose the path of ignoring them, and it has made all the difference.
I grew a thick skin and embraced my confidence.
As a child, I wondered why I often detected a great deal of negative energy emanating from my parents’ friends. As I get older, I realised that they really just didn’t like me – more specifically, by virtue of my accomplishments. Any positive developments in my life made them insecure, and so they would slip in passive-aggressive microaggressions whenever we had the misfortune of socialising.
“No wonder you are so fat, you study so much! No time to exercise huh?” (3rd world standards of beauty; 3rd world use of fat-shaming.)
“Your parents must push you very hard. Poor boy.” (No, I pushed myself. It’s called drive – )
“No wonder your glasses are so thick. Too much studying.” (Glasses are hipster now.)
As children, we internalise these types of interactions and over time, are socialised into tearing each other down; we adopt negative forms of social interaction that end up locking us into self-defeating behavioural patterns even in adulthood. As a society, we therefore continue to take delight in sniping at each other and cutting each other down to size. We grow up insecure and inauthentic, always feeling like we are second-best and overcompensating by hating on people who are dissimilar. Worse still, confident.
You would think that a former national top student would be confident enough when going to university in America - after all, aren't our PISA scores world-beating? Yet the reverse was true: I had spent so much of my childhood being told that I was still not good enough, that my opinion did not matter, and that speaking up was a form of arrogance, that I still had an inferiority complex when I got to Princeton. It was not just me – there is something about traditional Asian culture that makes us grow up feeling undervalued. It's a sad state of affairs.
We face a crisis of confidence. We have not learned how to distinguish confidence from arrogance, to our great detriment. As adults, we demand false humility and virtue-signalling, in exchange for a lifetime of inferiority complexes and chips on our shoulders. In this manner we pull each other down into the mud and are collectively locked into perpetual adolescence, infantilised and miserable.
I broke the cycle.
We could do so much better. We could break the cycle and start supporting one another instead. There is a whole world out there to conquer, beyond the sandbox that is our little ragtag circle of frenemies, but here we remain, stuck solipsistically fighting each other in what must be the world’s most pointless and uninteresting cage match.
I broke through and learned to stop sweating the small stuff. There was a much bigger picture at stake: the adventure that would be the rest of my life as a fully formed adult.
After learning how to take care of myself and heal my childhood scars, I felt alive for the first time in my life. The world had previously been shut to me like a clam; now it could be my oyster. Better still, I was finally ready to come back to Singapore and face my childhood demons. Subsequently, to create something beautiful and find a way to give back to a society that was still an amazing work in progress. To create safe spaces for the young and young-at-heart to believe in themselves and live their fullest lives.
And that is the story of how I learned to stop worrying and love myself.