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Come as You Are

Our integrity is what the world is waiting for.

Key points

  • As devastating as the pandemic has been, it has also exposed wide holes in our social fabric.
  • We're in an epidemic of loneliness, exacerbated by decades of a competition-based mindset and innate need to "prove" our worthiness.
  • We learn from one another’s struggles: We grow from helping one another and accepting help.
  • Studies show we might be ripe for collective change.
Source: Jon Tyson/Unsplash
Source: Jon Tyson/Unsplash

Yesterday my daughter was in tears. She’s a junior in high school, thinking about the years ahead and feeling intense pressure to prove herself for a college admission portfolio. “I’m so stressed about everything! Keeping my grades up. The ACT. Staying involved with all these extracurricular activities and trying to keep up with friends. It’s so much work, always trying to prove myself!”

I listened, choking back my instinct to give advice. Her complaints were valid, citing the broken college admission process1 and societal preoccupation with “setting oneself apart” from one’s peers—through grades, ability, promise, or merit. My heart broke for her. She’s already overcome so much in her almost 17 years of life—being orphaned as an infant, undergoing multiple craniofacial surgeries, watching friends succumb to drug addiction, and growing up with a brother with special needs.

She’s a great kid. I know this. But I also get the strong pull to what Brené Brown calls “hustle for your worthiness.” 2 I’m a writer. I understand well the arduousness of feeling the need to prove myself through my work and what I do. But there’s an insidious creeping feeling that somewhere along the way, we’ve lost something.

I also work in health care and have the privilege of being with patients when the trajectories of their life stories change. Suddenly who they were is no more. They face monumental questions: Who am I now? Lost abilities, lost limbs, lost loved ones. Offering hope and strength and meaning can feel empty in a societal mindset that doesn’t support it—in a culture so hell-bent on beating the dead horse of rugged individualism and exceptionalism, even though it is drowning us in isolation and loneliness.

It can feel bogus to offer solace when one has been robbed of one’s abilities. In a culture that places so much value on what we do, rather than who we are, such well-meaning words can feel empty. We crave stories of inspiration and overcoming and cheer on our friends struggling through rough times—when we have time. When we’re not busy proving ourselves and our worth to the world on the never-ending productivity treadmill.

Secretly, I wish things were different. My mind races back to my childhood of growing up in the ’70s, singing “Kumbaya” and thinking about how the world around me felt emotionally safe and interconnected. In the years that have followed, I’ve witnessed people become so obsessed with setting themselves apart from others that they’ve lost the vision of the common good and the balm of community.

A new report by Harvard University3 suggests that “36 percent of all Americans—including 61 percent of young adults and 51 percent of mothers with young children—feel ‘serious loneliness.’” In addition, an estimated 63 percent of this age group are suffering significant symptoms of anxiety or depression.4

The report goes on to state, “In this age of hyper-individualism, the degree to which Americans have prioritized self-concerns and self-advancement and demoted concern for others in many communities has left many Americans stranded and disconnected.” 5 Supportive, compassionate community has been replaced by an intense societal pressure to embrace competition as the desired way of relating. Pressure to prove, perform, and impress has superseded the cooperative ideal, placing the individual above the communal. The result has been an epidemic of loneliness and isolation.

We learn from one another’s struggles. We grow from helping one another and accepting help. We flourish when we feel seen and heard and when our experiences are valued and integrated into new learnings. Our uniqueness—the brilliant intersection of who we’re genetically wired to be along with what has happened to us (and how we’ve grown through it)—is our gift to the world.

What we have to offer the world is who we are, not just what we do.

This is a belief and a message that’s important for my daughter as well as my patients. Wisdom gained from experience, compassionate understanding, dedication, resolve, and deep, personal knowledge is the bedrock of integrity. And integrity is the foundation of a trusting community.

The external measures of worth that we feel the pressure to measure up to only serve to limit the gifts with which we’ve been endowed. I’ve seen how the stress of this mindset has impacted teens like my daughter in the college application process, as well as the patients who feel the burden of “proving” they’re back to some yardstick-measured version of “normal,” even though they’re forever changed, scrambling with an altogether new life-playbook.

The world needs more of the integrity we all bring to the table, be it creative thinking and innovation, artistic work, resilience learned through facing adversity, unique perspective, important knowledge, or academic acumen.

But we also need a healthy place to start from. A strong, collaborative community that grows out of genuine commitment, concern, and dedication to one another is the best way to forge ahead in these times. When interpersonal loneliness is reported at an all-time high, amidst what is being titled the era of the “Great Resignation,” we can begin to meet one another where we are.

With our collective armor off and the threat of needing to prove our worthiness melted away, the integrity of who we are is the gem that shines through. Be it college admissions, recovery after illness or injury, or scrambling back after an emotional hardship, the gift of who we are—our integrity—is what the world is waiting for.


(1)Johnson Hess, Abigail. Fewer than 1 in 5 Think The College Admission Process is Fair. CNBC. March 20, 2019.

(2)Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection. Hazelden Publishing. 2010.

(3,4,5) Richard Weissbourd, Batanova, Lovison, & Torres. Loneliness in America How the Pandemic Has Deepened an Epidemic of Loneliness and What We Can Do About It . Harvard University, Making Caring Common. 2021