Wellness at Duke: Student Perfectionism and Self-Compassion

Author name
Tom Szigethy, Associate Dean of Students and Director, DuWell
Tom Szigethy is Associate Dean of Students and Director of DuWell.

In her new book, Dare to Lead, Brené Brown writes, “Wherever perfectionism is driving us, shame is riding shotgun.” She continues, “Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because perfection does not exist. It’s an unattainable goal. Perfectionism is addictive because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Rather than question the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right.”

We hope our students at Duke achieve a healthy strive for excellence—not perfectionism. One path to reaching this goal is to nurture self-compassion. The Student Wellness Center was built to exemplify self-compassion for students. Thought was placed into every aspect of the building from the natural light coming through the expansive windows to the various textures and natural elements. When students walk through the main door they are greeted by a bench carved from a 150-year-old Elm tree, and they hear the sound of water from a fountain while the sun cascades across the walls and floor. Every time I walk through this atrium, it feels like taking a deep breath of fresh air. Physically, my shoulders drop and my body relaxes. We hope that the stresses of life become manageable for students whenever they enter the building.

Within the Wellness building, we wanted to create an OASIS space for students to relax and re-energize. The OASIS space has materials and strategies designed to engage each of the five senses. Visually, there is artwork from various cultures around the world demonstrating how wellness can be viewed differently. Students can use Chinese Baoding balls, which stimulate touch and sound as they hit pressure points in the hand that aide in managing stress and inducing calm. Tibetan singing bowls are also available; similarly, these stimulate touch and sound as they produce a deep note with a simple movement that requires technique. Aromatherapy oils can be mixed to create sprays to lower anxiety or inspire energy, and adult coloring books are also available to help manage stress. Students can enjoy the sound of the water fountain as they sit in a massage chair. Our students can take advantage of all of these tools for mindfulness, all while looking through the wall of windows to the meditative garden and Anderson woods. Our hope is that students see there are methods and experiences available on a daily basis to aid in finding calm and relaxation, even in the midst of the hectic academic life at Duke.

Every day requires a few minutes and sometimes a little longer to set aside for self-compassion: the energy and care that gets us through our days. Has your student visited the OASIS?