It was midday in May, when my friend and I were chatting at brunch over a plate of salmon and avocado flatbread. Over the course of the meal, she revealed that she had just broken up with a boyfriend during her first week at her new job, and was overwrought with feelings of despair.
This came as a surprise to me. If you were to scroll through her Instagram page, her life looks put together–she had just graduated from a top university and snagged a job with a great starting salary. In her photos her life looks like fun, filled with trips to the lake, cute brunches with bottomless mimosas, and designer clothes.
She confessed, “…it was really embarrassing, especially if you’re a woman in the workplace–people already view you as more emotional. Now I have to work extra hard to not mess anything up, because for the first couple of weeks I was just an emotional mess…and everyone still kind of holds it against me.” Mindful of what my friend was undergoing, I wondered if she had heard of duck syndrome.
According to Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, a psychiatrist based in Maryland, duck syndrome is when, “…the sufferer looks completely calm on a superficial level, while in reality they are frantically trying to keep up with the demands of life.”
The term (which like “burn out,” isn’t an actual medical diagnosis), was originally coined at Stanford University, however, and at UPenn they call it “Penn Face.” Either way, it all boils down to the pressure of being “perfect” or looking like you have your life together. If you find yourself struggling to keep up, while secretly living in fear that everyone else is doing much better than you–then you probably have duck syndrome.
Dr. Carol Langlois, a trained therapist based in California, claims that at the very root of duck syndrome is an issue of self identity and self esteem. Self esteem is concerned with how others perceive us and that can create a positive sense of self identity within a person or vice versa. People with positive self-identity, according to Langlois, are less likely to have duck syndrome because they are more comfortable with their identity and less concerned with keeping up appearances.
Your environment can also be a trigger. Dr. Langlois discusses how millennials in the workplace are being subjected to these high stress environments that trigger duck syndrome states of mind. She says, “Millennials are quitting their jobs and taking extended leave…because they’re so burnt out.” The struggle to keep up with difficult demands while appearing OK, is causing millennials to crash.
Being placed in a high stress environment that leaves no space for transparency or vulnerability, can make one obsessively concerned with keeping up appearances. This can be problematic because it leads to isolation. While explaining this to my friend, she concurred, saying, “Yeah, you kind of have to just pretend that nothing is going on and everything is OK, but in reality nothing is always okay for everyone. In a sense, that kind of makes things worse.”
What tangible changes can people make to avoid duck syndrome or rid oneself of it? Since it’s rooted in self-identity and self-esteem, it’s important to make changes that create positive self-identity. Here’s what you can do.
Going at your own speed, will help you avoid taking on more than you can handle, and will help you avoid comparing yourself to others. Pacing yourself also includes knowing when it’s time to leave something that is too overwhelming for you.
Set realistic goals
A good way to set realistic goals is to set SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) goals. SMART goals ensure that you will commit to a task without overwhelming yourself.
Join a club or a spiritual group so that you have a community outside of friends, family, and work. This will help create work and life balance and combat isolation.
Mindfulness is being completely present in the moment, in your environment, and in your body. This helps one focus on the task at hand and not obsess over future tasks. You can practice mindfulness by meditating or practicing grounding.