“Our definition of success is not so good for human health,” says Wei-Jen Huang, a clinical psychologist at Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services.
That definition, adds Huang, who counsels students one-on-one, in couples and in groups, is “that you get two PhDs and you become a millionaire before age 29, and then you get to see President Bush before anyone else because you have special connections. Our entire culture values how smart you are, how much money you make, how much you possess.”
The drive to be successful in those terms, he contends, can be a fast trip to frustration. The psychologist helps students handle doubts about self-worth and relationship difficulties by “giving them life skills to develop ‘emotional intelligence.’”
Huang, who was born and raised in Taiwan, says he has heard strikingly similar complaints from Northwestern undergraduates and students he counsels from the Kellogg School of Management, ranked, he points out, “No. 1 in the nation.” The students there “feel they are just competing all day long and everybody needs to look perfect and well balanced. They are so afraid of being ashamed.”
Current Northwestern students “focus so much on academic achievement and have a high expectation of themselves,” says Huang. They are under heavy pressure, he adds, “to be successful on all fronts,” but they don’t have the same control over peer relationships that they do over their academic endeavors. Huang designed and conducts a three-session relationship workshop. More than 300 students have attended the workshop over the past two years.
Some students he has counseled, says Huang, “feel like they are on this treadmill, but when they really have a chance to pause and reflect, they feel so unhappy.” One undergraduate — so brilliant he already had three job offers as a junior, says the psychologist — was “very empty, depressed and lonely.”
Depression, says Huang, is “closely related with a lack of meaningful connections.” But those connections aren’t easily forged, he adds, because “everybody is so self-focused.”
In his emotional intelligence group sessions, Huang, known on campus as the “Love Doctor,” teaches students that “if you want to really have a meaningful connection, you must understand that the most precious gift a person can give other people is your true thoughts and feelings, and you don’t give that to just anybody. You must risk opening your true self, little bit by little bit, but you also need to do that wisely. Only when you are able to take risk, when there is vulnerability, is there a possibility for meaningful connection.”
The troubled junior, he reports, joined an emotional intelligence group, and “it gives me great joy to see him change. He is happy now, alive and vibrant.”
CAPS also offers a wide variety of free developmental programming workshops each quarter. — A.T.