Post-graduate depression – How getting a diploma got me depressed

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Let’s start with a bit of background. I enrolled into university in 2002. I graduated on 16. 9. 2016, ten years late. I finished the first three years (out of four) on track, even though I was running my own business. Then things started to get harder and harder.

Not only that, I was completely drawn into the business world and started to minimize the importance of formal education, whenever I wanted to study for exams I got ill or something else came up that prevented me from taking and passing an exam.

The closer I was to graduating, the harder it got for me to study (and writing a diploma thesis was an even more painful thing to do). Somewhere in the middle, I even convinced myself that I don’t care about formal education.

Nevertheless, I just couldn’t firmly decide to stay a dropout forever. Throughout all those 10 years I was paying tuition fees, individual exams I only applied to, but never showed up, and so on.

Why did I graduate 10 years late, even though I easily passed the first three years? Heck, a few times I even lectured at the faculty where I studied. The procrastination cost me thousands and thousands of dollars I could have spent more wisely. I always had the burden of unfinished business somewhere behind my back, completely unnecessarily.

For me, graduating was obviously a big emotional issue. The issue was very similar to staying in an abusive relationship for years, even though you know that it’s completely unhealthy.

Falling ill before every exam is obviously not a coincidence. I was constantly procrastinating and sabotaging myself big time. Somewhere deep in the unconscious mind was a big pain associated with finishing my college years.

I had a love-hate relationship with formal education that cost me a lot of energy and resources. I was in and out, I was for and against, I loved to study and I hated it.

Consequently, graduating got me depressed, or pushed me into a severe emotional flashback to be more exact. The first signs were small, the day after graduation day. I was eating more than usual. Actually, I was constantly hungry, which is sign of emotional hunger. I was much more irritated, and cognitive distortions piled up. Then things got harder every day, until it become obvious to me where I was.

Post-graduate depression

I knew exactly what the trigger was – graduating – so the only thing left for me to do was to dig deep, do a reflection and figure out what was causing all these negative emotions. I knew they weren’t the standard reasons why people fall into post-graduate depression, like:

  1. The end of partying years and enjoying college life with all the alcohol, sex and crazy travel
  2. Loss of structure and predictability that studying programs provide to life, while still having a lot of free time and flexibility
  3. Drowning under a pile of student debt
  4. Diploma not being a guarantee for getting a job
  5. Being afraid of an adult life – finding a home, buying your own groceries, taking care of yourself and all other responsibilities
  6. Ending many friendships since people move from the campus to all over the world

None of these were my problems. I partied enough during my university years, and never really miss it. I was always more organized (in the adult years) than any university could help me with. I never had any student debt (education in my country is free, at least if you finish it on time). I always have many job and business opportunities. I’ve been living on my own for years. People I was studying with had graduated years ago.

Don’t get me wrong. These are all weighty reasons for feeling depressed after graduation. Dealing with each of them could be an article on its own. If you are suffering from post-graduation depression because of any of these reasons, know that it’s normal, it’s completely okay and the sooner you deal with it, the better. You can find many ideas online how to tackle these problems.

But if you are like me, suffering from post-graduation depression, but for none of these reasons and you have no idea why, the question is what else could it be?

Unfortunately, there are numerous reasons why you could be depressed after graduating or experiencing any other similar event (an ending), even though in a normal situation you should be happy and proud of yourself. The best thing you can do (on your own, without professional help) is a long and deep self-reflection. You have to start asking yourself why.

That’s what I did. I sat down alone for a few hours with a notebook and started listening to my inner processes – thoughts and feelings. I carefully paid attention to what was really going on with my emotions, what was the inner child (emotional self) really screaming about. And I found many different tones of screams.

Below are the major ones. If you are wondering why I’m so open and honest, I’m simply sharing them to hopefully give you an idea or two of what’s happening with you if you are experiencing a similar situation, and tell you what you can do about it. So let’s begin.

The pain of ending things

The more emotionally damaged you are, the more problems you usually have with ending or changing things. You like to cling to the known, and you perceive any change as loss. That includes ending a non-functioning relationship, any toxic behavioral pattern, addiction, redesigning life settings, changing your home, job, you name it. All that makes you extremely inflexible.

Finishing university was no exception to me in this regard. With a diploma, my studying years came to an end. I had to finish something I will never ever go back to. Gone, forever. Even though I was always a rebel against formal education, I will miss school and formal learning. Especially in primary school, formal study was one of my ways to build status and prove my (self) worth. And now I had to let go of it.

Don't let go

Grieving after lost childhood

Finding the connection between graduation and the pain of ending things led me to an even deeper and more painful reason why graduation got me depressed. I symbolically perceive graduation as really entering adulthood, the milestone when your crazy free young years are gone forever. It has nothing to do with partying and growing up, but with a completely different thing – grieving after lost childhood.

In every decent psychology book, you will read that if you had a tough childhood, you have to grieve after what you’ve lost. It’s the only way to the cure. You have to be angry about what has been taken away from you. You have to grieve actively after how things could be.

You see, I never had a real childhood. I come from a broken home, I lived in four different places at once, I had to be ultra-serious and responsible all the time, and my home environment was always extremely stifling, anxious and filled with negative emotions. There was no room for fun and play. That means there was no way for me to be a kid and do all the kids’ stuff. It’s not easy to accept that.

For me, graduating was a big trigger or a reminder that I will never have a happy childhood. It’s not coming back. Never, ever. And that is the main reason why I got depressed.

It’s painful to get into such an emotional flashback, but it’s also a gift. A gift that lets you grieve and let go. I already feel better and lighter. But we aren’t finished yet. I found two more minor reasons worth sharing.

There is no formal authority to rebel against anymore

I was always a rebel against a formal authority (synonym for a father figure). Rebelling against formal education was a handy way for me to vent. It’s so easy to show resistance and rebellion towards formal education (because many of their ways of teaching are out-of-date).

So I could easily have a love-hate relationship with my studying. I was able to easily master a subject, and then rebel by not showing what I can do through ignoring exams or not showing up. I could always complain how formal education is useless (that is a topic for another debate, because it completely depends on what you want to do with your life) and be a student at the same time.

Formal education enabled me to keep something familiar in my life (the need to rebel against an authority). Now I have nothing to rebel against. Emotions already drive me into finding something else to rebel about. But I think it’s time to let go and stop rebelling.

I’m an autonomous, independent, adult individual now who can make wise and sound decisions and follow a smart life strategy, without fighting every formal authority.

Rebelling against authority

I can’t be different from my family

My grandma (from my father’s side, the one who raised me) and my grandpa (from my mother’s side) were extremely intelligent, well-read and valued formal education a lot. They both wanted to go study, but instead my grandpa ended in a concentration camp because of World War II and my grandma had to run and change countries every few years not to end up there. She learned two new languages along the way.

My parents lived in the height of socialism, when there were so many artificially created jobs that there was no need to study at all. So under very unfortunate circumstances, nobody in my family got higher education. These are two extreme examples of how the environment can mess with your life. That’s why you have to always pay attention to what’s happening to your environment. But let’s go back to my problem.

Even though I come from a broken family, everyone has the tendency to fit in, to be part of their family. You can perceive doing something differently (being the first one to get a degree) as alienating yourself from the social group that matters to you.

All this is always happening on a deep subconscious level. It’s a confusing mixture of feelings. You want to belong, and you want to be different at the same time; and that triggers a toxic love-hate relationship. Unconsciously I assumes that graduating will even further alienate me from my family.

What is your reason for suffering from post-graduate depression?

If you are encountering the same issue as me, I hope this blog post gave you a few ideas how to deal with the issue. The source of your depression can be either practical or emotional issues. If it’s a practical issue, for example you aren’t sure how to get your first job or how to pay back your loans, you need to do research, prepare a superior strategy, stand up and fight. Nobody is going to do it instead of you.

You can find so many good resources online on how to deal with the practical problems and that should be your start. The second source of problems is emotional. They aren’t harder or easier to cope with, just different; every problem is tough in its own way. The major difference is that they aren’t so obvious.

You have to dig deep to find the real source, you have to find a connection with your buried pain from the past and present situation. Performing self-reflection a few times can help a lot with identifying what’s happening with you (you can also get professional help if necessary).

Once you understand, it becomes much easier. You get insight into what you’re dealing with and you can make the first steps towards healing. That’s what I did and I already feel much better. And if things are too tough it always makes sense to get professional help.

Graduating is only one of the potential triggers of such emotional flashbacks that can get you into post-graduate depression. Any other major change can lead to the same thing. Changing a job, relationship, country, city, you name it. But whatever it is, it’s not worth it. Post-graduate depression is wasted time. It took me 10 years of emotional pain to deal with my formal education problem. Something that could have been completed years ago.

It would definitely be so much easier if I knew back then what I know today. But it’s definitely better late than never.

I finally graduated

Rare are the problems that go away by themselves with time. Most problems go away when you deal with them. If you are suffering from such emotional knots that are preventing you from finishing something that should have been finished long ago, the knots will only get tighter and tighter; and they might keep you in an emotional cage forever or even strangle you.

But you, you are stronger than that. Thus the sooner you start untying them, the sooner you can take a deep breath towards a happier and more peaceful life.

It feels great!

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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