Graduation: A Time for Celebration, but also Self Care

a road through pretty trees

By Angela Borders and Joe Borders, MFT
-June 10, 2018

Right now, many people are gathering to celebrate the culmination of many years’ worth of long hard work. If you are among them, be proud, and relish this moment! However, for many the joys of graduation can be overshadowed by a nagging cloud of doubt, fear, and a feeling of “now what?”. If you are one of these people who is having a tough time savoring your accomplishment, or maybe if you are someone who finished an academic program a while ago but only just now are feeling these conflicting emotions, you are not alone.

Graduating from any academic program or other structured life routine, is a big change! And for many of us, change is hard. Unknowns, are hard. There are all kinds of questions and uncertainties that can come up after graduation:

  • What are my next steps, career wise?
  • What changes might happen in any of my relationships?
  • What is life going to be like now?
  • How am I going to deal with student loans?
  • Should I pursue a higher degree?
  • What do I do now?

These questions, and many others are completely normal, but can be hard to sort out. In this blog post we’re going to talk about some of these common issues/concerns and some things you can do about them.

Sitting with uncertainty

After finishing school, you are bound to be confronted with thoughts and feelings of uncertainty. It’s important to understand that sitting with that uncertainty can take up a lot of emotional and physical energy, and that it’s ok to be feeling conflicting emotions. People cope with uncertainty in lots of different ways, but there are several things you can do to take care of yourself in these hard times. Getting enough exercise and sleep, eating well, having creative outlets, and finding someone to talk to are just a few, but your needs and how you take care of them are unique to you.


It’s not uncommon for people to neglect their own self-care when they are in school and/or trying to get through a hard time. It is important that you take time now to reconnect with and/or figure out what self-care means to you. Maybe that means making time to be with friends, be alone with your thoughts, meditate, explore nature, or just to read a book or play a video game. Whatever feeds your soul and helps you to feel relaxed, healthy, and whole. For help on figuring out your own self-care, check out….no seriously, you feel like shit dot com.

Diving In

After taking some time to reorient yourself to your own self-care, it’s time to dive in. Whatever concerns you may be having, the only way to reach some peace of mind regarding them, is to start tackling them, one at a time. It may be helpful to break down the sort of work you need to do (such as building a resume, attending career fairs, researching loan repayment options, etc.) and breaking down the specific concrete steps that need to be completed.

Creating a comprehensive to do list can be helpful when dealing with any big task. Make yourself a list of everything you need to do, break big things down into smaller steps, and cross off anything you’ve finished. This doubles as giving you a visual indicator of how far you’ve come. In times like these it can become easy to feel overwhelmed and lost in all you have to do. Keeping a list like this can help you see that you are actually getting a lot done. Even if it sometimes feels like you’re not.

With so much changing, it is understandable that you may be feeling overwhelmed. Just take things one at a time. In the spirit of that, let’s address some of the most common stressors faced by recent grads.

  • Student Debt
  • Career and/or Academic Direction
  • Self-Identity
  • Relationships

Student Debt

According to the Pew Research Center, American’s owed over 1.3 trillion dollars in student debt last year. That is a lot of money, and it weighs heavily on the minds of those saddled with this burden! Often times people talk about student debt as if it’s impossible to pay off and is going to drive them into poverty, but there are many options to consider! The biggest one that doesn’t get enough focus is income based repayment plans. These plans adjust how much you pay every month based on how much money you are making at the time. There are also currently several options that forgive the remaining balance of your loans after 20-25 years of on time payments. Filing for these plans makes college debt repayment much more manageable.

Take some time to check out , and/or talk with someone you know and trust with financial matters. Maybe talk with a financial aid adviser at your school or a financial manager if you are feeling overwhelmed and need some help. For some, paying off the debt quickly is a priority, for others, it’s staying afloat more comfortably. It’s important to know what your needs are, and to find the plan that works best for you. Just don’t close your eyes to the problem, because ignoring it can get you into trouble.

Don’t let yourself go into default on your loans. If you are worried about this be sure to contact your loan servicer. There are a lot of different options for deferment and forbearance and many student loans allow you to take up to 3 years of economic hardship forbearance. Or at the very least you could apply for one of the income driven repayment plans and have your payments be very little, or nothing at all if you’re in a hard place financially. Student loans are big and scary, but there are ways to manage them and reduce the anxiety they might cause you.

Finding Direction

Whether you are contemplating pursuing an advanced degree, not sure how to get your feet wet in your field, or are just feeling overwhelmed by all the options before you, take some time with this. Know it is ok and normal to feel overwhelmed. It can be hard when everyone is saying things like “the world is your oyster!”, “you can do anything!”, “reach for the stars!” and all you are feeling is paralyzed by the unknown and all the choices before you. Decision Fatigue is real, and nowhere is it felt more perhaps than during the times in our lives when we have the joy, and difficulty, of making large life changes. Take some time to process those feelings of being overwhelmed if you are having them, and acknowledge that it is ok to feel them. Then, piece by piece, do the work of looking into your options. There are many resources that can help.

Talking with a therapist, a counselor at your campus, those who work in your field, or friends and family members who know you well, can be very helpful. A key thing to think about is what you value and enjoy. Hopefully, you have just spent a lot of time studying that very thing, but don’t be afraid to go in new directions if needed. The most important thing is to keep searching and be patient with yourself. Many people say that we never truly know our purpose and that we are making it up as we go along, and that’s an ok way to look at things too. Do what feels right, brings you joy, and meets your values. Discovering what that is and how to do it, is a process that never really ends.

It might be good for you to work with a career counselor on your campus or a therapist who specializes in helping people with this. It also is probably a great idea to talk with others in your field who have gone through similar challenges. Keeping in touch with classmates and instructors, asking to conduct a job shadow or informational interview, or even just offering to volunteer at a place of business related to your field are all good ways to both network and find out more from those who know what you are going through. Those people have been where you are and know the ropes. Another thing to start keeping your ear to the ground for are professional opportunities for networking/finding out more, such as conferences or conventions. But remember that informal gatherings like social groups and online groups in your field can also be a wealth of information.

Sense of Self after School is Over

For most Americans, we are in school for the vast majority of our lives as young people. To suddenly have an end to that is understandably jarring! Along with possibly needing to figure out student debt repayment plans, getting your feet in the door with careers, and pursuing advanced degrees, many of us find ourselves trying to find a sense of purpose and a new sense of self.

There are many ways to continually find a sense of self and center, and there is no one right way to do so. However, something we’re going to stress here is finding a few people, or even just one person, who you feel both comfortable with and challenged by. School surrounds us with intellectual stimulation and social interaction. Adjusting to life outside of school can contrast in hard ways because that social and mental environment may be very different or harder to create or find. Finding people who meet that need for mental engagement and discourse can help a lot.

Whether it be because of moving, new employment, or other factors, the time after school ends can be one that means a lot of change socially. It’s important to remember that we are social creatures and need that support, be it in therapy, from family, from friends, or from various communities. Some specific places you can go to find those communities might be on social media platforms, but we would like to recommend especially finding groups that meet in person. Depending on your location and interest, it’s easier than ever to find clubs, organizations, and social groups through resources like, facebook, and local communities like churches, activism groups, support networks, etc.

Having a strong connection to others can really help. Finding people who have similar passions, who push you to learn and grow can help you keep yourself centered and foster the sense of self you are seeking. Leaving the school scene makes finding those people harder, yes, but not impossible. And if you are lucky enough to already have such relationships, appreciate and nurture them. Also, be sure to keep in mind that after college, people may be busier with new careers and other big changes; this doesn’t mean those friendships are doomed, just that they may take more work than they did in the past when you had fewer responsibilities or had similar schedules.

Of course there are many many other ways to find a sense of self, and we would never want to suggest that you should define yourself through relationships with others alone! However, as social creatures, this is one factor that can weigh pretty heavily, especially at this time. But certainly consider other things like creative outlets, trying new hobbies, exploring new places, and pursuing whatever interests and passions you already have to help ground you as well.

Don’t forget to stop and smell the sunflowers

However you work through all the big changes coming your way, whether they be pure excitement and joy, or a process of anxiously researching and weeding down options, or somewhere in between, be sure to take stock of all you’ve accomplished and know that you’ve got this. Armed with the right resources and taking things one step at a time, the world really is your oyster, you should reach for the stars, and you can do anything. Just remember to take a breath and enjoy the process as much as you can. And don’t forget to

a smiley face and the words

have a great summer ^_^

If you’re having trouble with any of the issues presented in this article, you might benefit from therapy. SacWellness is home to over 190 therapists in the greater Sacramento area, including therapists who specialize in working with school issues, life transitions, and career counseling.

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