‘Too cool for school’
This week I want to reflect on a very important issue that confronts all of us at some point in our lives, normally in the teenage years, however, for some it can be a process that goes on for a long time, and that is establishing our identity. This topic came to mind as I observed a couple of boys behaving inappropriately simply to gain the attention of their peers and to look cool. Whilst annoyed that they were behaving poorly, I was somewhat saddened by the fact that these young men were not portraying their real selves, merely adhering to an image they thought would bring them notoriety.
Establishing our identity can be a traumatic time for many of us, as we try to figure out who we are and probably more importantly how we want to be seen. This period of establishing ourselves, finding our place and being happy with it is very complex and can be daunting. To make it easier we have to acknowledge and accept that establishing our identity is part of growing up, and endeavour to identify some of the common mistakes people make during this period so as to avoid them ourselves if at all possible. In this blog I will keep things pretty simple, not venturing into the science or psychology of establishing our identity but focus on some very basic facts, offer some pretty simple advice and provide a couple of simple tips to make the transition a little easier.
Firstly, let’s start with the definition found on Wikipedia; ‘Identity formation, also known as individuation, is the development of the distinct personality of an individual regarded as a persisting entity (known as personal continuity) in a particular stage of life in which individual characteristics are possessed and by which a person is recognized or known. Identity refers to the qualities, beliefs, personality, looks and/or expressions that make a person (self-identity) or group (particular social category or social group) who they are.’
We all have a certain image of ourselves a way we wish to portray ourselves, built on our beliefs about the kind of person we are. Having a strong sense of identity seems to be desirable, something that brings comfort and security. Identity also helps us to make decisions and to know how to behave.
The further development or refining of the self-concept is one of the most important changes that occurs during adolescence. According to Erikson, the main social task of the adolescent is the search for a unique identity — the ability to answer the question ‘Who am I?’ It establishes who we are, how we are seen and determines the people or groups we choose to associate with. The important thing we have to remember in this process is that we choose the image we wish to portray, an image we are comfortable with or perhaps one we see as desirable. Our social identities or self-image tends to be defined according to how we are similar to and differ from others, finding meaning in the sports, religious, school, gender, and ethnic categories which we belong. Images that include, the sports jock, the academic, the cool dude, the model are examples of images which a student may aspire. However, there are also the alternative identities, identities that the mainstream see as less desirable, ones that some students will adopt to separate themselves from mainstream, the gothic, the hippie, the class clown or perhaps even the tough guy, are all legitimate images. Whilst all of these appear to fit within the realms of normality, I worry that aspiring to some of these images can have detrimental consequences, that many kids can’t see at the time.
Over the years I have observed students make poor decisions as they try to establish themselves or simply fit in amongst their peers. Some behaviours adopted as we establish who we are can even be dangerous, especially if they incorporate harmful or risk taking behaviours such as drinking, drugs, violence, or negative behaviours of opting out of school and many others. So my first bit of advice is, to think carefully about the image we wish to portray and why we want to portray such an image. We need to be asking ourselves things like: Is the image we wish to project one with which we are comfortable? Are we being true to ourselves or are we merely trying to impress others? Is who I am becoming meeting my, or my family’s values? Is my image going to make my life easier or put obstacles in my path? Is it harmful to me or others? All the while remembering we choose our identity. I am aware the path we choose is not always easy, but there are many routes that can be taken as we establish who we are. Taking on negative or undesirable identities just to be different or as a form of rebellion may not necessarily be a good choice.
As teenagers work through the process of developing an identity, they may well try out different identities in different social situations. They may maintain one identity at home and a different type of persona when they are with their peers. Eventually, most teenagers do integrate the different possibilities into a single self-concept and a comfortable sense of identity (identity-achievement status).
The identities that teens experiment with are more likely to be defined by the group the person chooses to be a part of and far less likely to be defined by what they witness at home. The friendship groups (cliques, crowds, or gangs) that are such an important part of the adolescent experience allow the young adult to try out different identities, and these groups provide a sense of belonging and acceptance. As parents and teachers, the best thing we can offer them through this period is support and guidance and most of all unconditional love, always in the hope they will discover who they are and it will be an identity that they and we are comfortable with.
To further complicate a very complex time in a person’s life of establishing their identity, our kids have social media which plays such an important role in their lives. Over the past decade, online social networks (OSN) have revolutionized social communications worldwide. Nowhere is this more evident than amongst today’s young consumers, so called millennial teens, who have snapped up these identity‐making digital social spaces, claiming them as their own. Teens today are deeply immersed in self‐presentation activities. They employ a wide range of ‘intentional’ self‐presentation strategies creating complex, elaborate and decorative versions of self. OSNs satisfy teen needs for intense social interaction with their peers, giving them a tool which allows them to create an image they want the world to see. Many of the tools they choose to use within social media enable them to manipulate their image and present something that they are comfortable with. Now all this is well and good, unless the image they create devalues who they are or portrays a false image; an image that is not possible for them to live up to. Photo shopping a photo to highlight a feature or staging a photo to show a side of them they want the world to see is a bit of harmless fun. However, we must protect our kids from overstepping this line for their own good. Sexting, false images and false claims may have the impact of devaluing them or lead to serious mental health issues. Nurturing, educating and supporting our kids through these difficult times is all we can do. Reminding them of how wonderful they are simply for being themselves, and helping them to love themselves so they don’t feel the need to create a new them. After all they are all made in the image of God and are super special just the way they are.
So in the famous words of Dr Seuss “Be who you are and say how you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind. You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself in any direction you choose”.