Other people, our moral mirrors: Part 2, developing our identity

Many years ago, when half of my clients were teenagers, I would often begin by asking them “What is your main job in your life right now?” Almost always, they would say “to do well in school.”  It was like a script.  They’d probably heard this question from many others—their parents, teachers, school counselors (or in some cases probation officers or a judge in juvenile court).  I would tell them, “Nope. During adolescence, your main job is to figure out who you are.”

During early childhood, children rarely ask the question “who?, ” as in, “Who am I?” “Who are you?” “Who are the kinds of people I want to associate with or be associated with?” There are traces of this question earlier on, but as most of us know, these much deeper, less obvious, and sometimes heartbreaking questions begin around the time of middle school, around the time we are also beginning to think about ourselves as something other than children. This is also the time in our lives when we begin to have more sexual hormones and body changes that enhance and encourage these questions. It is no coincidence that questions about “who I am” happen at the same time our bodies are beginning to move from children to adults. As our bodies are becoming differentiated from the kind of bodies of our friends (e.g. some girls and boys begin to look different in more obvious ways at different times), we are also trying to differentiate our sense of self from the way others sense themselves and how that influences how others see us. As you will surely recall, a very confusing time!

When we start to ask the “who” questions, we have begun the exploration of our identities. This is why such things as what we wear, how we look, who we are seen with, what kinds of cliques we might want to join become so much more important than they ever were before. Our best friends might not want to be seen with us anymore. The kid down the block is either someone we have lost interest in playing with, or they are busy with kids a few blocks over. Are we a “jock,” a “nerd,” a “burnout,” a “theater” or “band” kid? Of course, lots of kids are more than one thing, which is part of the experiment they are making—which parts and how much? 

These are necessary and mostly healthy steps toward seeing ourselves for the first time as a person, preparing ourselves for how we will define ourselves in adulthood. The process of identity formation for a few years after puberty is like a dress rehearsal, or a rough draft before the final version (and yes, there is a final version, as described in the next blog post). We dabble in peer groups and appearances to see what fits with “who we are.” Part of this experiment is making judgments about how others in these various peer groups respond to us and how we feel about those responses (do they matter a lot, a little, or not at all). At this stage, we begin to chisel away at the block of marble that was the innocence (and sameness) of childhood without much concern for identity, eventually revealing ourselves to ourselves, while also incrementally revealing ourselves to everyone else.

While exploring our possible identities with our peer groups, we are also learning a great deal about negotiating our other many emotional needs. We are learning how to filter ourselves, how to govern behaviors that were natural within our families at the age of 4 (a crying tantrum), but have no place at the birthday party of our friend at 14 (hopefully). The repercussions of getting it wrong can be swift and severe (losing an entire group of friends with no one to sit with during lunch at school). This is a harsh entrance into the world of morality—what you do and how you behave in the presence of others will result in varying degrees of positive and negative responses. Belongingness is important to us from the moment of our birth. Belongingness as a sign of whether “who we are” is acceptable to others or not ( a succinct definition of morality) becomes paramount to our happiness, and this doesn’t really change over the lifespan. Although, how we obtain belongingness and what we are willing to sacrifice for it can change as we get older and increase our sense of autonomy (See chapters, “Aging, Entropy and Autonomy,” and “Situational Identity” in Firewalking on Jupiter).

Peer pressure is a mixed bag, for sure. While it is a vital part of our development as social beings, it can also cause us to suffer dilemmas we are not ready for. Obvious examples come to mind. At 16, we might want to sneak out of the house to go to a friend’s party who will be sorely disappointed if we are not there, but know this is wrong because it will deprive us of the extra studying and sleep we need in preparation for the SAT exam tomorrow morning, which is why our parents (wisely) told us we were not allowed to go. At the age of 17, we might find ourselves feeling some kind of social pressure to both engage and not engage in sexual behavior with someone we’ve been “going with” (this is what we called it back when I was in high school). We also begin at this time in our lives to see others as supportive or not supportive of what’s good for us and hopefully then learn from this what kinds of people we want to have in our lives. At this age, it is okay to make mistakes with our peer groups or how to fit in, which can often be easily corrected without the kinds of dire consequences similar behavior might have later in our lives. When “fitting in” requires us to act in accordance with already held personal values we can’t identify, but know to be “right” (for us), we are on a good track. On the other hand, giving in to peer pressure, sacrificing your sense of what you know to be right for you, can lead to trouble fast if unchecked. 

For the first 10 years of my therapy practice, sometimes half of my clients were teenagers. I thoroughly enjoyed this work. I rarely see teenagers now for a very good reason: when parents (or law enforcement) contact me to see a teen, it is almost invariably an urgent situation, one that cannot wait for the many months it can now take to get in to see me. Why urgent? In part, because the damage that teens can do to themselves in a short period of time often have serious implications for the rest of their lives, but can also be fairly easily corrected if addressed in time. Younger children do not usually have access to the kinds of powerful behaviors and decisions that can do lasting damage to themselves and others, so when they do make mistakes, the consequences are far less severe, especially in the long term. Here’s a gripping statistic that will drive the point home: according to the CDC, car accidents are the leading cause of death among adolescents—over a third of all deaths. This is because they have the power to drive, but have not yet developed full executive functioning in their brains to make the best decisions when to drive and while driving. There’s also quite often a real and legitimate fear of slippery slopes for teens. Their grades start to slip, they get into drugs, at first mild use, experimentation, start hanging out with a “bad crowd,” but within months teens headed in in the wrong direction can drop out of school, forego college, get pregnant, commit a felony. I’ve seen this happen enough times (in my own life, sure, but also with many, many teens), that I respect parents’ concerns, even if sometimes they might be overreacting. Their fears make sense given what’s at stake for their kids. A quick correction, sometimes with the help of a mentor or professional (therapist), or even a change in environment (new school, etc.) can go a long way toward helping a teenager find their way back into alignment between their choices, their friends, and their personal sense of what is right for them based on who they are becoming (and who their parents desperately hope they want to become).

Although it’s been ten years or more now, I still remember quite clearly my relatively short-term work with Gina. She was 16 when I met her. Gina was very interested in science, and also somewhat interested in school politics including the high school newspaper. Her parents asked her to see me because she’d shown signs of being less motivated for school, her grades began to suffer for the first time in her life, and she was uncharacteristically spending much more time alone in her bedroom, even on weekend nights. Gina told me she thought her parents were overreacting (and maybe so, but it was still good that they reached out for help for her). After about four sessions of establishing some trust, she was able to explain that a large part of her change was not so much motivation, but fear. She’d started dating a guy who was popular outside of her normal group. He was an athlete—she wasn’t. Gina feared losing him and the friends she’d made when she started dating him, so she was reluctant to continue many of her efforts in science and the school newspaper, worried that her new friends would think she was “nerdy” or “too smart,” and in the process had silently been moving away from her old friends and activities. I recall that she had trouble articulating much of this at first because she was still a kid, didn’t have the right language for it, and didn’t even realize some of this was going on.

When Gina started exploring how these changes might impact the future she thought she’d have, she realized fairly quickly that her new friends didn’t fit in with her then emerging long-term plans for herself in any meaningful way. She wanted to go to a college that focused on science and engineering, something almost none of her new friends showed any interest in doing. Her old friends had been rejecting her, she thought, until she realized that this was because she had been rejecting them first. It didn’t take too long for her to conclude that her fears of losing her new friends were misplaced because she didn’t actually enjoy hanging out with them anyway. After our work was done, she contacted me a few months later to tell me she’d broken up with the guy she’d been dating, and had been accepted into a college she really hoped to get into. She’d found her way back to what was important to her, even if that meant she had to make difficult choices about rejecting what might be important to some of her peers, and the loss of being “popular” in a way that had felt good.

Peer pressure can go a long way to supporting this alignment within ourselves, but can also do great damage to our capacity to stay consistent in our choices and behavior with what we believe to be true within ourselves. Either way, it becomes a good way to begin to make judgments about who and what is good for us. This again is an important part of not only our identities, but also the added strength it offers to our moral compass—how willing am I to risk rejection, lose a sense of belongingness, in order to avoid behaviors that are not consistent with what “feels right to me?” Other people have the capacity to ease us into powerful and useful realizations about ourselves, even or especially when they might test us mightily. This is what makes other people essential if we are to become the kinds of people we hope we can be, and our parents hope we will become.

Let me go back to some things I said in the first paragraph in this post—the main job of teenagers is, contrary to popular opinion, not to do well in school, but to figure out who they are.  If you are a parent, you might be a bit shocked, or at least concerned that such a statement gives permission to kids to slack off, to wade into dangerous waters of distraction from school.  Hang on.  Doing well in school is a very good indication that kids are on the right track for their lives. Likewise, doing poorly in school, especially if it comes on suddenly, can be a very good indication that something unseen has gone seriously wrong.  For teens, we might say, school grades are the “canary in the coal mine.” Like the canary, though, things can be problematic even if things are going well in school. A kid who gets really great grades, is popular, even a “star athlete” or has some other engaging activities outside of academics at school, might still suffer potentially lifelong issues if they are not able to properly address and resolve certain kinds of emerging issues during their teenage years that are hard to recognize at that time.  What kinds of issues:  how they see themselves, especially in comparison to how they measure themselves against how they think they should be, or what others (their parents, peers, authority figures) think they should be. That kid with the “perfect grades” might be suffering from the first signs of what could later become debilitating and even life-threatening perfectionism, anxiety or depression. It is no exaggeration to say I have had clients in every phase of adult life, from college, to mid-twenties, to mid-life, to retirement age, who have all pointed out that their then current issues first started to become apparent during middle school or high school, regretting that they, and others, had not recognized them as identity issues at the time, sometimes precisely because they were otherwise doing well (or well enough) in school so everyone (including themselves) mistakenly assumed everything was fine (or well enough).

Put it this way, I would rather a kid have some struggles in school, but address important issues and develop a strong sense of who they are in the world than have a kid do well in school but have no clue who they are in the world by the time they reach adulthood.  Yes, poor grades do have real implications (like not getting into the best colleges). This is real.  It is important. No doubt.  I am only saying it is not actually the most important thing happening in adolescence.  

Our job as parents of kids during adolescence is to help them move toward seeing themselves as part of a larger world, while also retaining a sense of their own importance. Think of adolescence like an interlude—it is a transition phase between helping younger children meet their needs and the adults they will become to meet their own needs. Their teenage years are the crossover, in which they learn to exercise new powers for meeting their own needs without our help as parents, but doing so in a way that protects them from harm by recognizing what’s best for them, while also protecting those around them from the harm of overly selfish behaviors. This is the true beginnings of their own moral walk, taking a step for themselves without falling down, and without taking anyone with them if they do fall, while you stand back and let go of their hand, but stay near to catch them if they do fall.

After our identities are well-established at around the age of 25, we continue to benefit from our relationships with others, but now as potential mirrors of ourselves—helping us see things within ourselves we otherwise might not see, as long as we also recognize the limits and potential pitfalls of letting the perspectives (and attitudes, biases, and personal motives) of others get involved. This will be the focus of the next part of this blog series on “other people.”