My son is fifteen years old. We have both quick and deep conversations as a way of sharing what is uppermost in our minds. In the past, our exchanges have generally orbited around the four h’s—health, hygiene, homework and happiness. Lately, however, there has been a shift in favour of discussions pertaining to recurring attitudes and patterns of behaviour that are distinctly ‘me’-centric. In this article, I piece together several such short but candid conversations around this new point of attention. I am particularly interested in going past explaining away self-focused pre-occupations and conduct as ‘just a phase’ and instead, I draw upon some of the insights provided by my son to understand how young people respond to the ramifications of a fast approaching adult world.
“There is so much going on in my head!”
The thing about teenagers is that communication is not a strong suit. How does one make sense of the world if one’s head is swirling with unarticulated thoughts and emotions about how the world sees ‘me’? In junior school, there was circle time, and being spontaneous was easy. In high school, one is under the gaze of one’s peers and words and feelings often get entangled in a complex maze of emotion. Articulating a thought-emotion is a ‘problem’ or a ‘task’ and one can easily reach the point of being continually muffled or misunderstood.
In a Krishnamurti school, there are many opportunities both inside and outside the classroom to express oneself without judgement. There are a number of tools to assist in the pouring out of the million questions teeming in one’s mind. I am reminded of the time during the ‘Thinking Together Workshops’ at Vasanta Vihar, when many young and mature adults articulated their thoughts with abandon. Can it be that communication appears to be laborious only when we no longer wish to nurture the multitude of questions that arise and, instead, revel in the comfort of answers that we have allowed to take root?
“You have no idea how much pressure we face to conform to trends in fashion, music and sport. It is painful for me to live up to and sustain the image of myself that is out there in the world.”
Is the need to please those in our inner circle and to be liked by all who one meets, the characteristic feature of an adolescent alone? I confess I do this all the time and I am well past my teens. How many times have we all caught ourselves being passive, accepting without resistance the many customs and rules we have grown accustomed to obeying? And how often do we seek to find and express alternative ways of thinking and doing things? And, most importantly, do we not in fact disregard the latter and even persuade ourselves into conforming to ‘group thinking’ for the comfort of habit and safety in numbers it provides?
Is it fair to club together all fifteen year-olds under the singular image of the ‘me-myself-and-I’ generation? I want to reconsider this media fuelled, parent-reinforced label attached to young people. Externally imposed, and often internalised, labelling can easily be threatened by any interaction, event or demand. The built image of a ‘socially acceptable’ teenager shatters easily and dematerialises very quickly, like a hologram or a mirror reflection, under the pressure of intimidation. Interventions around the image are invariably experienced as pain, depriving the young person of the myriad opportunities of wholeheartedly receiving and responding to the uneven flow of adult life.
“I am not the same person with my friends as I am with my family. I feel like I am many different persons all rolled into one. I don’t understand why. I don’t know who I am.”
Finding oneself whilst being in a relationship with others is not easy. We seek to mould ourselves into a single idea or image. The fear of being judged on account of a persona we have donned often prevents us from having meaningful relationships. We struggle in our relationships because we are often trying to be comfortable with the fit when in fact our thoughtemotions correspond to so many different personalities at the same time.
Holding on to one’s own sense of self in isolation and in relationship with others is a work in progress. It is a learning that is gained from being relationship-minded rather than being image-oriented and fulfilling expectations. The ambiguity or conflict we experience in our relationships with others jostles closely with intimations of self-worth and is not specific to adolescence. When we are deeply sorry, it is because we have turned our attention to the relationship and to the dynamic of the exchange rather than the fixity of our individual guise or role. It is a reminder that one’s ‘reputation’ barely touches the surface of the many layers of our inner life. Don’t we all want to be heard in spaces of open listening and sharing, free from the conditionality and constraint of a label? Perhaps it is time to focus on teenage years as a time for intense inward and outward exploration rather than explaining it away as a perilous phase.
“I find myself being disinterested and disengaged. It is a condition and an attitude I am told whose opposite is passionate involvement. We need spaces and activities that do not challenge who we are.”
Teachers and parents expend a lot of time grappling with the ‘problem’ of teenagers being casual rather than passionate in their daily routine and behaviour. For a majority of young people themselves, however, passionate involvement is easier said than done. Without an overt talent and a family environment that nourishes the ability, it is difficult to find one’s passion. How does one generate enthusiasm for something when one is unsure about one’s area of interest in the first place? At school, the curriculum demands extensive and general knowledge rather than deep immersion in an area of one’s interest. If one does get involved in a passion, it is usually trend induced and extra-curricular as in sports, music or other hobby-like involvements.
The point I would like to make is that passion is overrated for teenagers and adults alike. It instils extreme competitiveness on account of it being publicly recognized as a challenging feat. Shifting the emphasis in the direction of learning in small insignificant and routine steps inserted in one’s daily life will take away the pressure to perform from the activity. Careful nurturing of reflection and steady practice steers clear from the ‘game’ of reputation and identity and holds true for anyone regardless of their particular stage or phase in life.
Recently, a renowned New York-based psychotherapist, Robi Ludwig, likened menopause with adolescence, on account of the latter’s emphasis on the self, reminding women of a certain age-bracket to “live the life they’ve always dreamed of ”. I think it is time we begin to rethink the prevailing age-specific characterisation of persons and to resist symptomatic diagnosis and relief in the language of phases.