I remember being in high school and hearing advice from adults that were variations on this theme: “Find out who you really are.” It gave me fits of terror and confusion. First of all, what the hell does that even mean? I was a teenage American girl who had no idea what she was doing. I was unhappy and frustrated with my lack of self-determination and my restricted freedom. I was a good student. I had some great friends. Other than that, I had no idea “who I really was.” The fact that I heard this call to action repeatedly from all adult corners of my life made me feel even worse. Did everyone else understand what this meant? Were all my friends and classmates out there finding out who they really were while I was hanging out at home, studying, watching MTV, listening to music, scheming about how to stay out later and get to parties I wouldn’t enjoy, and talking on the phone for hours with them? How did everyone but me figure out what this magical process was when I had no idea how to even start? Why didn’t I have any idea what I was doing?
Here’s the good news: I still have no idea what I’m doing and I don’t think that anybody truly does. Any adult who tells you otherwise is, as the adage goes, trying to sell you something, or thinks that teenagers are beneath their time and energy.
Teenhood is arguably the most difficult time in life. First, there’s school which takes the majority of your waking hours and your brain power just to meet your academic obligations. Then, there’s the minefield of your social life and your family relationships, which are changing daily. Add in the personal interests you have or would like to try plus the gaping maw of your basic sexual, racial, gender, philosophical, and religious identities, and it’s like a constant nightmare run through fun house mirrors.
The further complication is that your choices are scrutinized constantly at school, at home and not least of which, by you. Judgments like: “Oh, so you’re a goth now?” or “Wow, when did you decide to wear frilly dresses all the time?” are not helpful and only add to the confusion. Again, as I’ve written before, school is not real life. In my adult life, when I have changed my hair or dyed it purple or decided to wear skirts after months of wearing only pants to work, people may notice and say something about the change, but I am not accused of trying to “be something I’m not,” or any other such nonsense. As a teen, the judgments come fast and directly – to your face or behind your back. The typical response to this from adults is: “Your REAL friends will accept you for who you are.” Or “You shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks.” Teens, how helpful is that? Adults, do you remember how unhelpful that was?
In some of the best YA books, characters struggle with this same challenge. Ari in Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz struggles with finding himself in a family that doesn’t talk about their feelings. When he uses the word “inscrutable” to describe his father, he feels like he’s putting on airs, since he doesn’t consider himself an intellectual like his friend Dante:
“I felt like such a fraud using that word. Maybe that was the thing about me. I wasn’t a real boy. I was a fraud.”
Ari struggles through the story to accept himself, his parents and his friend Dante. His struggle rings so true to me as does his sense of being a “fraud.” The confusion of adolescence had always seemed to me such a muddle that was too complex and individual to name, but when I read Ari describe himself as a fraud, it really rang with recognition for me. That’s what it feels like! Like you’re perpetrating a fraud, and it’s just a matter of time before everyone finds out. That terror can be absolutely debilitating.
I’m obviously not the first person to think about this concept. In her book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help by rock star and writer Amanda Palmers she discusses how she struggles with not feeling real her whole life. Then she made a life changing discovery – nearly everybody feels that way.
“I didn’t know until recently how absolutely universal that feeling is. For a long time, I thought I was alone. Psychologists have a term for it: impostor syndrome. But before I knew that phrase existed, I coined my own: The Fraud Police.
The Fraud Police are the imaginary, terrifying force of “real” grown-ups who you believe – at some subconscious level – are going to come knocking on your door in the middle of the night saying:
We’ve been watching you, and we have evidence that you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU’RE DOING. … we are taking everything away and we are TELLING EVERYBODY.”
Reading that passage set of a series of realizations in my brain and my heart. It’s a lie that we as adults continue to perpetuate. We tell students starting in Middle School and throughout their teenhood that in order to do X you have to first have this and that credential. You must do things in this order and you can’t just go out there and start making things up when we know perfectly well that many successful people have done just that. They are made to fear their own instincts and doubt themselves even when they’re successful.
Why not just let them see what they can do out there? Why not unleash them? Are we afraid of them being disappointed or embarrassed or that we will be proven wrong? Adults are so invested in maintaining their status as authorities on how things are done that we handicap teenagers at just the point in their lives where they should feel the most free and need the most encouragement.
Here’s what I want you to know: You are not a fraud. No matter what you’re doing right now, it’s your thing to do or try or own. The ridiculously elusive process of “finding yourself” isn’t a journey to locate and accept your “authentic self.” In my experience, it’s been much more of a process of elimination. The more I give myself the space to say, “No, I really don’t enjoy XXX,” the closer I get to paring down to what I genuinely, honestly love and want my life to be.
Having said all that, I have been accused by my students and others as “loving everything.” It’s true. I fall in love easily and with many things. I am a romantic. Teenhood isn’t the only time when we go through “phases”, life is one long series of phases, if you keep an open mind and give yourself room to change. As an adult, I love hearing about friends’ new passions – books, music, art, politics, travel, etc. As a teen, I always felt that I had to immediately judge their interests, ideas, and friends, and decide if I was going to join them in their enthusiasm or demean their passions as frivolous or stupid. That’s what my parents and other adults did.
With my own children now in middle school, high school, and college I feel the pressure for them to find “their passion” and I have to check myself to make sure I’m not encouraging them solely for the purpose of adding their accomplishments to their college essays or applications. My son, who is entering high school this year, is an amazing athlete. As of now, he has not decided to play on any of his high school teams. I love him and I want him to be happy. I absolutely believe that playing on a high school team instead of the club teams that he’s played on up until now would probably be rewarding socially and physically. Do I also think about how it might affect his options for colleges? Of course. Everything you do or don’t do in high school affects your college prospects. However, one of the other perils of the pressure to “find out who you really are” is deciding not to decide or deciding not to take a risk. Balancing the desire to find your passion against doing it for your own reasons and on your own terms is another circus act. Walking a tightrope or flinging yourself whole heartedly off a trapeze to find out how far you can go? Guiding a child in this search as a parent isn’t much easier than doing it for yourself. We talk and talk and check in with each other again and again to make sure that we understand our motives and dreams as well as we can, but ultimately it’s his choice.