Earlier this month I found myself back in high school. It was just after Mental Health Week in Ontario and I had been invited to lead a discussion with a grade nine Family Studies class on the theme of “self-image.” Although my own high school experience occurred over five decades ago, the challenges of teenage years remains the same today – to answer the question: “Who am I?”
Erik Erickson, the German-born American psychologist, described this stage of human development as a search for identity. The second decade of life encompasses a challenging journey from child to adult. Over these years adolescents begin to look outside their families for role models and values to shape who they are becoming. Here is part of my discussion with an attentive, well-behaved group of students:
“When I climbed out of bed this morning, I looked in the mirror and washed my face. In the glass I saw my reflection – my image. Each of us will see a self-image (unless we are a vampire.) But how we feel about that image staring back at us will determine our level of self-esteem. If we determine self-worthiness by measuring ourselves against what much of the media promotes as being of greater value or worth, we can end up with a poor self-image.
Think for a moment of some people in our world who are so famous that they need only a first name to be recognized: Donald, LeBron, Beyonce, Justin, Madonna, Jlo, Bill (this last one, Bill— Gates, proved to be a bit more challenging to guess.) What these universally-known personages possess might be power, athletic prowess, talent, physical attractiveness, charisma, high intelligence or like Kim – or Paris – famous for just being famous. What is also striking about these attributes is that each of them is transitory; they do not last forever. The other problem using these determinants of self-worth is that most of us could not possibly not measure up! Nor do we need to.
For our own mental health, a better approach is to choose other standards to measure self-esteem:
- begin by rejecting how social media determines the importance or worthwhileness of people.
- recognize that each of us can choose other values to emulate.
- the world needs more listeners and fewer talkers; see your quiet nature as a gift for hearing others, for empathy, for understanding.
- hang around people who affirm you as a person and, if possible, avoid or confront those who constantly bully or ‘put you down’.
- be brave enough to try new challenges rather than always saying ‘I can’t do it’.
- don’t rely on chemicals to provide a good feeling about yourself.
- enjoy and develop those talents and abilities you do have but don’t make them the only source of your self-worth.
- get help from school or community resources along the way if you struggle with self-image.
- choose and develop enduring values such as caring, kindness, honesty, loyalty, patience and self-respect.
Don’t be impatient or discouraged with yourselves as you let these next years help you uncover the answer to ‘Who am I?’ You have lots of time to figure this out.”
I left that classroom feeling good about this next generation. They face challenges that were unknown in my school days yet they also possess insight, intelligence and a non-judgmental approach to life to get them through the adolescent experience – just as we all once did, even with a few bumps along the way.