Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

On Not Being Myself

Is there such a thing as authenticity?

I recently disclosed to a young person that I’d probably be spending New Year’s Eve, not out celebrating with friends, but at home watching a box set. “Preferably,” I added, “something with lots of killing!”

Her eyes widened. “You’re joking, aren’t you?” she asked. “You don’t really watch stuff like that!”

Digging an even deeper hole for myself, I promised her that I was no different from lots of other people when it came to car chases, shoot-outs and murders.

She said nothing but I sensed her disappointment that someone she respected could be so base. It was as if I’d betrayed her by not living up her idealization.

There’s a time and a place for disillusioning young people and I misjudged this one. My tiredness got the better of me. But who other people are—who they really are—is a preoccupation for young people. They’re fascinated by the secret lives of their parents and teachers, their friends’ parents and celebrities, and they’re fascinated by the possibility of having secret lives themselves. “What am I like really? What do I really feel? What do I really want?”

“You’re not yourself!” we say to them when they’re unhappy or angry or behaving in unusual ways. On other occasions, when they’re caught up in a dilemma, we advise them, “Be true to yourself! Listen to yourself! Do what’s right for you!”

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The idea that people are complex and may not be all that they seem provokes mixed reactions in young people. At times, they’re fascinated, but at other times, they’d prefer things to remain simple with other people defined clearly and transparently. They’ll readily accuse each other of being ‘two-faced’ as if it’s a surprise that someone is capable of saying one thing to one person and another thing to another person. I suspect that these accusations are fuelled less by genuine surprise and more by the disappointment that it’s no longer possible to live in a child’s world where people are simply who they’re supposed to be, fitted out with ‘characters’ and ‘personalities’.

Dealing with the disappointment of this isn’t helped by adults exhorting young people to realise their ‘full potential’, as if a person’s potential was pre-determined and finite rather than fluid and constantly subject to the capricious, emergent effects of experience. Nor is the disappointment helped by talk of ‘self-actualisation’, as if we reach a point in our lives where our ‘true’ selves are somehow finally revealed.

This matters because young people are unhappy when they get stuck in a particular role, obliged always to be angry, for example, or shy or gregarious. The role may be familiar and safe but it’s also stultifying. And that’s the point when they need to be recognized in all their complexity: as multi-faceted, changing and duplicitous, as people with potentially wide role repertoires.

Different young people are ready to be disillusioned at different times and confessing to my secret enjoyment of violent box sets was probably too sudden. But we give young people permission to enlarge the repertoire of roles they can play when we’re able to acknowledge our own complexities and contradictions. The idea of an ‘authentic’ self waiting somewhere just out of reach isn’t helpful.

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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