Adolescence and the Tyranny of Ideals

Ideals exemplified by peers and promoted by media can be hard to live up to.

Posted Apr 06, 2020

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

For many teenagers, ideals have a lot of unhappiness to answer for. Why? 

The developmental transformation called “adolescence” can be a painfully self-evaluative time. It is an impressionable age as young people feel pressed to redefine their identity on many levels.

Socially, for example, comparisons are constantly being made with prominent peers and popular images that embody ideals for growing up that feel very hard to meet. In consequence, a young person can end up falling short in her or his eyes, feeling badly on that account. “I’ll never measure up!” 

Three common adolescent ideals

Common pillars of self-esteem and sources of social approval have to do with appearance, performance, and popularity. “I’m worth how well I look, how well I do, and how much I’m liked.” Thus ideals of beautysuccess, and celebrity can seem worth pursuing. The notion is that the more one approximates these ideals, the happier one will become. Except, for those who attain them, maintaining this outcome can prove costly: “Being popular takes a lot of work!”  

Adequacy conflicts

I believe most teenagers experience some adequacy conflicts between the actuality of how one is and the ideal of how wishes to be. At issue is being “good enough” compared with what is generally promoted as “how best to be.” 

For example, consider those images propagated by the media, entertainment, fashion, diet, and advertising industries depicting the most desirable models of personal appearance to which one can aspire. These portraits of physical ideals can tyrannize a young person’s growing self-consciousness. Even knowing that most everyone isn’t created this way, there is the sense that at best they should be.  

Falling short of such ideals can encourage feelings of inferiority, even shame over not being sufficiently womanly or manly. “I’ll never have a body like that!” “I’ll never be shapely enough!” “I’ll never be built enough!” At worst: “I hate how I look!” Now, that brutal morning confrontation with one’s mirror image can be extremely painful to do: “This is who I have to take to school!” 

Or there are simply “bad” days that only illuminate one’s imperfections:

  • “I had a bad hair day!”
  • “I had a bad skin day!”
  • “I had a bad friend day!”
  • “I had a bad dress day!”
  • “I had a bad game day!”
  • “I had a bad test day!”

There are so many ways for one’s day to depart from the ideal.

What parents might say

Parents might explain to their discontent adolescent that subscribing to an ideal is a complicated choice because ideals themselves are complex: Appealing to create, inspiring to follow, and difficult to resist, they can be laborious to pursue, hard to meet, and burdensome to bear. The higher one aspires, the more one can fall short of extreme standards that idealism has set. "I really let myself down!"  

Is ideal worth believing in? Is ideal worth striving for? Is ideal worth measuring oneself against?

Sometimes "yes" when it motivates effort, but often "no" when failure results in feelings of inferiority.  Parents can help their teenager make a merciful separation: "Maybe say to yourself: Ideally this is what I wish for, but realistically this is what I expect. At best, ordinary and average is how most of us are most of the time, and that is perfectly okay."

If your adolescent is deviled by dissatisfaction for not being perfect or doing perfectly, continually self-critical on that account, you might want to propose an alternative to idealism. 

An alternative to idealism

How to forsake the tyranny of ideals? Parents might suggest committing to a more humane objective: prize one's individuality. 

“Rather than pursue some popular ideal, honor the personal mix of characteristics and capacities you’ve been given. Then commit to nurturing the distinct human being that no one else but you can ever be. So, instead of asking, ‘How can I become like what I admire in others?’ ask instead: ‘How can I develop what is uniquely me?’”