New podcast: Staying cool talking with your teen's school.
Oct. 19, 2022

Flirting with your self.

Flirting with your self.

I distinctly remember standing at the university bar, flirting with a very attractive guy. He’d bought me a drink, we were making lots of eye contact and leaning into each other, he asked why I’d travelled to such curious places, I told him that I was trying to find myself… His eyes flickered with confusion, or was it disdain? His lip curled.

‘How are you going to find yourself if you don’t know who you are?’

At that point my hopes of romance fled into the existential dark alley down which the rest of my mind seemed to have found itself. Outwardly, I was gregarious, huge fun and unstoppable. Inside I was a mess.

He was right. It’s really hard to find yourself when the only thing you’re certain of is that you don’t like your ‘self’ at that moment in time. Some people are dealt a great hand and the scaffolding around them helps them to amble through life certain of their place in the world, never questioning what it’s all about. Some get to a certain stage in life and, like a frog in heated water, become conscious that things aren’t right. Then there are people like me who crash through various crises on the path to self-love and contentedness.

And crash I did. There was leaving home mid-A levels for a bedsit in a dirty house full of desperate people who were eeking out a living, there was travelling to different religions and cultures to ‘try them on’, there was getting a job as a saleswoman and finding I wanted to gnaw my own arm off with boredom, there was leaving my boyfriend of 6 years having realised that he wasn’t ‘the one’ and that the person I thought I was meant to be didn’t exist, there was having a baby at the same time as moving into a big house in the country where I knew nobody, and the heels and short skirts I’d been wearing to present the news didn’t complement shovelling gravel into holes in the driveway. Etcetera etcetera.

I had no family scaffolding, so each crisis resulted in a new awakening. In truth, my parents probably did me a favour by leaving me to it. I rejected almost everything about their life, and what it represented, eventually finding something incredible. The problem is that I suffered years of angst, and many people I met along the way said they couldn’t understand how I hadn’t ‘gone off the rails’.

Which brings me on to how we can support our own teens. One thing we discussed in the podcast was being honest with them about how big an identity adjustment becoming a teenager can be. Giving them words to describe what they’re experiencing is empowering, as is letting them know that it’s completely normal.

In turn, we parents need to not panic about our teenagers and the awful people we fear they are becoming. We need to lay down our swords of judgment and accept that trying on different identities is a normal and important part of teenage years. We can support them by reflecting back to them – kindly - how any given role they are trying on might be perceived by the rest of the world and where it might take them.

We talked in the podcast about teens flocking to a clothing brand, or joining in with vaping, as a way of fitting in. I’ve seen it all first hand. My bonus teens went through a phase of wearing shocking amounts of makeup and taking photos of themselves that made them look like escorts. The Mary Whitehouse in me was horrified. Thankfully I read a book at the time which explained that girls do this to create a mask behind which their real personality can develop unseen. Once they’re comfortable with who they are the mask comes down. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened.

My younger girls went through their own process. One of them became desperate for a North Face jacket, she’s also spent a year dressing like she’d been sponsored by Urban Outfitters. She’s recently moved schools, found a great group of accepting friends and yesterday told me that she didn’t want to shop at Urban Outfitters anymore because everyone is going there and she wants to develop her own style. This is what a secure identity sounds like. Of course, it's fine to want to fit in, but it’s also a great sign when your teen finally gets to the point where they don’t feel a desperate need to.

One way we can talk about the subject is by spotting what’s called the ‘character arc’ of a favourite film or book and chatting about it. Anyone who’s studied the art of storytelling will confirm that the films and books that are most satisfying, and stay with us, are the ones in which the protagonist goes through a process of realising something about themselves and changes as a result. The bigger the crisis, and more dramatic the change, the more gripping it is. This is because we humans are meant to grow and change.

While we love to experience this process vicariously, it can feel scary and painful when it’s happening in our own lives and homes. What I’ve learnt between the first and second set of teens is that the scaffolding is vital, but it can’t be a straight-jacket; that’s for horror films.