Turning Negative Self-Image Into Self-Empowerment
Some years ago when one of our students was the victim of an unkind (and untrue) label, she retreated into her books and became, in her own words, a nerd and a brain. Her friendships withered and her world got smaller. She told herself she could pretend to go anywhere within the worlds of her books, but those pretend worlds were a form of isolation. She began to feel alone, left behind, invisible. We used to call that “bookworming.”
Teens who experience a threat to their self-image today may hide behind screens instead of books. Obviously many of us today—teens and their parents—spend a lot of time online (researching, learning, or shopping) and on social network sites. It’s a great way to acquire knowledge and to socialize. Some teens, however, take it to a different level and seldom come out from behind those screens. Gaming and other non-social activities can dominate their lives.
Parents of young people who hide behind screens often worry that their sons and daughters are becoming unreachable. What if they never come out from behind that device? Parents see that opportunities for social development are passing by and they worry that the longer their teens wait to get back into socializing the more difficult it will be for them to catch up.
Young people who withdraw do miss out on a lot of opportunities to develop socially and academically. Since they’re not forging connections with their peers, they’re losing out on social skills. As they sink deeper and deeper into solitude, they get further out of the habit of speaking up for themselves and expressing their wishes. They’re also missing out on building the kind of support network everyone needs. If they don’t have friends, who’s around to tell them they’re okay as they are?
It’s an Inside Job – It’s a Choice
Negative self-image is an inside job. All of these symptoms of poor self-image—tech addiction, conformity, masking, and obsession with perfection—are self-inflicted. They’re also self-reinforcing. They tend to get harder to reverse over time.
One of the magical things about the process our campers go through is that it’s always set in a context of choice. As they come to a deeper understanding of the ways they may be hiding from themselves, they also become deeply aware that they’re choosing these behaviors. But if they’re the ones choosing to hide behind a mask, that means they can choose to remove that mask whenever they want. They have all the power in this scenario.
The issue of negative self-image looks very different when you view it as a choice instead of a problem. For one thing, it puts the idea in a clearly definable context and keeps it a manageable size. Whatever we focus on expands. When teens or parents view self-image as a major problem, their subconscious mind draws more attention and energy to it, making it loom larger than life.
Young people are empowered when they stop thinking of their self-image as a problem and begin calling it what it is: a choice. Instead of treating it as a big scary obstacle, they can treat it as one more thing to explore, ponder, and turn into whatever they want it to be.
When they realize the power of choice they have in their own lives, they begin to see that the way things are going for them today isn’t inevitable. Rather than agonize over their past choices, they can focus on the choices they have before them now.
The painful situations that have caused them to doubt themselves are normal. They’re part of life—and there will probably be many more of them in every teen’s future. But they can recognize that the way they react to these events is a choice. They can put on a mask or not. They can withdraw or plunge in. They can conform or be themselves.
With that power of choice comes an automatic turnaround in self-esteem. Choice is powerful. Control over one’s life is energizing. When teens truly understand that they’re the ones in the driver’s seat of their own lives, you can read it in their posture. They stand taller. They hold their heads higher. They speak with a powerful new timbre in their voices. This is the kind of transformation we live to see in young people.
What Are My Masks?
As teens become more familiar with their own masks, they discover how they and those around them use masking to get by in everyday life. We all slip in and out of a number of roles each day. We all wear masks according to what we’re doing and with whom we’re interacting. A teen naturally acts like a different person when she’s with her grandmother than she does when she’s hanging with her friends. She doesn’t behave the same way toward her principal as she does toward her little sister. Masks can help or hinder the way a person relates to the world—depending on how they’re used.
During our programs we ask teens some questions about their masks. Here are a few of their responses.
What’s your mask? When do you wear it? What does it do for you?
“Whenever there are more than three or four people in a room, I put on the quiet, reserved mask,” one teen volunteers. “But when it’s just me and Cheryl, I’m the cut-up.”
“My ‘responsible-young-leader’ mask got me that summer camp job.”
“Whenever I wear the ‘I-can-take-it’ mask, the guys don’t pick on me as much because I don’t make as fun a target.”
What are the costs? What does your mask cover?
“I don’t have as much fun hanging with my girlfriends when I’m wearing the quiet-reserved mask.”
“When I act like a tough guy, I don’t let the guys see that their comments really hurt. Maybe if they had a choice, they’d rather know when they’re hurting my feelings.”
“My ‘responsible-young-leader’ mask makes me feel like a faker. I feel like I just put it on to impress my parents. I wish they could be impressed by me instead of by a mask I put on.”
What matters most in this process is the fact that teens are looking inside themselves for answers. Simply being told about masks will not help them. Thinking about their masks and considering the reasons and costs builds self-awareness. Those magical “Aha!” moments come from within.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed
by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.
So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor.
Catch the trade winds in your sails.
Explore. Dream. Discover.”