EXCERPTS FROM ALL MANNER OF THINGS: perspectives for young people on Sex, Self, Relationship, & Life

CHAPTER THREE:

THERE'S A WHOLE LOT OF NOT FEELING GOOD GOING ON

We already know that some of the choices we make when we’re sexual might be related to the fact we’re not feeling good about ourselves.

 

·Does this ‘not feeling good’ show up in other ways as well?

If someone asked, ‘what kinds of things do most young people start doing and feeling when they’re pre-teens and teens, what would we say?

 

Whether it’s from our own experience, watching friends, or hearing about other people, when we think of pre-teens and teens we all probably have similar ideas. 

 

As well as other things, it’s likely we associate the age group with people doing and feeling things like,

 

thinking no one really gets them 

being disengaged / not caring

spending tons of time on social media 

getting interested in alcohol or drugs

not being able to make decisions

feeling superior              

feeling inferior           

feeling like nothing is fair

worrying about what other people think

feeling like they don’t fit in / belong           

feeling like they need to prove themselves/be right

judging other people

always buying or wanting to buy stuff

feeling like they don’t want to be alive anymore

 

If we circled what seems true about ourselves, or teens and pre-teens in general, we’d probably end up with a bunch.

 

·Are any of the behaviors or emotions on the list clear signs we’re not doing well and something’s wrong?

There’s,

. drinking a lot

. doing a bunch of drugs

. feeling depressed, or isolated

. hurting ourselves

. feeling suicidal

 

·What about all the other ways of feeling and behaving that happen around puberty? The ones we think of as normal? Are they signs we’re not feeling good as well?

Most all of them happen because we want to feel better.

 

When we

. put down, intimidate, or talk about other people behind their backs, it makes us feel superior

. complain, it makes us feel important, justified, or gets us attention

. buy stuff, it’s often a quick fix that makes us feel good for a while

. act like we know everything, we feel better than others and like we have an edge

. think everyone is out to get us, we

         - identify with other people who think everyone is out to get them as well, so we feel like we fit in

        - emphasize our isolation and get more determined not to care, forgive, or feel like we’re of value which, oddly,

          can make us feel better. It seems like a way out, or like things make sense

. get angry, we feel justified or purposeful which covers up the not feeling great

. act like we don’t care, or don’t engage or participate, we prove that our feeling of being different, separate, or excluded is valid which gives us an edge

 

To varying degrees all these ways of thinking and behaving come from the same place; we don’t feel secure.

 

·So if these ways of behaving are pretty common, and they’re happening because we don’t feel good about ourselves, why don’t we talk or do anything about it?

Most all have come to seem like they’re part of growing up and who we all are.

 

During puberty, whether we’re gossiping, rebelling, not showing up to school, feeling depressed or suicidal, or we’re unmotivated, or getting involved in cliques or things that are risky, it’s usually written off as ‘normal’.

We've all come to expect adolescence to be a really rocky time.

 

Even though they may be worrying or challenging, behaviors like getting angry, hurting ourselves, or being involved in gossip or bullying are pretty much accepted and seen as part of a stage that, to different degrees, we all go through. Most of us don’t think to check what might be going on, or if something can be done.

 

·Does this kind of insecurity only affect pre-teens and teens?

No.

 

Almost all of us have some sort of insecurity, and if we don’t address it, the not-feeling-good can last for most, if not all of our lives. Feelings of being alone, unsure, that we’re not good enough or don’t belong are things we just get used to, as are the ways of thinking and behaving that go with them.

 

It doesn’t matter where we come from, or how young or old we are, the things we do when we’re insecure show up in all of us, even those who seem the most successful.

There are loads of interviews with people who we think of as successful (because they have money, fame, or seemingly everything they want) talking about how they get depressed and wondering if they’re any good.

 

And there are loads of examples of people who seem like they have lots going for them who have self-harmed, overdosed, or committed suicide.

 

 No matter how confident someone seems to be, or ‘should’ be because it looks like they have everything they want—whether they’re a celebrity, your neighbor, or someone who seems popular at school—it’s almost guaranteed they have their uncertainties as well.

 

· If just about everyone has times when they’re doing or thinking things because they don’t feel good, why, in this conversation, are we just focusing on when we’re young?

Even though feeling insecure has no age limit, it’s leading up to and during puberty that things get pretty intense. It’s when we start to feel like we don’t really know who we are anymore, and are trying to figure it out and are sort of lost. 

 

If we can understand why the not-feeling-good begins when we’re young and the affect we let it have on us, we may be able to navigate it in ways that are helpful.

 

·Why are pre-puberty and puberty so intense?

There are a bunch of things going on.

 

First, not only are our bodies and hormones changing, for most of us our schools, work loads, and friends are changing as well. It can be overwhelming.

 

Second, when we’re transitioning from being a child to being a young adult, we’re probably broadening our horizons quite a bit. Our world is getting bigger, which can be liberating and confusing and conflicted all at once.

 

Third, the connections we’ve had with our families are probably going through a shift. A lot of us experience more separation, miscommunication, and conflict with those who, up until now, we’ve usually been closest to.

 

At the same time all this is going on, the ideas that tell us how we should be if we want to fit in and feel like we’re valuable are getting much stronger. These include things like who we should be whether we’re born a boy or a girl, how we should think, what sex is, what we should have and wear, and the kinds of things we should be into.

 

With us changing, and the world we’ve come to know ourselves in changing as well, and a whole slew of ideas about who we should be coming into our orbit, our footing becomes way less secure. It’s easy to feel like who we’ve known ourselves to be doesn’t fit anymore, and that we’re out of our depth, so we’re looking for some sort of identity or definition to anchor us. We also care about what other people think a whole lot more.

 

This means that, not only are the ideas of who we’re ‘meant’ to be getting much louder, we’re also really susceptible to them. Because we’re trying to find a solid sense of self, we’re listening to them to figure out who we are, or aren’t, so that we can find where and how to belong.

 

·What ideas do we have about who we should be if we want to be thought of as valuable and feel like we fit in?

Really there are endless ideas telling us what makes us worthwhile and who we should or shouldn’t be. That we have to behave a certain way, be part of a religion, belong to a particular race, or wear certain clothes, or like some kind of music.

 

Whatever the ideas are, what they’re telling us pretty much depends on where we are and who we’re around.

 

For instance, some say we should be pretty, or smart, or aggressive, or good at sports, or sexy, or into drugs—others say we should not be smart, or aggressive, or good at sports, or sexy, or into drugs. It just depends on the circumstance and who’s around. The ideas come from our friends, parents, teachers, governments, communities, and whatever media we pay attention to. We’re told what’s important from what we should look like, to who our friends and enemies are, and just about everything else.

 

Even though the ideas are often opposing and really different, each of us treats whatever set of ideas we subscribe to as important and true.

 

·Where do the ideas come from?

No matter who we are, what we’re around, or what we believe or think, there's one common narrative informing almost everything in our world and how it operates. This is where ideas of value, worth, and how to fit in come from.

 

·What’s this one narrative telling us?

At the heart of it, it’s telling us about power.

 

·How can one narrative of power inform almost everything?

When we experience a sense of power, it has a lot to do with the feeling of security and belonging and fulfillment that we all want.

 

Because it’s so important to how we feel, our ideas of what it is and where we find it are at the core of everything.

 

·What does the narrative tell us power is?

Depending on the time in history and the culture, we’re valuable and therefore powerful if we have things like kingdoms, or lots of wives, or a rich or strong husband, or the right body, or a wife who is obedient or gives us male heirs, or people who work for us, or slaves, or land, or lots of weapons and armies, or the right car, watch, shoes, or if we have gold, or money.

 

The narrative’s power is based on externals—what’s in our wallet or wardrobe, who our friends are, where our family’s from. Then the actual value of those things depends on us and how we perceive them.  For instance, some of us think it gives us clout to wear certain brands. Others think thrift store finds are priceless.

 

·How does the narrative’s power play out?

With the focus of value on externals, and the weight of power placed on looking right or having the right things, there is an inherent separation; an Us and a Them, a better and worse, a have and have not.

 

This breeds patterns of domination and exploitation between individuals, families, tribes, and cultures. We fight to get the narrative’s power—land, slaves, natural resources, armies, gold, livestock—and fight to keep it. Having and not having it makes for an on-going cycle of conquest and defeat.

 

Whatever we inherit from the fortunate, we have taken from the defeated.

T.S. Eliot: Little Gidding

 

·Who has the narrative’s power?

There have been trends of who does or doesn't have it.

 

One is the way men have had more and women less.

Another is in the dynamic between different cultures, races, and social class structures, and those with more or less.

 

As a result, over time we’ve gotten used to the general idea that we’re more or less likely to have power depending on whether we’re born male or female, or have the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ background or color skin.

 

·Where has the narrative and its trends and ideas come from?

It’s hard to say how or when it began.

 

We see it in the religions we’re familiar with today—Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism—and there are different opinions about whether they initiated, or simply supported and justified the behavior that the power came with.

 

For instance, different people have different ideas about what religions say about male and female equality. Parts of the Christian Bible seem to imply men are superior to women:

 

To the woman he said, “…Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16

 

And,

 

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Timothy 2:11-15

 

And other parts imply equality:

 

So God created mankind (‘man’ or ‘humankind’ used in other versions) in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. Genesis 1: 27

 

The material allows for a broad scope of interpretation. Also completely opposite ideas can be supported depending on the translation, or the version of religious text that’s being studied.

 

Similarly, some scholars identify Buddhist texts that say a woman can only achieve what Buddhists consider the highest spiritual state (Nirvana) if she dies and is then born again as a male. At the same time, there are passages where the Buddha clearly states women and men are equal.

 

While the texts and their specific meanings continue to be debated, the dominant perceptions when it comes to religion have been,

- God / Allah / the Buddha are male

- men are fit for positions of power

- women, creatures, and the Earth are subordinate to men

 

With few exceptions, the religious institutions we’re familiar with have participated in the behavior that these perceptions support:

- men have held and continue to hold positions of authority

- women’s rights have been and often still are denied or limited

- acts of war and hatred in the name of religion have been and continue to be prolific

 

While there’s clearly a relationship between the narrative’s power and religion, the scope of study examining exactly what’s what is vast.

 

For the purpose of this conversation, it’s safe to say that, however the narrative originated, and whatever the sequence of events, the various ideas of what power is and who has it have been around for such a long time that, by now, we don't always think about them. If we do it's usually because we want to change who has the power, and almost always we don't consider the narrative. The faces might shift, the power still comes from the value the narrative, and we, place on externals.

 

·How do the narrative and its ideas show up when it comes to who we think we should be in order to be valuable?

As we said, there are all sorts of ideas about what makes us worthwhile.

 

Some of us give value to being part of the popular crowd. Others think the alternative crowd is best. Some put importance on having a steady job, others the opposite.

 

What we think of as valuable depends on which of the many value systems we’re choosing to be a part of, and the ideas telling us what’s worthwhile and what isn’t that come with it.

 

However, as we said, no matter the value system, the narrative’s ideas are consistent.

 

They tell us we need to look, be, seem, and think certain ways, and have certain things—whatever those might be—if we want to be thought of as worthwhile or important. To reiterate, our value is determined by the externals of what we have or look like, and the behavior and thoughts we’re expected to exhibit based on those.

 

·What does the narrative have to do with pre-puberty and puberty?

That’s what we’re going to find out.

 

We know puberty is a time when we’re broadening our horizons. To different degrees, this is when we’re around the narrative and its ideas more and more.

 

Because puberty is also when we’re trying to figure things out—who we are, who other people are, and how we all do or don’t fit in—as we said earlier, we’re more susceptible to the narrative’s ideas as well. They’re amplifying, they’ve been around for what seems like forever, they’re readily accessible, and there are no other obvious ways to measure our worth and know who we are.

 

Without most of us realizing, leading up to and during puberty the narrative’s focus on externals and the ideas of definition that come with those externals, become our guide.

 

·If this has been going on for so long, why should we look at it now?

Puberty has never been easy. These days though, it’s especially challenging.

 The Internet and social media have significantly changed the territory of growing up:

 

- Fake News means we can’t always know what’s real

- dating apps weigh heavy on what we look like and who we seem to be

- online porn has brought a new level of normalcy to disconnected, objectified sex

- social platforms where we share our lives make for constant pressure. We are always viewing and comparing and, likewise, are always on view. Our looks, how many likes we have, what our lives seem to be like, whether we fit certain brands of cool, what groups we’re a part of—we let these things play a big role in determining our value. In short, the narrative’s idea of where our sense of power comes from is amplified in social media, and our focus on who we seem to be has never been greater.

 

·So where do we begin?

Given that most all of us become insecure before and around puberty, and this is also when the narrative comes into play, it’s probably a good idea to see if the two are related.

 

·How do we discern if there’s a connection?

Some of the main changes and ideas that kick in right around puberty are:

 

. ideas of who we and others are and should be depending on whether we’re categorized as a boy or a girl get much stronger

. ideas of who we and others are, based on what we look like or have, also get really strong

. Social Media and the Internet become a big part of our lives

. our bodies change

. we feel more sexual energy, and start liking people and having relationships, and sex becomes a possible or actual part of our experience

 

With the narrative and it’s ideas getting stronger, and these changes happening as well, let’s look at how the two relate. For example, what does the narrative say about who we are or should be based on whether we’re born a boy or a girl? If we’re a boy, what kind of emotions are we supposed to have? What are we meant to be into? What about if we’re a girl? What does the narrative say about our bodies, or sex? What is considered desirable, or sexy? What ideas are there around sex?

 

If we go along with it, does the narrative affect how we think and feel about ourselves? For instance, if we base our sense of self worth on material attainment—a new phone, shoes, car, clothes, a girl or boyfriend—how much focus do we put on those things?  How much space do they take up in our lives? What’s the impact if we do or don’t ‘get’ them?  With social media amplifying the narrative, determining its affects is especially important.

 

If we conclude the affects are unhelpful, what if we examine whether its ideas and the way we relate to them are absolute?

 

We have the opportunity to assess the things that have been shaping us and our experience, determine if our interaction with them is supportive, and if it isn’t, start laying the groundwork for a world that, rather than magnifying our insecurities, uplifts us instead.

not listening

rebelling 

feeling depressed

self-harm

getting defensive

complaining

doing risky / unkind things

thinking they know everything

gossiping

acting tough 

looking for a group identity

judging themselves

having lots of drama

feeling like no one cares