Cult of Personality
When I was a senior in high school, my best friend, Kirsten, and I ran around with “Jane” who was very social and outgoing. Many of my most interesting, funny, and colorful stories involve Jane. You probably know a Jane in your life or may even relate to Jane personally. Jane always attracted an audience. She was like a magnet that drew people into her personality force field without their conscious awareness. Boys and girls alike had trouble prying their eyes and ears away from her infectious smile and witty repartee. People simply felt like a part of the “in crowd” around Jane. Her natural draw, and what seemed like our innate inability to draw attention, reached a point where Kirsten and I joked that we really should take off our invisible shields in hopes of getting noticed. Then we took it one step further and created a faux sorority, Kappa Kappa Gonna (insert cringe here). We are members for life! Kirsten and I weren’t anti-social. We just fell closer to the introvert side of the personality spectrum than our friend Jane. But I would be lying if I didn’t say we often felt inadequate in our ability to socialize and meet new people.
I see this same struggle in my own children and with teens in the clinical setting. There is a tendency to look toward the “popular” people, the ones who command all the attention for various reasons, and think that this is the standard one should try to achieve. In reality, there is no standard personality or social persona. We can try to measure certain aspects of personality via standardized assessments such as the MMPI to attempt to identify “abnormalities” or deviations in personality. But even those results fall along scales and involve subjective interpretation. An assessment used more frequently in various settings is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, which measures levels of introversion/extraversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, and judging/perceiving. When looking at someone like Jane, she falls closer toward the extravert end of the spectrum, meaning she derives her energy from being around other people. When the party is over, Jane is sad to see everyone leave. Kirsten and I identify as more introverted. We have fun at the party, but when it’s over we are happy to see everyone leave…and I am even happier than Kirsten to see people file out the door. Parties energize Jane and they exhaust me. Jane gets more restless being alone, while I re-energize being alone.
There are so many facets to personality, but what I try to help my adolescent clients understand is that it is okay to be the “less social” person in the room. When a student comes to see me and is feeling low in confidence because he or she doesn’t feel as though they fit in, we have a discussion about personalities. I begin by sharing a quick education on understanding how everyone’s personality is different and that all personalities play an important role in society. This usually begins to soften the pressure teens put on themselves to “perform” socially in a certain way—a way that may not be in line with their values and natural tendencies. We then spend time talking about the teen’s personality and how it fits with friends, school, family, and academics. This moves into a discussion about boundaries, which allows teens to realize they have control over their social skills and are not merely victims of some invisible magnetism possessed by others. Middle school and high school students are finding their identities at this time in life and it helps that they often like to learn and talk about themselves…outside of mom and dad’s earshot.
As parents, let’s not ask our children to be something they are not; in specific, let’s not ask them to be us. If we can think back into the far reaches of our memory, we might have been less social than we are now—or some of us might have been more social back then and are now plagued by worry that our kids are on social media too much! We need to put ourselves aside and focus on the child in front of us. We can help our children to be more assertive. For example, teach and demonstrate good eye contact and active listening. As parents, we can help them craft positions, boundaries, and communication skills that will help them talk to teachers, other adults, or peers. Role-play is a constructive (and sometimes funny and awkward) method to practice a conversation. Yep, I’m talking about acting out the scene…take turns being your child and the person or people with whom they are wishing to interact. Another option is to go through the family tree and discuss family member personalities, identifying the possible strengths and challenges of each personality. Finally, we should validate our children’s feelings if they confide in us about social challenges. We can invite them to share with us how their personality is valuable and helpful in some situations, while a best friend’s personality may be valuable and helpful in other situations.
I am happy to report my oldest daughter is the 3rd person to pledge the Kappa Kappa Gonna faux-rority. She is the first member, however, to join with full knowledge and acceptance of who she is. It’s taken Kirsten and I decades, but I hope through conversations and empathy, we can all help our sons and daughters to find self-acceptance earlier in life rather than later.