Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their work in darkness and think, “Who sees us? Who will know?” Isaiah 29:15
This is yet another post that has been fomenting in the back of my mind. We all have a personal image – it may be based on who we are, but more often, it is what we want people to see. We are all insecure at some level, and we want the world to think well of us. At least I do. I want to be remembered for the good things I did in life, not for the stupid things of which there are many.
We all have a level of vanity as to our appearance. If we didn’t, the cosmetics, clothing and fashion industry would dry up over-night. We spend hours a week in front of a mirror putting on makeup, shaving, fixing our hair or eyelashes, and making sure our outward appearance is just right. And that’s before we decide on what we are going to wear for the day.
We cultivate our image. The millennials cultivate a “public” image on social media, often softening the bad things that happened and showing only the things that they think will develop their image. It is often overstated or exaggerated. Or, put another way, it is a lie.
Study after study shows the millennials want authenticity in their lives and friends. Yet much of their social communication is in-authentic. The picture may be photo-shopped or touched up Their comments exaggerated or just plain wrong. They put on a good game face that they are having a better time than is real. Their audience, on the other hand, worries that they are missing out.
They may exaggerate their accomplishments or claim degrees in their resume that they don’t have. It’s called an “inflated” resume, and it is an all too common phenomena that has led to the downfall of a number of high-profile people – both in the sports world and in business. Inflated resumes are not limited to millennials, by any means.
Certainly, there are probably strong extroverts that have such a strong self-image that they don’t care about what you think about them. Sociopaths don’t have a conscience, for example. Narcissists also fall into the category – they are blinded into thinking they are always right and anything that goes wrong is someone else’s fault. There is a disconnect of reality from image.
Your self-image is tied to your own self-esteem, and educators have gone down the path of tilting our educational system trying to build self-esteem. The movement started in California in the early 1990’s and ignores the reality of life. Life is competitive and there are winners and losers. Our schools now give out Certificates of Participation like candy, intending to build up self-esteem by making students feel better about themselves.
To me, it’s a false and inappropriate goal. Students need to learn to live with failure to learn the hard lessons of life. Without those bruises, they enter adulthood with a distorted concept of what the world is like. In life, there are hard knocks and sometimes hard landings.
Part of the premise of the educators is false because the studies they rely on for support are often based on self-reporting. That is, they ask the students how they feel, which often leads to what image of themselves do they want the world to see. That is a flawed methodology per Alphie Kohn in a 1994 article entitled “The Truth About Self-Esteem”.
His comments are based on reviews of some 10,000 studies on the topic. Kohn goes on to describe that the premise that feeling good about oneself leads to “constructive life choices – or at least the absence of destructive behavior” is not born out by the data.
We are living in a post-modern and post-Christian era for the first time in our culture. It is a brave new world. A world without truth being a strong cultural value, and where the Asian value of “saving face” trumps the need to tell the truth.
An outward image that we want to project belies what is going on inside. We might “look good and smell good” to others. In reality, we may be eaten up on the inside due to emotions, uncertainties, or circumstances. You might be laughing on the outside but crying on the inside. This is the “dark side” of what is happening to our adolescents (to borrow a phrase from Star Wars).
Recent studies confirm this. Adolescent suicide has risen dramatically over the last decade. It is the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year olds in the U.S. behind accidents and homicide.
According to the CDC (Center for Disease Control), one in five teenagers contemplate suicide in the U.S. That statistic is alarming. I have spoken to parents who have had children deal with this issue, and they didn’t see the warning signs.
In 2003, one million teenagers attempted suicide. 300,000 required hospitalization and around 1,700 died. That study was done 14 years ago. The results have only gotten worse in the last decade.
There are warning signs including depression, but those are often overlooked by an adolescent who “appears” to be doing all right, even to their friends or family. Another study indicated that clinical depression has increased 37% over the past ten years in this same age group. Between 20% and 39% of adolescents have “one major depressive episode before they reach adulthood.”
A 2016 study of international students in the UK said that 58% of respondents in the 15-24 age group felt that they feared for their future. 28% felt out of control of their lives.
Our self-esteem doesn’t come from our image. Don’t tell that to the cosmetic or fashion industry who would have you believe that your looks are the most important aspect of your self-esteem or inner self. To me, it’s just window dressing. I’m more concerned with the “appearance” of my mentee’s insides – what’s going on that can’t be seen or touched.
As mentors, we can communicate to our mentees the one thing that they need to hear: “I believe in you.” Nothing else you say or do will have a bigger impact.
When I started this post, I hadn’t planned to end up discussing the high incidence of depression and suicide in the next generation. Then I saw the numbers and studies. It changed my mind. There is an obvious disconnect between our perceived public image with our private self. The next generation is good at fixing their outside image; the person inside, not so much.
Putting on a game face with an outward image doesn’t deal with the inside issues. The next generation need to be affirmed as being one of God’s children and that’s all that matters. The other issue is that many adolescents have gone through life without failing. They don’t know how to deal with failure, so when it occurs (and it will), they do not know how to cope.
I meet with a man who ministers to teens, and recently there was a suicide at the local high school by a teen that appeared to “have it together.” Everyone was soul-searching on what signs they missed in being able to prevent such a tragedy. I don’t have a pat answer to the problem, but I can raise awareness that this next generation is facing issues that were not prevalent in years past.
As parents, mentors or just friends, we are the front lines. It’s our input into others’ lives that matters. We can give that reality check – an objective read on who you are, not who you want to project to others. Mentors may be in the best position, largely because adolescents turn a deaf ear to their parents. Their hearing gets restored eventually, but often after a decade or more later.
A mentor is more likely to have real communication with the next generation because they don’t have the baggage of being their mentee’s parent. When failure occurs (and it most assuredly will), we can be the front lines to help others pick themselves up, dust them off, and then send them back into the battleground of life.
MENTOR TAKEAWAY: As a mentor, just listening is valuable. Your mentee wants to be “heard.” So is telling them “I believe in you.”
FURTHER STUDY: Read Alphie Kohn’s article entitled The Truth About Self-Esteem
2013 Study on adolescent suicide: http://www.apa.org/research/action/suicide.aspx
UK Study on stressed out young adults: https://www.studyinternational.com/news/youth-index-uk-young-adults-stressed-political-upheaval-job-prospects/
A 2014 study on adolescent suicide: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2016/04/22/474888854/suicide-rates-climb-in-u-s-especially-among-adolescent-girls
WORSHIP: Listen to Hillsong sing Oceans (Where My Feet May Fail):
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