One of the defining characteristics of modern society is the extent of choice and opportunity available to young people, who enjoy multiple freedoms unknown to previous generations.
Not so long ago, choices were constrained by structural and cultural factors. Many educational opportunities were barred to certain groups. For example, some universities had quotas on the number of Jewish students, and others would not accept female undergraduates. Inter-racial relationships were frowned upon. Certain employers would not hire people of colour.
At a cultural level, it was common to marry the girl or boy next door, and for men to do the same job as their father, and for women to engage in child-rearing like their mother. There was a lack of social mobility, and strongly defined gender roles stubbornly persisted.
Thankfully, those days are largely behind us, with many young people reaping the rewards of increased freedom, choice and opportunity.
Indeed, these changes have been praised by many psychologists. For example, Carl Rogers argues that this expansion of choice allows humans the scope to develop an "authentic self," unfettered by the manacles of tradition and convention. The authentic self is achieved through the conscious creation of a lifestyle commensurate with individual goals and desires previously unattainable in eras when choice was constrained.
In a similar vein, psychologist Kenneth Gergen states that modern society allows people to develop what he calls a "pastiche personality," allowing them to playfully enjoy life as a social chameleon. Accordingly, individuals can now happily make their own decisions in domains such as diet, fashion, sexual behaviour, spiritual practices, consumer habits, cultural activities, fitness regimes, employment and education. These authors are optimistic about the development of the new self in a new age of choice and opportunity.
However, some scholars are not so sanguine, arguing that this new era of choice brings with it under-recognized and under-explored psychological costs.
Young people [are] still heavily influenced by parents, peers, cultural expectations and social norms. This can lead to damaging choices.
For example, some young people may find the extent of choice overwhelming and paralyzing. What to study? Who to date? What to wear? Which social circles? What to eat? What job? What hobbies? Some psychologists have noted that a culture of choice leads individuals to engage in continuous self-monitoring and self-evaluation, as well as harmful comparisons with others. This can involve great psychological effort, sometimes leading to anxiety and low self-esteem.
Indeed, choice does not occur in a social vacuum. Choice in young people is still heavily influenced by parents, peers, cultural expectations and social norms. This can lead young people to make damaging choices. For example, much research shows that smoking, alcohol use and drug abuse in young people often arises from peer pressure to be part of the "in crowd."
Other research suggests that individual eating and exercise habits are heavily influenced by social norms and media messages regarding ideal body types for men and women. This results in many dysfunctional choices, for example pathological dieting or over-exercising. This has been linked to the rise of eating disorders and body dysmorphia in young people.
Excessive pressure from parents can also lead young people to make choices that have psychological costs. This can be especially so in areas such as employment, education and dating. In these domains, parents and young people may have differing ideas of what is best. Indeed, students frequently come to me in tears, stating that they hate cell biology and anatomy, but that their parents will not brook a change of academic direction. As such, they reluctantly choose to plod a certain path, one that often leads to regret and resentment.
There is a common factor underlying some of these problematic choices: the natural human desire to be approved, validated and popular. This can sometimes be taken to extremes, whereby young people make choices based on external approval and social expectations, rather than internal desire and individual preferences.
Some psychiatrists have suggested that making decisions based on external validation rather than internal desire has can lead to the development of "false self syndrome." This is not an official psychiatric diagnosis, but a reference to a common feeling among individuals that they are "living a lie" or "wearing a mask" by following cultural norms and social expectations. Some research links a false self to worse mental health, and an authentic self to better mental health.
This belief is also held true by many spiritual writers. For example, the celebrated Indian mystic Osho famously wrote that "The greatest fear in the world is the opinion of others, and the moment you are unafraid of the crowd, you are no longer a sheep, you become a lion. A great roar arises in your heart, the roar of freedom."
Young and old alike desire approval and validation from others and we all engage in some degree of impression management to help attain such approval. However, such activities can be taken to unhealthy extremes, especially in young people who are heavily influenced by the unrealities of social media and celebrity culture.
These damaging activities can also be unduly encouraged by peers and adults, who can make aspects of their "love," "friendship" or support contingent on certain choices being made.
In this era of untrammeled choice, young people have boundless opportunities to do things that please themselves. However, many often eschew these for choices that please others. This can be costly to mental health. Life involves a healthy balance between "people-pleasing" and "self-pleasing." Although achieving this balance is easier said than done, doing so will lead people to live better, more fulfilling, mentally healthy lives.
Frame Of Mind is a new series inspired by The Maddie Project that focuses on teens and mental health. The series will aim to raise awareness and spark a conversation by speaking directly to teens who are going through a tough time, as well as their families, teachers and community leaders. We want to ensure that teens who are struggling with mental illness get the help, support and compassion they need. If you would like to contribute a blog to this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
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