“Why do people always tell us to ‘be ourselves?’ People just make fun of you for it. It doesn’t get you any friends.”
Having been an educator for decades, there is not much I haven’t seen, and not a lot that has rendered me speechless in the classroom. I must admit however, that I was a little dumbstruck by this seventh grader’s directness and the truth behind her wise-beyond-her-years question. How do you explain to a 12-year old that as she gets older, fitting in with the “popular” crowd won’t matter as much? That individualism is an asset in the adult world? How do you give her hope that her ideas, values and self-concept will change as she matures?
One thing I can tell you about public speaking is this: For every story you tell or lesson you give, there are always three; the one you plan to tell, the one you tell, and the one you wish you told.
Had I known this question was coming, I would have prepared a little something better than what I actually ended up saying which went something like, “Wow. Great question. At your age, sameness matters. Middle school is challenging…but it gets better.”
I am aware that this answer is inadequate. I was aware of it then, too, as I stared into this middle schooler’s eyes; a girl brave enough to ask a real question of a visiting educator. I believe I owe it to her, and to myself to recraft a response that I think will be a more satisfying answer. I hope this might somehow get back to her, but hopefully at the very least, it could help someone else struggling with a similar concern.
Dear Brave Middle Schooler,
“You have a lot of insight for someone your age. It sounds like you are beginning to sort out who you are in the world. It takes time to learn about yourself and to appreciate yourself. It takes time to find people who value you and with whom you can really connect. Fitting in matters at your age—it’s developmentally normal and is a situation that many students your age face. I realize that it is a really hard place to be in, but you are going to be okay. You will find your way and realize that those who matter will accept you exactly as you are. Those who have a problem with how you are, are simply not worth your time or energy. When I was in 7th grade, my guidance counselor helped me with sorting out friendships. Do you have an adult like that that you trust?”
An adult who once stood in your shoes
I’d like to say to this girl that the world gets less catty, less judgmental and less scary as you get older. In truth, there are still moments when people and situations can bring you down. There is a caveat though, a silver lining that makes it easier to handle as we age. As we get older, we become better equipped to deal with these challenges as our brain further develops, we gain more experiences, and we figure out our values and what really matters to us. Once we figure all that out, our life becomes richer which leaves less time for us to focus on those whose values don’t align with our own, less time for those who bring us down, and more insight for us to realize when it is necessary for us to let go of certain relationships that aren’t bringing positivity and light to our lives.
What You Can Do: Encourage the exploration of your personal values. Knowing who you are and what drives you is a vital component to valuing yourself and your place in the world.
What You Can Do Today: Answer the questions below for yourself. What do you value at this point in your life? Spend your time with those who share your values and encourage you to safely nurture these values.
1. List the three most important traits you look for in a friend.
2. List your three favorite things to do when you have free time.
3. List three things you admire about an adult who has positively impacted your life.
4. If you had three million dollars to split between three different people or groups, who would you give the money to? Why do they deserve it?
5. List three “causes” you think are important to fight for.
6. What are three things you’ve done that you feel proud of?
7. What are three things you wish people understood about you?
8. Name three things you hope to accomplish in the next five years.
9. Write three things you hope to do in your lifetime.
10. Write three words you hope people use to describe you.
Stephanie Haines, M.Ed., CHES, is the prevention education specialist at Walden Center for Education and Research. Her role is to provide prevention education to school communities including students, teachers and administrators regarding eating disorders, body image and related topics. Before joining Walden, Stephanie was a senior health educator and prevention specialist at the nonprofit organization Freedom from Chemical Dependency (FCD) Educational Services in Newton, where she provided education to students in 50 countries about the prevention of alcohol, tobacco and drug abuse. Stephanie earned her master’s degree from Plymouth State University and her bachelor’s degree from Granite State College.
*This blog post does not necessarily represent the views of Walden Behavioral Care and its management. The Walden Blog is meant to represent a broad variety of opinions relating to eating disorders and their treatment. Comments are welcome, but respect for the opinions of others is encouraged.