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“Am I Pretty?”

By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S

An alarming new trend has begun to emerge via YouTube. Teens and tween’s have begun posting videos of themselves asking “Am I pretty or not?” These teens are receiving disturbing feedback from the online community. There is a solid mix of responses to these videos ranging from supportive to down right curel, and the shear number of comments posted is staggering.

So the question becomes…”Why?” Why would people do this? Many online writers have been speculating as to the answer to this question. Some say it is simply because they can, while others say this online generation is narcissistic and attention seeking. While I see some validity in those statements, I fear the problem is much more complex.

To answer why a teenager would log onto the internet, create a video asking questions like, “am I pretty?” or “do I look like a fag?,” post said video and then monitor the responses, I believe we need to see the world through the teenager’s eyes. To do so we must think back to our own teenage years, and as heartbreaking as this new trend may be, it’s actually not new at all.

Sure the modality is different. There was no Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, or YouTube when I was growing up. The only message board I saw was hung outside my high school cafeteria. While the opportunity to seek out validation from others wasn’t as “at the touch of a button” as it is now, we still managed to do it. We would ask our friends what they thought of us, seek the approval of parents and authority figures, try out for sports teams, fight for a better band chair, and run for student leadership positions. We loved validation, even if we weren’t getting it in the overdoses that it comes in now.

This need to feel wanted and part of the group is also not new, nor do we grow out of it. Acknowledgement from those around us will always feel good. The difference however is how we use that and to what level we are dependent on it. As adults, we have established a pretty solid idea of who we are as people. Most of us know ourselves, what we stand for, and our values and goals. As teenagers, I would doubt that was the case. At least is wasn’t for me. I, like most teens, struggled to carve out my own identity. I wasn’t genuinely happy until I had established my own view of myself, independent from others opinions and judgements on that identity. Teenagers have not yet had that opportunity, and many may not even have the maturity level required for this.

Here’s a little Psychology 101: Eric Erickson created the theory of Life Span Development. He was the first psychologist to suggest that we never really stop growing and maturing. He also endeavored that during our life span we go through stages (it sounds pretty common sense now, but it was kind of a big deal back then). During each stage we are met with a conflict. To move on to the next stage successfully, we must overcome the conflict in a positive way. No worries if this sounds confusing, I’ll explain.

Let’s take the adolescent phase of our development. Erickson would say that during that stage, we are all met with the conflict of identity vs. role confusion. During this stage in our development, life is getting more confusing and complex. We are no longer children having everything done for us, yet we are also not quite adults. This is a time of extreme transition, not only for the teenager but for their parents as well. Knowing how to give your child enough freedom while protecting them at the same time is very difficult for parents. They often don’t understand what their child is going through, and they feel their is a distance between them that was not previously there. That distance you are feeling is the child transitioning into an adult. To do that, they must learn for themselves who they are as individuals.

Developing an independent identity is very hard work. The process can be scary and filled with doubts for these teenagers. Imagine how much easier it is to simply let someone else tell you who you are allowing others to make those difficult decisions for you. That is what many teenagers do. They look to their parents to tell them what role to play. They listen to coaches and teachers tell them the kind of person they are currently. They seek out friends’ opinions of their place in the social hierarchy. That is essentially what we are seeing when we look at the YouTube videos of these teens.

They are people seeking an answer to who they are individually. Are they valuable, are they needed, and are they worthy? They are asking us (the random internet viewing public) because they don’t know themselves. They ask us because no one has taught them how to define themselves on their own. They ask us because they can’t move on until they know.

As parents and community members who effect the lives of these children, we have an opportunity to help them move through this difficult time. We can teach them how to show compassion for themselves. We can model positive behavior and self care. We can ask them probing questions rather than defining answers.

YouTube, Facebook, Tumbler…they are all filled with teenagers looking for who they are and what their place is in society. Social media may have changed how the game of self-development is played, but the rules remain the same.

Facebook: Friend or Foe?

By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S

There seems to be two schools of thought where Facebook is concerned. One: It is the greatest invention of all time and may in fact save us all! Two: It will be responsible for the next apocalypse.

Articles are published everyday discussing the benefits of social media and how our society is more connected and informed. Flip the page however and you will read that we are growing more narcissistic and self-involved as we increase our time online. So where is the middle ground in all of this? How much time is too much time to spend online? Are these new social media platforms bringing us together or pulling us apart? What does all of this mean for you or you children (a concern I hear regularly).

What we like about Facebook

  • Connections. A very considerable amount of research has been conducted on what makes people feel happy and content. Thanks to the diligence of these researchers we know that being part of a supportive social network is something that will increase our happiness and ward off depression. When we are experiencing depressive symptoms one of the most powerful things we can do is surround ourselves with people who make us feel important and validated as unique individuals. None of the research says we have to be in the same room to experience the benefits of connectedness. For individuals who are seeking to maintain or reestablish supportive connections and friendships, Facebook is a life line in doing so.
  • Familial interaction. Now I realize that many people will say Facebook and the internet in general cut down on family time, however I believe this is slightly exaggerated. For example, my family members are scattered throughout the country. Without the use of Facebook I would never be able to see my cousin’s dance performance, and likely, wouldn’t get the photos of their Christmas tree until mid-March. Being able to keep up with what they are doing on a daily basis and discuss events that matter to them keeps us more involved and reinforces our family bond. When we do get the opportunity to visit one another in person, we have much more to discuss. I feel more a part of their life than I would otherwise.
  • Validation. Facebook allows for regular validation from those in which you care. We are given reinforcement that we are valued and understood by others (two basic human necessities). Historically, our survival has depended on being part of a group. To ensure our place in the group, we seek acceptance and reassurance that we will remain part of the group, thus increasing the likelihood of our survival. The need for validation is in our DNA.

Facebook also allows for the increased opportunity to validate others (an even more rewarding activity). Getting out of your own headspace for a while and empathizing with others is a moving and important part of achieving fulfillment. You gain perspective on your own situations and feel necessary to others (even more rewarding!)

What we don’t like about Facebook

  • Connections. Facebook stalking your friends and old acquaintances can have a rather negative effect. Many have developed what I will term the “social media mask.” Every picture is photoshop perfect, every relationship beyond reproach, and everyone’s child is an overachiever. Day after day, we look at Facebook and think how much better everyone is than we are right now. How very “together” they all appear. We are removed from seeing that everyone has pain. We overlook the fact that suffering is part of being human because we look around and think, “no one else is sad…what’s wrong with me?” In an effort to feel more connected to others we can often end up feeling more isolated and different. Worse we compare our real lives to the fake persona of everyone else (who could compete with that?!).
  • Familial Interaction. How many arguments have been started thanks to Facebook, or worse via Facebook? Recently a father in Chicago drew much attention when he posted a video of himself that ultimately ended in shooting eight bullets into his daughters laptop after he had seen her post something he felt was inappropriate on Facebook. His actions and the reasons for them, sparked a heated debate about parenting the Facebook Generation.

For many families, every afternoon is a battle over social media. Parents report that many of their nights go a little something like this: “Get off Facebook, and do your homework,” “Put down your phone, and eat dinner with us,” “Close the IPad, and go to bed.” Of course these comments are often followed by, “You don’t understand,” “This isn’t fair,” “But it’s important.” As social media sites make it easier for us to connect over distances, it may decrease our “in house” interaction. Why talk to the person next to you when you could be Facebooking dozens of people at once? Why inquire about someone’s day when you can simply read status updates?

And it’s not just a parent/child conflict. How many times have you sat next to your best friend or significant other without talking while you both surf Facebook? You can go to any restaurant and see the phenomenon first hand. People sitting at a table not talking while staring at their phones is a common sight. Spending so much time typing our thoughts rather than interacting with other people, we may find it uncomfortable to talk or touch when we are actually in the same room (or paying for nice dinners, as the case may be).

  • Validation. This is one of those cases where you can have too much of a good thing. Having the opportunity to be validated by others so regularly via Facebook, we can become lazy in areas of self validation. Many people begin to lose the ability to feel good about themselves without reinforcement from others. They need the opinions of others to tell them what to think about themselves. You can imagine how dangerous this becomes. If your self-image hinges on someone else’s approval, you are dependent on their assessment. If you aren’t validated to the level you need or worse, you receive negative responses, then you are left feeling unlovable.

Interestingly, we create a silent competition with other people on Facebook. For example, maybe you post something and receive 10 “likes.” You feel good about this until you notice that someone else received 20 “likes.” Now, you feel like less than that person. You start to wonder why you aren’t as good as the other person and why people like them more. This can go on and on. You can also compete for the “gold” in other categories as well: number of friends, number of tags, number of pokes or mentions. In the end, what may have felt good and validating now isn’t good enough when compared to the validation others are receiving.

These items are just the short list, as there are dozens of areas we could examine when thinking about the role social media plays in our lives. As you can see, much of what is good about Facebook is also bad. In most areas of our lives, this is the case. Positives and negatives can be found in anything. Understanding and recognizing the negatives, monitoring your thoughts and feelings where those negatives are concerned, and making the choice to surround yourself more readily with positive influences are all ways to minimize negative effects. Like it or not, Facebook is now a part of our culture, and for some it is a part of daily life. Learning how to get the benefits while not allowing unhealthy habits to form is an important part of living in our time. Facebook and social media sites are intriguing, especially as they relate to the influence they have on our lives. I could go on about how our perceptions are being shaped by the ever changing online world, but I really need to go update my status.

Be Mine

By Charity Hagains MA, LPC-S

Compassion is valuable trait. Our society teaches us that compassion for others is paramount to being a “good person”. We should care for our fellow man, nurture our friends and family and sooth those in pain. As a general rule we are expected to be supportive and empathetic towards those around us. While many of us have mastered these skills in dealing with others, very rarely do we turn those techniques inwards and treat ourselves with the same level of care.

Instead we beat ourselves up and become our own worst enemies. There are few who can punish us as well as we can punish ourselves and we do so on a regular basis. Many of us don’t dare fall asleep without replaying all the events of the day and chastising ourselves for any perceived failures, embarrassments or weaknesses. We judge ourselves harshly and offer very little consolation in doing so. While this way of thinking never makes us feel any better we continue with the same negative statements day after day. Feeling worse and worse, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain a healthy self-image and optimistic outlook on the future.

Even when confronted with the fact that we treat ourselves so badly, many people will say that it is serving a purpose. Some feel that it is how they motivate themselves to “do better” or that they “deserve it” after they way they behaved. Truth is, what we so easily do to ourselves pushes us into a negative pattern that fosters depression and self-loathing rather than truly making us feel better or achieve our goals.

So how do we change these long ingrained and socially sanctioned behaviors? Honestly self love isn’t as easy as it may sound, it takes work as well as practice to be kind and compassionate to yourself. Here are some tips to get you started, but keep in mind that working with a professional therapist can also go a long way towards helping you develop and maintain healthy habits of self-care.

Listen to yourself

  • The first step in ending negative self-talk is to notice that it is happening. Much of what we think is unconscious and automatic. Being aware of when you are telling yourself that you “aren’t good enough” is essential so that you can replace this self-defeating line of thinking and replace it with positive and caring phrases

Cut yourself a break

  • It’s not enough to just realize you are beating yourself up, you have to change the behavior…this is where the hard part comes in. One way to cut yourself a break is to think of others. Would you ever say what you are saying to someone else? Would you ever tell them they aren’t good enough? Would you say “You are such a looser!”, “Wow you are the worst mom ever!”, “You will never be able to do that!”. Most likely you wouldn’t. Instead you would offer sympathy for the pain they are feeling. You would probably validate some of what they are going through. “That must have been so difficult for you.”, “Of course you were upset. Who wouldn’t be?”. You may offer them encouragement “It will be fine. Things always have a way of working out.” “You are incredibly smart and gifted. You’ll get it the next time.”
  • Talk to yourself as you would a close friend. What would you say to someone who was feeling the way you are? What would tell your friend who was struggling? Use these same statements on yourself. Offer validation to yourself and your feelings just as you would a close friend. Give yourself the same compassionate statements you would to someone else. It may feel out of the ordinary, but that is the point. Over time you will notice a lightening in your pain. You may even realize that you are giving yourself exactly what you have been needing.

Put the gavel down..

  • Put an end to the judgment of yourself and others. Now I realize this is one of America’s favorite past times, and we all love our Judge Judy and American Idol, but daily judgement of others isn’t doing us any good.
  • Our culture thrives on fostering a competitive attitude. We all strive to be the best. Being the fastest, smartest, funniest, thinest, strongest (pretty much anything you can add an “ist” to) is very important. We may tell ourselves that we aren’t good enough unless we are “better” than others. Of course this is an impossible task that keeps satisfaction and fulfillment just out of reach.
  • In an effort to be “more” we often feel the need to make those around us “less”. We judge others negatively so that we can feel better about ourselves. “You may be rich, but your unattractive.”, “Well of course you make good grades, you have no social life.” It can go on and on.
  • While this may make us feel better about ourselves in the short term, it has a longer lasting negative effect on us that we often don’t realize. By judging others we assume they are also judging us in the same way. We feel that other people are always watching and judging us negatively. We begin to do the same thing to ourselves, making negative judgments more readily.
  • To prevent those around us from ridiculing us out loud, we fall into the pattern of doing it for them. Kristin Neff PhD talks about why we do this to ourselves in her book “Self-Compassion”. Neff says “It’s as if we are saying, I’m going to beat you to the punch and criticize myself before you can. I recognize how flawed and imperfect I am so you don’t have to cut me down and tell me what I already know.”
  • Unfortunately, this type of behavior doesn’t make us feel any better. Instead we are only reinforcing negative self-talk and our inability to accept that all humans are flawed and that is okay.

Practice Self-Acceptance

  • Pain, suffering, weakness, and failures are part of the human condition we all share. While we put on a good face and pretend that we are “perfect” we aren’t. Watching others fain perfection through fake smiles and Facebook pages often leaves us feeling alone in our pain.
  • Recognizing that these are emotions felt by everyone, we can begin to feel more connected to others and more likely to allow ourselves acceptance.
  • Understanding that you are enough, just the way you are, is a powerful realization. You are a unique and special individual, deserving of the right to compassion and love.
  • And if you though that was a difficult concept to wrap your head around here is an even harder one: There is nothing you can do to make yourself more or less deserving of these rights. That’s how birthrights work, thankfully. To qualify for the right to be happy, loved, cared for and valued all you have to be is you. Absolutely nothing else is required.
  • Give yourself a mantra such as “I am enough” to remind yourself of those rights and combat negative self-talk. Repeat your mantra whenever you feel overwhelmed with negativity.

As I said in the beginning of this article such change can be challenging. We do not develop habits overnight and thus do not break them in that time frame. Working with a professional counselor who can offer unconditional positive regard in a safe and nurturing environment is incredibly helpful as you begin to make these profound changes in your thinking. Utilizing supportive friends and family, to help you see the positive and feel accepted is also of great benefit. Practicing self-compassion can bring about a new lease on life and offer you the fulfillment your birthright affords. Be your own best friend this Valentine’s Day and reap the benefits all year long.

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