“Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom.” – Thomas Jefferson
Recently, I was asked to advise a teenager who had converted to Judaism as a child about whether she should share her conversion with her friends. She was nervous about sharing this information because she was scared of the “special attention” this would get her from those around her. On the other hand, she felt like she was always worried about slipping up and revealing her, as she called it, goyishe past.
While this might be an extreme example of someone who is struggling with her identity and revealing changes that she has made, this issue comes up with teenagers and friendships often. How much of yourself can you reveal to your friends? How much do you hide because you fear rejection?
Teenagers are especially susceptible to the issues because they have a particular need to fit in because everything around them is changing and therefore feels threatening. The Journal of Youth and Adolescence published a paper several years ago explaining that “becoming a member of a peer group is one of the primary developmental tasks of adolescence.” If a teen feels that others will view him as different, it can be hard to become part of a group.
That being said, a teen might never feel that he is truly part of the group if he is constantly hiding parts of himself. For the specific teen that I counseled, I mentioned that while she had converted and grew up frum, there is a whole world outside of her current life that her friends were completely unaware of. This can make her feel like an imposter and, at times, even a liar. That can lead her to be more aloof with her friends and therefore prevent her from forming strong, sustainable relationships.
In addition, feeling like you are different can affect your self esteem. And self esteem is essential for forming healthy relationships. In their book Self Esteem, Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning explain the importance of self esteem by stating that when you reject certain parts of yourself, you are damaging psychological structures essential to healthy living. For example, in the same way that you protect a physical wound, when you are critical or sensitive of a part of yourself you will find yourself avoiding anything that might aggravate the pain of self-rejection. Therefore, you will take fewer social, academic, or career risks.
To that end, you will erect barriers of defense in order to protect yourself. Those barriers can include blaming others, getting angry, or making excuses. You can imagine how damaging this kind of behavior can be to friendships.
When people think about friendship, they think about reciprocity, about give and take. However, if you don’t feel like you have anything to offer – it is very hard to give of yourself and let others give to you. That’s where self esteem comes in.
What are some signs of healthy self esteem?
- Recognizing your own strengths and weaknesses
- Admitting to your mistakes and learning from them
- Forgiving yourself and others for mistakes
- Listening to other points of view aside from your own
- Taking care of yourself – physically and emotionally
- Feeling proud of your positive accomplishments and letting go of your faults
How Can You Cultivate Self Esteem?
- Take inventory of your strengths. Make a list of the things you are good at – and then spend more time productively doing the things you do best. Spending time doing tasks that you excel in will build your confidence.
- Realize your limits. No one is without flaws. While this might not always seem to be true, recognizing that everyone else has his or her own failings can give you perspective on your own. You are a unique and distinctive person regardless of your flaws.
- Stop putting yourself down. Restructure the way you speak to yourself by identifying when you are putting yourself down and making a conscious decision to speak more kindly to yourself. Constantly putting yourself down can seriously injure your self-image.
- Celebrate progress and small victories. Building self esteem happens in baby steps. Acknowledge when you do things right, even if it’s only a small improvement. Giving yourself compliments can help you develop belief in your abilities.
It’s hard to believe, but friendship truly begins by believing in yourself and having the ability to accept both constructive criticism and affection. I advised the teen to be honest with those that she trusted and with whom she would like to form a strong, long-lasting friendship. Without that honesty and healthy dose of self esteem, she would be hiding not only her conversion, but also the true parts of herself. In the end, she’ll be more secure and more comfortable with your real friends. And, then she might actually cherish all that “special attention” that comes along with being different, even in the tough ever-changing world of teens.