Five Actions that Form a Healthy Identity

One of the many “shifts” I’ve experienced in my lifetime is the emphasis on personal self-esteem. Beginning with a wave of literature published in the 1960s, moving into another wave in the 1980s, adults have been seeking to “find themselves” and even more, desiring to enable young people to do the same. We all want our young to have a healthy sense of “self-love” and self-esteem.

Over time, however, we’ve changed our definitions for healthy self-esteem.

Today, we live in a “tell all” culture. Social media, image consultants, a galaxy of photographs and a smart phone in our hand all nudge us to record ourselves. Ponder for just a moment the trends we’ve seen unfold since the turn of the century:

1. People take hundreds of “selfies” on their phones.

It’s been calculated that the average Millennial will take 25,000 selfies in their lifetime. We love to record ourselves, on photos and in video. We even feel the need to capture how we look in everyday moments of the week.

2. We build personal platforms to talk about our lives.

People create platforms for their lives, hobbies or interests. Thanks to social media, millions of platforms have been created so others can see who we are and what we’re doing. I often wonder—do others really care?

3. We eventually feel we must write our memoirs.

Millions find a way to record their story and tell it to others. Jeremy Paxman reminds us “much of the Victorian literary establishment believed that autobiography ought to be the preserve of the people who had something important to say or were of ‘lofty reputation.’” Today—anybody can do it. And millions of people actually do.

My question is—do these realities foster a new kind of self-esteem? Does my desire to write my memoirs signal a healthy dose of passing value on to a newer generation or does it indicate I’m starving for attention? Do these realities above influence students to believe that their sense of identity must come from garnering lots of “views” or “shares” or “likes” or “retweets?” Is that our scorecard now? Futurist Len Sweet writes in his book, Nudge, “We live in an attention-deficit culture more adept at gaining attention than at paying attention.”

I believe we live in a 21st century culture that fosters an identity problem.

In generations past, our sense of identity was primarily drawn from:

  • Finding where I fit into a larger endeavor—and learning to play my part.
  • Demonstrating my worth by using my talents while on a team of people.
  • Humbly believing that I am no better than anyone else, but no worse either.
  • Belonging to a family and guarding the honor of the family’s reputation.
  • The idea that my esteem should come from achievement, not just affirmation.

These ideas are too frequently relegated to our grandparent’s generation; folks who lived during the Great Depression, and didn’t know what we know today. I wonder, however, if people generations ago actually had a more accurate sense of identity than we do today. Is it really genuine self-esteem if I need to post pictures of myself on social media? To claim that I am “awesome” in front of any who’ll read my posts? To debate on Twitter who’s got the best looking pics on Facebook or Instagram?

How Can We Build Their Sense of Identity?

Doubtless, there are loads of kids today who don’t get any of this affirmation. They live in homes where parents do not cherish them or remind them of their value. They have teachers who tell them they’re “trouble” and won’t amount to much. These are students who need our guidance and input. I still believe, however, that they shouldn’t build their sense of identity on the trends of our culture, where it’s about social media popularity or calling attention to ourselves. This, in fact, often communicates a person does NOT have a healthy sense of self.

I believe we feel best about ourselves, when we:

1. Discover our authentic talents and use them to add value to other people.

Children and teens and young adults will always cultivate a robust sense of self-esteem when they feel what it’s like to use their unique abilities to serve those less fortunate.

2. Connect to a name or cause that’s bigger than us and play a role in that cause.

Every student, whether they know it or not, longs to “belong” to something bigger than themselves: a sports team, a clique, a club or a family.

3. Rely on personal achievement, not just affirmation, to convey our value.

Contrary to popular belief, healthy identity doesn’t bloom via mere affirmation from others, but through doing something valuable with what we’ve been given.

4. Become emotionally secure enough to compliment other’s gifts and value.

Consider this: we actually feel better about ourselves when we can authentically praise someone else for their virtues, and stop constantly comparing our features.

5. Attach our identity to something that cannot be taken away from us.

Finally, our sense of identity is destined to be a roller coaster unless we connect it to something (faith, cause, family, etc.) that can’t be stolen from us by others.

Kids’ identity should never be at the mercy of fickle human beings. That’s why social media comments or popularity are not reliable. While I have nothing against writing a memoir, I’d simply encourage writers to ask themselves: “Why do I want to?”

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Five Actions that Form a Healthy Identity