Teens (and many adults I’m afraid) are more concerned with building a good reputation than building their character. Teenagers, this means you will do or say things in front of one group of friends that you wouldn’t in front of another group. Maybe you curse around your friends, but you wouldn’t do that in front of your mom and dad. You want your friends to think you’re easy going and you want to fit in with them. You also want your parents to think you’re respectful and use clean language.
Adolescents, when you see your parents more concerned with reputation than character, you complain bitterly about it. You can’t stand it actually. The way I know this is because as a therapist who works mostly with teens, I hear this from you on a regular basis. You say your parents are hypocrites. It bothers you that they get over-the-top angry if you lie about where you and your friends are going, but then your parents turn around and lie to their boss about where they were. Anytime you see yourself being directed to do one thing, and then your parents don’t follow those rules, it drives you absolutely crazy. It drives everyone crazy when someone works hard at creating a good reputation, but when nobody is looking their behavior doesn’t match. We don’t trust people who do that (i.e. politicians).
I’m asking you to check-in with yourself to see whether you do this. Most adolescents do. Most teenagers are more concerned with how they appear to others than who they really are. What I mean by this is that you’ll drink at a party because you almost feel like you have to even though on the inside you’re secretly against drinking. Or, you’ll cheat on a test or paper in order to maintain those perfect grades. You’re more worried about your GPA looking good to a college than you are about the unseen, internal damage you do to your character every time you cheat.
When I was a teenager I was extremely guilty of this. I was sexually active with my boyfriend, but I lied about it to certain groups of friends. I was part of a Christian youth group. In front of the leadership there, and my friends from there I would talk about how I was a virgin (and thought I could call myself that because I wasn’t technically having “sex”). In front of my friends who weren’t part of the church I was much more honest about my behavior. This is because I was much more concerned with reputation than character. When I got older and more mature, I changed my focus to character instead of reputation. Then I made the changes in my life that actually matched what I professed to believe.
When you make a good reputation your focus you end up having to lie. You end up feeling very insecure. You often feel like a fraud, and that’s because in some ways you are. You have to worry about being found out and feeling shame.
When you make good character your goal, you end up free. You no longer have to care what anyone thinks about the things you do. You are so focused on choosing the right thing no matter who is looking, that you become the same person in every circumstance. You don’t behave hypocritically because you truly act on what you believe is morally correct in your heart whether or not someone will see you. Interestingly enough, good reputation automatically follows good character. People trust you because they know you are always the same you. Your parents and your friends like you better. You are trusted at work and at school. When you do mess up, you are often shown more grace because your word is good. Best of all, you don’t have anything to hide when you say your prayers to God.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT