by David Ryback, Ph.D.
Developing the authentic qualities inherent in relationships involves overcoming the dissembling style of early teenage years. For some this style extends into adulthood. As early as age three, we begin to understand the consequences of our emotions. When something forbidden is done, we fear the subsequent punishment. When we yell in a quiet room, we fear rebuke. When we fear the bogeyman in the closet, we know running to our parents will assuage that emotion.
One of the biggest leaps in terms of emotional sensitivity comes when we begin to find friendship in alliances. It’s one thing to make it work with one other, yet it’s quite another to make a group friendship work. Here we begin to focus on becoming acceptable to the group avoiding being rejected for being insensitive to the group norms. That’s precisely why adolescents become so enmeshed in their socializing. By that time, a couple of friends give way to small groups in terms of “best” friends. Not that these friends disappear, but the clique becomes paramount.
The norms of such cliques are much more complex and finely tuned than appears on the surface. Here’s what we first learn to fake our feelings and to appear cool and unflappable. This is not a time for authentic intimacy but rather for feigned confidence despite the pervasive insecurities characterized by that age.
No wonder there are so many qualities in early teens’ language. Dissembling, or putting on a false emotional front, appears to be what succeeds among these children becoming adults. They’ve reached the age when spontaneous emotions aren’t seen as “cool”. In time, they will hopefully learn to balance controlled emotions with certain openness to authenticity – but not quite yet. Their long conversations with confidants reveal how important group acceptance is to them as they weigh and judge the actions of others.
It’s at this stage of emotional development that attempts at understanding others’ personalities in parsing their emotional decisions is so important. Teenagers begin to discuss these social dynamics with some greater precision, replacing good and bad as descriptors of emotion with terms such as pride, guilt, and jealousy.
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