There’s a great scene in Forrest Gump where Jenny asks Forrest who he is going to be later in life. Forrest responds, “Aren’t I going to be me?” While this is incredibly insightful, it isn’t that simple for most of us. In fact, finding out who we are can be a difficult process that becomes even more complicated during our teenage years. With this in mind, here are some important things to consider as you figure out who you’re going to be.
The first thing to remember is that not knowing who you are is a normal part of human development. Psychologist Erik Erikson theorized that we all go through many stages of development and that adolescence often coincides with the stage of identity vs. role confusion. During this time, you will hopefully develop a strong sense of self that will give you the confidence necessary to be successful in life.
As part of this stage of development, it is very likely that other teens you know will also try out different identities. It can be pretty confusing when someone you regularly interact with seems to change overnight. For instance, a friend who enjoyed Minecraft might suddenly make the football team and forget all about the world you built together. It’s pretty normal to have feelings of resentment if you find yourself in this situation; however, a better response would be to continue to be kind to that friend. Rather than getting mad, take some inspiration from the situation to try new things for yourself.
This leads me to the next point that I think is important. Trying new things during your teenage years is not only normal, but also really important in helping you strengthen your sense of self. Sure, you might try some things that will embarrass you later in life. For instance, if anyone ever shows up with videos of me in middle school thinking I was cool listening to Cypress Hill and hanging outside at the back of the mall, I’ll have no choice but to shake my head and laugh. Looking back with laughter is a lot easier the older I get, especially since I realize that some things I enjoy today—yes, on some Saturday mornings you will still find me listening to Snoop Dog—are a direct result of my teenage years of experimentation.
It is also important during this stage that you don’t base your entire identity on a single aspect of who you are. If you play football, you are not just a football player. You can also be a poet. If you are not an outdoorsy type, you can still enjoy an occasional hike. One of my favorite quotes is from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” In it, he writes, “I contain multitudes.” I believe this is true for all people. We are more than the little boxes we build for ourselves. We are not our careers, our sexuality, our hobbies, or our religions. We are a combination of these things, uniquely put together to make up our identity.
A final thing I want to note is that while you are trying things out, you are very likely to make mistakes. I don’t want to be dismissive of the dangers that exist in our society, and I realize that some mistakes have a bigger impact on your future than others. Even so, no matter what mistakes you make, they do not define you. Civil rights leader Brian Stevenson once said that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” So, while you might make mistakes, realize that others have made the same mistakes and gone on to live happy and full lives. Help is always available for those who are willing to admit their mistakes and accept responsibility for them. While your mistakes do not make up your identity, it is very likely that what you learn from moving past those mistakes will.
Matt Raper is the middle school principal at Ivy Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn.