While we might be confined to our homes during this period of quarantine, our lack of liberty could be providing the perfect conditions for escaping another kind of confinement – that of conforming to social norms and peer pressure.
Sometimes, particularly during adolescence, the desire to fit in makes it hard to separate what we want from what others appear to expect of us, and the choices we make, whether big or small, can start to feel so random that we lose sight of ourselves.
Shutting out the noise from outside to allow our choices to square up with who we are is, of course, easier said than done, particularly when our very survival appears to depend on belonging, with acceptance treasured and popularity seen as the pinnacle of success.
“The reality is that we are social beings who need to share, to feel integrated and in tune with others,” says Sinews Psychologist and School Counsellor at King’s College Alicante, Irene Magallón González. “This is especially true of our teenagers, whose thirst for being part of a group is even greater because of where they are in the maturing process.”
But satisfying the need to belong can often involve a trade-off. As Irene says, “They feel themselves exposed to criticism, they fear rejection, mockery and being judged by others, and give this great importance. The need for approval sometimes limits their self-expression and the development of interests beyond what is commonly accepted or admired in their environment.”
Now, however, as we hunker down in our individual homes, the “noise” is, to a large extent, muffled or out of earshot altogether. It has become easier not to care what others think as they are no longer around to pass judgement. The usual social structures and hierarchies have been dismantled, if only temporarily, and we can finally be passionate about something that might, in other circumstances, be rated boring or uncool. We can put on silly voices or dance with abandon and forget about how many parties we have or have not been invited to.
In ordinary circumstances, making bold choices and going our own way can require a monumental strength of character that we are not always up to. But, according to Elena Sanz, Sinews Psychologist and School Counsellor for Kings College Murcia, lockdown has had a very positive impact on students in this respect.
“I can see that the teenage students are truly learning how to be resilient, that beautiful concept which is difficult at times to explain and understand, but which, right now, they are having a great opportunity to put into practice – living and experiencing resilience for themselves. And this is indeed making them learn from themselves.
“One of the things I have also observed is that our teens are training and developing the part of the brain that it is still maturing at their age: the prefrontal cortex, responsible for impulse control, emotional regulation, organizational skills, rationalization and reasoning,” Elena adds. “At this challenging moment, they are learning to make better decisions, thinking through their actions before acting on them.”
This means less susceptibility to peer pressure and more reliance on their own judgement.
As one King’s student explains, “By being in this situation, I have not only learnt things about cooking and my family. I have also learned lots of things about myself.”
Another admits, “Being alone has been very helpful for me. By having time by myself, I have learned lots of things I didn’t know I liked. Being away from classmates and friends is a very good way of exploring who you really are, and different ways of doing things without them.”
There is also time to find out where you came from. As one student says, “I’ve learned loads of stories from my grandma, and most of them are funny anecdotes.”
Thrown back on our own resources, there has been plenty of time to embrace not only our origins and our preferences but also the quirks and idiosyncrasies that make each of us distinct.
Probably every outstanding person in the world has managed this, trusting their own approval of themselves over the potentially addictive approval of others; focusing on what works for them rather than fitting a mould that would undoubtedly have stifled their creativity and made them indistinguishable from the rest of humanity; think, Greta Thunberg, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Emma Watson, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Eminent people, by definition, have marched to the beat of their own drum.
“During confinement, adolescents are experiencing a sense of freedom,” says Irene. “In their attempt to fill the day, many have met again with the best possible peer – themselves! Away from observation and social judgment, they can discover aspects of themselves that flourish in solitude. No matter what it is: colouring mandalas, cooking for the family, playing with forgotten toys, singing, feeling like actors, reading about the cosmos, writing stories, building mock-ups or photographing instants. Whatever it is, it builds their internal world, opening new horizons by helping them discover their talents without being overshadowed by feelings of shame.”
Of course, we are social animals with a need to explore the outside world too, and eternal lockdown and solitude would be disastrous for our development and happiness. But it has provided us with a brief and rare interval in which to make that separation between what we feel we should be doing and what we genuinely want for ourselves.
As Irene says, “It is in solitude that the mind explores new ways, finds the desired inspiration and comes up with great ideas. This does not usually occur in company as they are singular to each person; they are precisely what make us different and unique.”
With our individuality reinforced, hopefully, we will all emerge from lockdown better able to embrace our own differences and, in doing so, those of others.