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Teens: Self-Worth




Excerpted from
Taste Berries for Teens: Inspirational short stories and encouragement on life, love, friendship and tough issues
By Bettie Youngs, Ph. D., Ed.D., Jennifer Leigh Youngs

Our life is like a piece of paper on which every passerby leaves a mark. - Ancient Chinese Proverb

Who I (Really) Am

Every artist dips his brush into his own soul, and paints his own nature into his picture-as he does in living his life. - Henry Ward Beecher

The Paintbrush

I keep my paintbrush with me, wherever I may go,
In case I need to cover up, so the real me doesn't show.
I'm so afraid to show you me; afraid of what you'll do,
I'm afraid you'll laugh or say mean things; afraid I might lose you.
I'd like to remove all the layers, to show you the real, true me,
But I want you to try to understand; I need you to like what you see.
So if you'll be patient and close your eyes, I'll remove the coats real slow,
Please understand how much it hurts, to let the real me show.
Now that my coats are all stripped off, I feel naked, bare and cold,
And if you still find me pleasing, you are my friend, pure as gold.
I need to save my paintbrush though, and hold it in my hand,
I need to keep it handy in case someone doesn't understand.
So please protect me, my dear friend, and thanks for loving me true,
And please let me keep my paintbrush with me, until I love me, too.

A Word from the Authors

Each of us longs to "be ourselves." And yet, we seek the approval of others: "Do you think I'm okay?" "Do you accept me as I am?" "Do you like the way I look?" "Do you approve of how I act?" "Do you like me?" "Will you be my friend?" We want the answers to each of these questions to be a wholehearted "Yes!" When others like us and accept us, we feel worthy-like we're a terrific person. But even though we may want to feel liked and accepted by others, we may not always get a positive response-some people may not think as much of us as we would like. Sometimes this doesn't bother us, but most of the time, especially if their approval is important to us, it's only natural to feel rejected, hurt or left out.

All of us are vulnerable to the scrutiny of others. Why are we so sensitive to their review of us? We want them to accept and approve of who we are at our inner level, not just for what they see of us at the surface. What we really want is for others to like and accept us for who we are-as we are. But what if they don't like what they see? The fear of being rejected is at the heart of the struggle between hiding and revealing ourselves-and can cause teens to feel as though even the people closest to them don't really understand them very well.

Almost all of the teens we heard from said that in order to win favor and friendship from others, they had to "play into" or portray an image they believe someone else holds of them, rather than "be themselves." It's a coat of paint teens aren't all that happy about wearing: The price-tag for being "someone else" comes at a loss of true identity. Sometimes the loss includes self-respect and self-esteem-your own. The good news is, while you are willing to do some things to gain acceptance, there's a limit-and then you begin to feel uncomfortable about it. Feeling uneasy about covering up who you are in order to be liked by someone else is a healthy feeling. You are you-and that is who you are supposed to be. You shouldn't have to become someone you're not.

As we read the stories for this unit, my daughter and I talked at length about how easy it is for the image we hold of ourselves to be influenced or colored by others. "When you're a teenager, you get pulled in a lot of different directions, especially when you're trying to meet the expectations of different people-all of whom are important to you," Jennifer commented. "There's a fine line between going along, doing the things others want you to do, and being true to yourself-listening to your own voice and preferences, acting on what you believe, and doing what's important and best for you."

"Give me an example," I prompted.

"Well, let's take the image I had of myself as an athlete in high school, more specifically, as a pitcher on my school softball team," she responded. "Just before I'd wind up to throw a pitch, I'd look up in the bleachers and see your smiling face, confident I'd strike out the batter. You'd reinforce it by shouting, 'You can do it, Jen!' Meanwhile I was thinking, 'I just hope this pitch goes somewhere in the direction of the plate and not a half-mile over the batter's head and out of the ballpark entirely!' I wasn't nearly as certain as you were of my pitching skills. Then I'd look over at Dad who had reminded me-on more than one occasion-'Jen, you're better at soccer. That's your best chance for a scholarship. That's where you should be concentrating your time.' All the while, I was wishing I could concentrate on my first love-tennis.

"Once a friend of mine asked me if my favorite sport was softball, soccer or tennis. 'Softball,' I answered. But I thought about it for a minute and knew softball wasn't my favorite sport. My answer was based on the gratification I felt having you at my games, and your enthusiasm about my playing softball. On the way home from the games, whether our team won or lost, you thought I played well. In your eyes, I could do no wrong. It was a very good feeling.

"Correcting myself, I said to my friend, 'Actually, I prefer soccer.' But once again, I realized that there were conditions around my playing soccer that made me continue to play it. A couple of times a week, and sometimes on the weekends, Dad spent time with me, teaching me soccer tricks. And, he came to practically every soccer game and once, after one of the games, he told me I was 'the most powerful athlete on the team.' You see, having you and Dad attend my games was the biggest appeal of my playing softball and soccer. It was your presence and approval, not the sport itself, that kept me playing these sports. Now tennis-that was my favorite sport when it came to playing for the fun of it."

"But you received a letter in softball and soccer-because you were so good at them," I reminded her.

"Well, you guys were at practically all the games!" Jennifer said, laughing. "It was just great to look in the bleachers and see one or both of my parents there. Whenever I saw you, that was my favorite game, and my favorite sport." "So why didn't you play on the tennis team, then?" I asked, bewildered that as a parent, living with her as closely I did, I hadn't picked up on how she really felt about each of these sports at the time.

"Simple," she said. "I did play tennis for a while, but the tennis games were mostly held out of town. Since our team took the bus, you and Dad weren't able to come."

I must have looked forlorn, because Jennifer added, "Don't feel bad, Mom. I'll bet there are very few kids who sit at the piano when they're first learning to play, saying, 'I'm practicing for the next half-hour without complaining because I see myself as a great pianist, the next Beethoven.' More likely they're saying, 'I'm practicing because in thirty minutes, I'll get a hug, a bowl of ice cream, time with my friends, an hour of television-and avoid being in trouble with my mom (or dad) for not practicing!'

"And by the way, you two (parents) weren't the only conflicting voices that I had to deal with. There were expectations of friends and coaches. For example, in the dugout was my best friend-also a pitcher-who each game prodded, 'Jennifer, work it so that in the fourth inning I can come in and relieve you!' Which meant, of course, that I was to deliberately pitch a succession of 'balls' and not strikes, so the coach would send me to the dugout and her to the mound. Then there was the coach who said, 'Just do your best'-right before he promised that if we had a good game, he'd take the team out for pizza. Now I had to deal with the question, 'What should I do-am I a good best friend, or a determined pitcher?' So you see, being pulled in so many directions by so many people-all of whom you genuinely want to please-makes having a paintbrush seem like a necessity!"

Perhaps that's what made "The Paintbrush" such a popular piece with teens! We received so many poignant and heartfelt letters from teens everywhere who said "The Paintbrush" described their feelings to a "T," that we felt obliged to make it the first selection in this book! Teens everywhere said, "being a teenager is tough stuff"-one of the biggest reasons being that parents, teachers and even your friends see you differently than you see yourself. In the following stories in this chapter, you'll learn that the struggle to gain acceptance, to be liked and considered worthy without having to be someone else-without having to "cover up"-is a challenge for both girls and boys, whether you are thirteen or eighteen-or ninety! "The Dragon in My Drawer!" was written just this past year by your friend, ninety-year-old Elmer Adrian, who admitted, "The image others see is not the authentic me."

Hmmm, maybe it's a view everyone shares throughout their lives!

Like paint, the views teens shared about being your "authentic self" came in various shades, too. Some of you wanted a paintbrush to cover up, such as sixteen-year-old Shaun Martin, who confessed he needed one "until the real me . . . will stay around long enough for me to get used to." Being a teen means constantly growing and changing in many ways. Sometimes many layers of paint were needed for more than camouflage-they were needed as protection. This was true for fourteen-year-old Mia Templett, who tells us why each day she paints a smile on her face, and for thirteen-year-old Alana Ballen, recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As we suggested in the introduction to this book, when facing problems of so serious a nature, we urge any teen to turn to a trusted adult for help and guidance. Hopefully, as a result of receiving such support, both Mia and Alana can look forward to lighter colors-and brighter days. And many teens, like sixteen-year-old Rebecca Holbrook, thought that perhaps adults, too, cover up their real selves, as she feels her mother does because her mom's "life didn't really turn out the way she wanted."

Other teens were tired of needing a paintbrush and wanted to lay theirs down, to stop being someone else's shade of friend, as did fifteen-year-old Marie Benton. So enthralled that she'd been chosen to do a school project with the all-popular Heather Winslow, Marie found herself shamelessly parading up and down the library, mimicking Heather-even though she knew her actions were suspect! It's nice to see that Marie, like so many teens, is developing the courage to act in ways that feel right to her.

While some of you learn lessons firsthand, some learn them by watching others, like fifteen-year-old Chelsey Collinsdale, whose sister told conflicting stories about wanting a pager to wear to school. As Chelsey tells us, "You have to decide how willing you are to sacrifice your true self in order to have others like you." Still, other teenagers, like sixteen-year-old Chad Dalton, said, "My true color comes out when I'm with real friends," and tells us what "color" it takes to be considered his friend. And Eric Chadwick, seventeen, discovered that when it came to the beautiful girl he wanted to date, it was he, and not the girl, who had done the painting! Perhaps Christina's rudeness was her paintbrush-maybe this beautiful girl didn't feel all that beautiful. This is a good reason not to judge a book by its cover, whether the cover looks appealing or unappealing.

All in all, you said you want to be true to your own color-the self you know better than anyone else does. You want to do as legend Elton John did; he found a newer, wiser, healthier self after getting a fresh look at who he was beneath the layers of paint he had added over the years to meet the expectations of others. You proclaimed what singer-songwriter Stevie Nicks declared: "This is who I really am-and who I want to be."

There is one thing all teens do agree on though: You may, on occasion, wear a coat of paint, but beneath its surface is a self you deeply love and honor. And would like the rest of us to love and honor, too.

Until then, you ask for understanding in keeping your paintbrush handy until you've learned the art of balancing the need for acceptance without sacrificing your own sense of self. In the meantime, please don't give up on the rest of us, who, like your friend ninety-year-old Elmer Adrian, are trying to find the courage to put our paintbrush down, too!

Will the Real Me Please Stand Up!

Lately I've started to wonder what it means when people say, "Just be yourself!" It's a dumb thing to say to me right now because most of the time I'm not sure who I am! How can I be? I'm constantly changing. I mean, I look and sound totally different than I did just three months ago. Then I had a decent complexion; now it's oily and zit-ridden. Three months ago, my voice sounded like a normal human being's; now it fluctuates between squeaky one day and deep the next-like I'm echoing into a big drum or something. And some of my body parts look like they don't belong with the other parts. I started working out last year, so I was really buffed. But I've grown five inches in the last six months, so I'm gangly and look completely out of proportion. I'm happy about getting taller, except that now my muscles don't look as big and my head looks as if it's sitting on a tall skinny post.

I used to have no problem getting girls to come up and talk with me. Now I've lost confidence that they find me attractive. I worry that if by chance a girl should get interested, it'll only be a matter of time before she'll be turned off by my skin breaking out so much, or laugh when my voice does its squeak-and-croak act.

It's not just my body that has changed-everything has. I've always thought of myself as a regular guy; but now, from one day to the next, my emotions are all over the place. One day I feel up, the next down. Some days I think, "Hey, I'm really quite smart," and others, "I'm as dumb as a rock!" One week I'm sure what I want to do with my life, the next, I'm totally unsure. I'm a wreck! Really, I just want the real me to please stand up and stay around long enough for me to get used to him.

Oh yeah, I need a paintbrush for sure!

Shaun Martin, 16



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