Growing up is a difficult thing to do, but there’s not a lot of choice about it. When I was a teen I was basically a good kid, though I managed to get into a lot of trouble anyway. My parents didn’t know why this was happening, my sister didn’t know why this was happening, and I certainly didn’t know why this was happening. And while I think I know now, the best I can say is I have an educated guess that has helpfully contextualized my own struggle through adolescence and into adulthood.
Home during my teenage years, as I remember it, was a pretty scary place for an essentially powerless young man to grow up in. My sister was dealing with chronic and severe illness. My parents’ marriage was going through a real, and secret, rough patch. And me? I was going through puberty while transferring schools. I quickly went from an excited and intellectually curious student to a deeply depressed one who slept through his classes, all while delving into the world of drugs, and none of my family’s efforts to help were effective.
Looking back, I have the sense I was responding to an implicit message to not take up space, to be quiet, while also being asked to help distract from the scarier issues in the home. Being able to look back with this kind of awareness has been helpful, certainly, but was just one part of my process of becoming an adult. When Sigmund Freud first established the psychological field, he put a lot of emphasis on understanding the ‘why’ of people. He seemed to think that you could cure present maladies by understanding their origin in past events.
While this understanding can certainly be illuminating and empowering, we know with some clarity now that the ‘why’ is only an occasionally-useful piece of the healthy living puzzle. Without going too far into the epistemology, origin is, at best, a guess that provides context for behavior. While it’s possible to come up with theories, you can never be sure about the unseen forces at work on behavior. And at worst, spending too much time contextualizing a person’s present behavior in their past circumstances can become a real distraction. This leaves us with an unanswered question: if understanding the origin of behavior patterns isn’t particularly helpful, then what is?
In my case, and in the case of many of my clients, what has been most helpful is committing to operating in the present. This isn’t easy: being in the present means doing the hard work of feeling vulnerable. Moreover, our pasts always tempt us with hidden knowledge, with the sense that just around the next corner is the easy answer that will save us the hard work. Learning to resist this temptation and stay in the present, to stay aware of our feelings and vulnerabilities, is absolutely critical in the path to adulthood. The reality is that your life is happening now, and the great relief of this is that your life can be what you make it - if you’re willing to put in the energy and the discipline.
Teens know this implicitly, and they have what I would call a healthy fear of it. Up until now, their lives have been what someone else has made of them. Pretty cushy! But rarely satisfying. The odd dance of rebellion and regression that all teens go through is a negotiation of this looming change. They want to know: is adulthood freedom or responsibility? The answer, of course, is that it’s both. One must learn to savor each, and that can only happen in the here and now.