These days I find myself teetering somewhere between who I think I should be as a young adult and how I actually feel. When I was little, I used to look up at girls in high school and think, “Wow they’re so grown up, I can’t wait to be an adult like them.”
Little did I know that by the age of 24, well past high school and even college, I still wouldn’t feel like a full-fledged grown-up.
At this point, I wonder if anyone ever truly feels like an adult. But from a young person’s perspective, everyone in the older generations is someone we are told to look up to and take lessons from. But the truth is, no matter a person’s age, no one really knows what they’re doing, even if they pretend they do – but young people today especially are conditioned to present ourselves a certain way, especially towards the older generations.
And I don’t say this to attack anyone – I think people generally have good intentions. But even those of us with good intentions can fall into the trap of bad habits that we don’t even realize we have. We’re ALL guilty of this – especially towards people who are younger than us.
Think of how people approach you. How do you feel when you meet them for the first time? Is there a certain way you feel pressured to act? Are there things you think you “should” say? Do you feel like you have to hide parts of yourself in order to be liked or respected? I answered “yes” to all of these questions, and I’d venture to guess you probably did, too. We all know the feeling of having to censor our language in front of grandparents, having to avoid certain topics of conversation at a work event, and having to explain our well-thought-out plans for lifelong financial stability to a significant other’s parents. We feel like we have something to prove to other people who are somehow “above” us.
The pressure to hide parts of ourselves is everywhere, and unfortunately it has become a part of our society that is accepted as normal. Of course, I believe we need to be respectful towards everyone, including our elders, and it doesn’t hurt to control ourselves and not drop the f-bomb ten times in conversation with grandma. But I also believe that others, including our elders, need to be respectful of us – and maybe that means not chastising us when we choose a career path that they would not have chosen for themselves.
People approach other people (especially when there is an age or other kind of “status” difference between the people) with a box. That box is made up of expectations, values they think we should hold, priorities we should have, and ways we should be, based on the role they expect us to fill. For example, an adult has a different box for their son’s girlfriend than they do for the new intern at their office. But either way, there is a box, and they’ve constructed it before they’ve even met us – based on what they’ve heard or what they’ve seen online, or even based on how they themselves were raised and what they think is “right.”
So, when they meet you, they present you with this box and they kindly try to smash you into it, and when they find that you don’t fit nicely and neatly into this box, they are shocked and they decide that something about you is wrong. And that’s that. Even worse is the fact that they have the potential push their judgments and misunderstandings about us onto other people that we love, value, and care about, such as our significant others, our friends, or our coworkers.
But the thing is that we never even get to know what the box looks like. We try to guess and so we tend to act the way we think we should – all to get the approval of someone we barely know who has decided that they are somehow “above” us. And we think we’re doing okay until we learn, either from someone else or from disapproving passive-aggressive comments, that actually we failed the test. And most of the time, we have absolutely no idea why, but we get blamed for it anyway.
I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t want to fit into some box that someone else has constructed for me. I want to take that box out of their hands and rip it to shreds and shake them by the shoulders and tell them that the way they’re approaching people is all wrong. Yes, they probably have something to teach me, but I also have something to teach them.
If you’re relating to these feelings I’m expressing at all, think now about how you approach people. Whether it’s your grandparents, your younger siblings, coworkers, etc. – could you be making other people feel this way? Do you ever judge people if they don’t somehow prove themselves to you? If you said no, you’re not being honest with yourself. I catch myself doing it all the time – especially towards people younger than me. There seems to be a pattern here that we need to break.
Wouldn’t life be much less stressful if we approached people without any preconceived notions or expectations? Without a box? Having no box allows us to be fully open to experiencing everything another person has to offer without any judgment. It allows us to formulate thoughts that are fully our own and be compassionate enough to see who is truly there in another person. It allows us to be pleasantly surprised by people, instead of brutally disappointed in them (as people who hold boxes usually are). And this pleasant surprise leads us to form happier and healthier friendships, relationships, and professional lives.
The absence of the box is what it’s all about. Let people be, and if they don’t end up being someone important in your life, then no harm no foul. Constructing boxes causes pain, suffering, and effort that’s usually in vain because no one can measure up to the impossible standards you created in your mind of how a person “should” be, because everyone’s idea of how they should be is different. Other people don’t live by your values – they live by their own. So how could they possibly satisfy the constraints of your all-important box? Think about that the next time you interact with someone, especially someone younger than you. Are you constructing a box for them? If so, crush your box and throw it out the window and then drive over it with your car. Set it on fire. Anything to get rid of that box.
In place of the box, we can hold understanding, empathy, compassion, awareness, and presence, and we can offer those things to every person we meet. We can stop approaching people as if we have something to teach them, and instead approach them as if they have something to teach us. Because most of the time, that’s the truth – sometimes you just have to dig a little deeper to get there. Then, maybe we could all feel comfortable enough to be authentic with the rest of the world, we could stop hiding so much of who we are in our daily lives and we could finally feel truly heard and understood. And wouldn’t the world be a much better place for all of us if it worked that way?