THE STRAIGHT UP
Forget the Imaginary Audience Teaching Teens Self-Compassion
Last month, I talked about self-compassion and how, when I start getting too hard on myself, I think about what Buster would say. Remembering that my dog thinks I’mawesome helps me be kinder tomyself. Since we’re reaching the end of summer and a lot of my young patients are preparing to go back to school, I began to think of self-compassion on a broader scale. I mean, if it’s hard for some adults to practice self-compassion, just imagine how muchmore challenging it is for teenagers. Being a teen is hard, and I don’t mean that in the punk-rock song lyrics way. Froma psychological standpoint, teenagers are harder on themselves than anyone else is.Your cognitive abilities start to enhance in adolescence, which is why you felt somuchmore self-conscious in high school than you did as an elementary schooler.Teenagers tend to feel like everyone is noticing and judging everything about them, a phenomenon psychologist David Elkind calls “the imaginary audience.”This fear of the imaginary audience is what leads teenagers to be so critical of themselves and become so upset if they aren’t completely perfect.
Here’s amessage tomy teenage patients, and something I wish I’d realized back when I was a teenager: No one is judging you—we’re all too busy worrying about ourselves! There’s a famous psychological study fromHarvardUniversity in which volunteers watched a video of six basketball players and were asked to count howmany times players with white shirts passed the ball.The answer was 15, but the real question wasn’t “Howmany times did they pass the ball?” It was, “Did you see the gorilla?” This test, now known as “The InvisibleGorilla,” found that over half of all participants were so focused on counting the passes, they failed to notice aman in a gorilla suit dancing around in themiddle of the screen.This is called selective attention.We really only see what we’re paying attention to.You can check out the video from this study for yourself at TheInvisibleGorilla.com . I’ve seen examples of selective attention a lot in the office when it comes to kids getting braces put on. Most patients are so nervous about having to wear braces and they’re convinced everyone will be staring at their teeth for the next few years. Ninemonths later, when they come in for an appointment, I have patients telling me that their best friend onlymentioned them for the first time last week, saying, “Oh, I didn’t even notice! How long have you had those?”
While research proves there’s no imaginary audience judging our everymove, this knowledge doesn’t make those insecurities just disappear. This is why it’s important for teenagers to learn how to practice self-compassion. Dr. Karen Bluth of theUniversity of NorthCarolina emphasizes how important self-compassion is to a teenager’s mental health, especially as depression and suicide rates climb. For parents of teens, I highly encourage you to read up on Dr. Bluth’s work at Greatergood. berkeley.edu/article/item/how_to_help_ teens_become_more_self_compassionate . She’s taught a class on self-compassion for teens for many years and offers insight on why it’s so important to empower teenagers with the tools to be kinder to themselves. After all, not everyone has a Buster to cheer them on. –Dr. Leslie Pitner
"NO ONE IS JUDGING YOU — WE’RE ALL TOO BUSY WORRYING ABOUT OURSELVES!"
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