High School Popularity

WHEN I WAS A TEEN-AGER, I liked to read the teen magazines and advice columns. A big issue then was popularity, and all the articles said the same thing: The way to be popular is to "Be yourself." That always frustrated me. What kind of advice was that? What did it mean? I was looking for guidelines and helpful hints on what to do, and all I got was "Be yourself." I had no idea how to be myself. I didn't even know what it meant.

High School Popularity

he Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero Myth

WHEN I WAS A TEEN-AGER, I liked to read the teen magazines and advice columns. A big issue then was popularity, and all the articles said the same thing: The way to be popular is to "Be yourself." That always frustrated me. What kind of advice was that? What did it mean? I was looking for guidelines and helpful hints on what to do, and all I got was "Be yourself." I had no idea how to be myself. I didn't even know what it meant. 

So I studied the kids who were really popular to learn what made them that way. Many of them came from wealthy families. It seemed that getting a new Corvette for your sixteenth birthday was one way of being popular. But since I came from a family that was barely making it, that way was closed to me. 

Another thing I noticed was the way they looked. Most of the extremely popular kids were very attractive. Their hair was thick and beautiful, their clothes were stylish, and their bodies were perfect. But basing popularity on the way people looked seemed so unfair to me. Nobody could help the way they were born. Besides, there were a few kids who weren't beautiful at all but were still popular. I rejected the emphasis on appearances as being unjust and too incomplete an explanation. There must be something else. 

Then I noticed that many of the "in" kids had total confidence in themselves. They seemed to say and do exactly what they wanted to, often hurting others in the process. It was so easy for them to look down on others and call people hurtful names. Nevertheless, they were admired because they had a certain self-assurance and strength of personality that attracted others like a magnet. 

In my inexperience I equated their callousness with their popularity and found that one was too high a price to pay for the other. I couldn't bring myself to approve of their snobbery or to cultivate a superior attitude just to be popular, so I began to experiment with the idea of not even trying. 

It took me a long time to understand that I was doing what the advice columnists meant when they said "Be yourself." Now I know they meant to listen to your inner voice and be true to it. But at seventeen, it's hard to trust your inner voice when it deviates from the accepted teen-age standards. I thought there must be something wrong with me for not conforming to the norms and for having, heaven forbid, that worst of all possible failings: being different. 

What I didn't realize as a teen-ager was that these gifted, confident kids did have part of the answer. They already had a pretty good idea of who they were and what they could do, they were comfortable with their youthful values, their confidence in themselves was attractive to others, and it was easy for them to be themselves. It was just that in their immaturity they hadn't yet learned tolerance or compassion. Because life had given them so many natural advantages, they had no idea what it was like to feel insecure or different, so they tended to be thoughtless and judgmental. In their heady enjoyment of their gifts, which they assumed made them naturally superior to those who lacked them, and in their desire to conform and be popular, they were oblivious to the pain they caused others who didn't fit the teen-age pattern for popularity, a pattern that valued conformity to outward expectations, and appearances over being true to the realities of the inner Self. The roots of this tradition go back a long way. 

In ancient Greece, the temple at Delphi was dedicated to the god Apollo. On the wall of this temple, Apollo's special motto, an ancient prerequisite to the modem "Be yourself" - was inscribed. It said, "Know thyself." 

One might wonder why, since the beliefs of the ancient Greeks have had such a profound influence on the Western world, humanity has yet to figure out how to attain Apollo's goal of self-knowledge on a broad scale. Perhaps it is because Apollo was second to Zeus, his father, and Zeus was guided by the precepts of power and authority and the hierarchical notion that there was room at the top for only one. For Zeus, power was far more important than self-knowledge and, unlike self-knowledge, which Apollo believed was available to all, power was a scarce commodity that only a few could possess. 

Things have changed a bit since ancient times. Now many people worship one god instead of several, but to most of us God is still very much a masculine father figure. We say we value self-knowledge and authentic behavior, but these things are still secondary to Zeus's model of power and authority, a model that popular culture teaches us to look up to as the highest and best to which humans can aspire. As a result, our heroes are those who are powerful, who look good, who win, who are confident and skillful enough to get to the top, who prove that they are "better" than everyone else, who appear to have everything under control, who never seem to be plagued by guilt or self-doubt, who conform to the accepted notions of success, who hide behind tough walls that cover up troublesome feminine natures that crave caring and connection. 

Conformity is a castle that conceals authenticity and stifles individuality. A castle is a strong and impressive fortress; if it were not, most of us would not grow up dreaming of living in one. But the illusion of safety and the pleasures of power and prestige a castle provides cannot compensate for the withering of the soul of the individual who insists on remaining within its walls. Moreover, the castle cannot prevent crisis; it cannot teach us to recognize the call of the Golden Bear; it cannot prepare us for the island ordeal. As long as we remain within its walls, we have no hope of completion. 

But castles have a seductive charm, especially for the young, the weak, the innocent, the needy, the fearful. So most of us conform: We keep climbing and comparing ourselves to those around us to see who is higher, looking up to those above us and looking down on those below. These are the rules by which we play, and each time we play we devalue ourselves and each other because by insisting that someone has to be on top, we reinforce the belief that the rest of us are losers. 

My high school was a castle fit for a powerful Greek god; Zeus would have approved heartily. No one seemed the least bit concerned with self-knowledge. School rewarded and punished us in direct proportion to how high our grades were on paper-and-pencil tests. It gave us no help in plumbing our psychological, spiritual, or ethical depths, and paid little attention to the development of individual gifts other than academic or athletic ones. In this system the ability to lead a meaningful life and achieve peace with ourselves and intimacy with others went unnoticed and unrewarded. In fact, school was a place where "Being yourself" was far more apt to get us punishment than praise, both from the authorities and from our peers. 

Even organized religion turned out to be a castle constructed on Zeus's creed. As far as I could see, most religions empowered men and restrained women, valued lofty spirituality at the expense of earthly physicality, and judged and condemned all who fell short of the "one true faith." Moreover, every church had its owm special list of taboos - for some it was dancing, for others it was drinking wine or playing cards on Sunday - and individual church members who saw nothing wrong with these things and dared to be different had to hide the truth from the critical, judging eyes of their neighbors. 

In fact, as a teen-ager it seemed to me that practically the whole adult world continued to embrace a high school mentality. Most of the adults I knew were far more concerned about constructing, displaying, and hiding behind splendid castle walls than they were about being reaL I knew no one who had broken through the walls, no one who was on a search for self-knowledge, no one who dared to be too different! 

And so, like almost everyone else I knew, I continued to conform to Zeus's model of power and outward appearances during my teen-age years. At least on the surface. After all, this was the way the whole world seemed to be organized. Who was I to question it? 

But at the same time, I was becoming aware of some conflicting ideas and feelings deep inside me. How did the admonition to be yourself fit in with this model? Why did the teen-age pattern of popularity seem so unfair to me? Although I still didn't know who "myself" was, I knew without a doubt that there were some parts of my innermost Self that were different from the norm. I was too fearful and needy to expose these things to the world. Yet some of these aspects of myself were becoming more and more important to me. 

I had always believed that conforming was the way to stay safe - and staying safe was still my deepest need. But adolescence and high school presented me with conflicts that made staying safe far more complicated than ever before. I was discovering that neither living in a castle nor following the lily could quiet my disturbing questions or protect me from discomfort. And I was beginning to realize that, somehow, the castle of conformity was no longer quite as satisfying as it once had been. 


Dr. Jean Raffa is an author, speaker, and leader of workshops, dream groups, and study groups. She maintains a blog called "Matrignosis: A Blog About Inner Wisdom." Her job history includes teacher, television producer, college professor, and instructor at the Disney Institute in Orlando and The Jung Center in Winter Park, FL. She is the author of three books, a workbook, a chapter in a college text, numerous articles in professional journals, and a series of meditations and short stories for Augsburg Fortress Publisher.

Her book The Bridge to Wholeness: A Feminine Alternative to the Hero Myth (LuraMedia, 1992) was nominated for the Benjamin Franklin Award for best psychology book of 1992.

Reviewed in several journals and featured on the reading lists of university courses, it was also picked by the Isabella catalogue as a must-read for seeking women. Dream Theatres of the Soul: Empowering the Feminine Through Jungian Dreamwork (Innisfree Press, Inc., 1994) has been used in dreamwork courses throughout the country and is included in Amazon.com’s list of the Top 100 Best Selling Dream Books, and TCM’s book list of Human Resources for Organizational Development.

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