I was standing at one of many crossroads of my “journey of self-discovery” when I realized that I was truly blessed. There are those who grumble as they go to what appears to be just another day at the office, but I can truly say that I love the “work” I do.
I am a psychotherapist. Patients come in and tell me their stories, sharing their psychological selves with me. I never have a boring day. Each day brings me the privilege of listening to what is being revealed.
Most recently, I had the opportunity to listen to the truths being revealed by an individual, who for the purposes of confidentiality, I have named Gilda.
Gilda is a 15-year-old patient of biracial heritage (African-American & Caucasian) who is a student at one of the local public high schools. She recently gave me quite the tongue lashing when I made the error of referring to her as a “adolescent.”
Gilda was quick to assert that she was a “young woman” and not a child. Understanding the importance of clarity when working with young people, I went further on this journey with her, and what I found was quite revealing.
To my surprise (and ignorance), Gilda stated that in being called an “adolescent” that I had defined her as being a child. I began explaining the “clinical” stages of adolescent development and where she may fit in, but Gilda was having none of it. Regardless of what we “old people” saw, she said, she was a woman.
I was curious about whether most of her fellow adolescents felt this way, so I asked Gilda to conduct a survey (nonscientific, of course) with her friends, focusing on the following questions:
- How do you define yourself, as an adolescent or young adult?
- What is the basis or foundation of your definition?
The agreement was that Gilda would return to our next session with feedback from her selected population.
At the next session, I was barely settled in my therapist’s chair (this is one stereotype that I will admit to: I do have a special chair) when Gilda shouted out, in a strong clear voice,
“I talked to all my girlfriends and we want to be called young adults and not adolescents!”
I can’t say that I was shocked. The first question is almost like being asked if you want ground chuck or steak & lobster. My real interest was the second question; that is, understanding the how they define adulthood and what makes them think they have achieved it.
Gilda shared with me that there is a group of people that she described as the “generation gate keepers.” She characterized them as “haters” and felt that they seek to prevent young people like she and her friends from crossing over and becoming young adults. There were some (very) specific points she made:
- Stop the “adolescent” crap and recognize that we are young adults
- Open up the generation gate, stop blocking us from crossing over the bridge into adulthood
- Realize that, as young adults we can do everything that older adults can do, including having sex. (Gilda went on to say that she has friends who have already had sexual intercourse).
I suggested that what she said, particularly about sex, could actually be a reason why the gate keepers would view her age group as immature, and thus continue to block the gate, but that didn’t go over well.
“There you go stereotyping me; just because I am a young adult does not mean I am immature!”
What is most important to people of her generation, according to Gilda, is:
- The thought of gaining more freedom
- Getting physically older
- The desire to explore and experience new things
Gilda acknowledges that “peer pressure” is a strong factor, but people must make their own decisions as to what actions they take.
“My generation is misunderstood, blocked and not taken seriously. Because we are young, we are automatically defined as immature.”
Gilda has raised some interesting points. She views her generation as not being taken seriously, as being stereotyped or being blocked by the gatekeepers preventing access to adulthood. When questioned about what age these gatekeepers were, Gilda responded that they were primarily women over the age of 25 years old.
I suggested that perhaps when she becomes 25 years old, she may also want to block other young people of the age of teens from accessing the bridge leading to adulthood. With a quick smirk, Gilda replied:
“No, I want to serve as a mentor to girls in the same situation.”
Serving as a mentor? Interesting. I wondered, who is currently mentoring Gilda and her generation?
While sitting in session, Gilda has her “lifeline” in her lap. The lifeline is her cell phone. As we are talking she is intermittently texting. In traditional therapy sessions, the cell phone would be banned due to its interference or distraction. I’ve learned, however, that that strategy would prove not only ineffective, but defeating within the modern therapy process.
In other words, the cell phone is a lifeline, it is the comfort zone. As long as the young adult is involved or invested in the therapy session, I will allow for it to remain, understanding that texting may be taking place during the session. Now and then I gently, and in good humor redirect the individual to our process.
My point is that this young group lives in a culture of their own. A culture that is focused through the cell phone and the opportunity for communication and connection that it provides. These young people spend countless hours in their bedrooms, hiding away in privacy, communicating to others outside of parental or adult supervision.
And this is universal—it exists across color, class, and income lines. Gilda comes from a two parent middle class family with both parents who are actively involved. Academically, Gilda has a solid B+ GPA. She is actively involved in sports and her church community. She states proudly that she is not sexually active.
In terms of the life model I’ve written about often, Gilda is neither just “existing” nor is she just “surviving.” She views herself being empowered and wants a seat at the adult table. She, like her age cohorts, are merely speaking of their frustrations of being denied what they truly feel being their right to “self-determination.”
I must admit I am struggling. I am a 60-year-old dude who is being told by a 15 year old, “I want to define myself.” She is telling me to stop stereotyping her. She is demanding to be free. Ignorance is really about “lack of knowledge,” and in this situation, I’m the one who is being schooled. Now that knowledge has been provided, it is for me to work with and seek to “balance” the information that has been presented to me, within me.
In balancing this, I will be reflective as I remember my youth in which others attempted to define me. I was told to learn to work with my hands because that was my strength; once, a well-meaning, polite and smiling teacher told me that “your people” did not do well with “book work.”
In my youth, those were the gatekeepers who sought to, as they sought to define me, and, intentionally or not, blocking my access to the life I wanted and leaving behind the life they wanted for me. In my youth, I struggled to deal with stereotypes and misconceptions that were placed upon me.
As I look to the present I see that not much has changed. Today, the gatekeepers continue to seek block the way as I continue to purse the bridges that lay in my chosen path along the journey of self-discovery.
Today, I continue to respond with assertiveness—the same assertiveness I see in Gilda—as they attempt to define me. I proceed, knowing that despite my academic, professional, martial and family successes, I must continue to respond to the stereotypes and misconceptions that confront me.
In closing, I want to say, “Thank you, Gilda.” You have shown though your words and affirmation that “the young can teach the old,” the caveat being that the old must want to learn from the young. As we who are older learn from the younger generation, it is my hope that these young people will do the same for subsequent generations. It is not enough to want something so precious as self-determination, freedom and the right to live without interference from others—we must pursue it and allow others to pursue as well.
I have learned that achieving this also comes with the responsibility of utilizing these rights wisely. There will always be the struggle to maintain such gifts and resist those who seek to dis-empower you, remove or minimize what you have worked so diligently to achieve.
As much as I respect the words and wisdom of Gilda, I will admit that I am not there yet. It is hard for me to let go of the notions I’ve grown up with and learn to work towards accepting Gilda as a young adult. However, I respect her right of self-determination.
So, to Gilda and others out there who share her goals, regardless of what may be said by others, stay true to your beliefs, even if you find that others do not share the same.
Be aware that others will seek to define you. It is for you and not others to define the self—that is, who you are and what you want in your life.
It is my hope that when Gilda become 25 years old that she will remember her pledge to serve as a mentor to “young adults.” Young adults hunger for it now. When that time comes again, they will want it again.
“I know what I am. I am a young strong black woman.”
The journey continues…