September 14, 2011

The Whole World is Watching? Maybe Not.

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Mark Twain once wrote, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in seven years.” I know I do not stand alone in saying that I too had some things mixed up as a 14-year-old. I am both amused and a little bit embarrassed when I remember the abominable fashion choices, inappropriate prank calls, ridiculous obsessions with seventh grade boys and the whole-hearted belief that I was good at the violin. I look back at this era and chuckle at how clueless I was (and probably still am), but I also feel sorry for those who had to put up with my almost tangible insecurity — most notably, my parents.

Let me paint a picture for you: a 12-year-old version of myself in the backseat of the family car, wailing. From the noises I was making, you’d think my arm was being amputated, but in fact, I was actually just driving home from my sixth grade graduation party. Why the crying graduate, you ask? My parents believed that it would be acceptable for them to shimmy together on the dance floor — in front of all my friends and classmates. Now, let me clarify: This was the FIRST boy-girl event any of us had been to, and we had been anticipating this evening for months. Our hormones were oozing through our flat-chested, high-voiced selves, and I can only (again, in retrospect) thank the powers that be for inviting the parents. At this extraordinarily important event, my mother clapped and swayed and shook to Sisquo’s “Thong Song.” My life was over before I even made it to middle school.

As an adolescent girl, everything my parents did, said or ate was “embarrassing.” It didn’t matter that every other mother was rocking out next to mine. It felt at the time that everyone was only focused on my mom and her dance moves. I find comfort in knowing that this near paranoia made me neither insane nor phobic, but rather, quite normal for a 12-year-old girl. Young adolescents function in self-made universes that have, as psychologists call them, an “imaginary audience.” People with imaginary audiences (most commonly adolescents, although some people have them their entire lives) believe that other people — real or fantasized — are not only watching and hearing their every action, but are also judging them. Not surprisingly, researchers at the University of Rochester have found that this egocentrism that so many young adults walk around with promotes self-consciousness. I believed everyone else really was watching my mother and, in that way, passing judgment on me.

While I no longer think that an imaginary audience is viewing my parents, I wonder: Do we, as students at a large university suffer from this Big Brother phenomenon? Do institutions like Facebook, the Greek system and the blogosphere invite this feeling of being watched? Does our matured self-consciousness manifest in different ways — like getting tipsy to start conversation? Has our imaginary audience just changed in nature?

I am no longer 12, and I have, since then, managed my way through high school and much of college, developed secure friendships and even found legitimate hobbies that keep me interested for more than two weeks. I haven’t been in a graduation party-type environment with my parents for quite some time, so I surprised myself last week when I was at a wedding with them and didn’t just allow them to dance, but actually raged with them, and even egged them on.

So what’s changed? How did the humiliated 12-year-old come to embrace her goofy parents for who they are? The same scientists that studied the imaginary audience found that it diminishes later in life (somewhere between 15 and 18) in the context of secure parental relationships. The imaginary audience fades, and with age, as certain types of self-consciousness evaporate, adolescents start to identify as individuals. Although I’m no psychologist, I also believe that at some point I realized that what my mom chooses to do, how she chooses to shake her hips, does not say anything about who I am, or even how I dance. I have come to appreciate my parents and embrace their dorkiness. I have learned that although my parents raised me, we are separate individuals walking through life with different audiences (sometimes imagined) who make separate judgments of who we are, regardless of our relationship.

I can appreciate the self-conscious pre-pubescent me for who I was: an adolescent girl just trying to get through middle school. It is possible that we all walk through life with the false understanding that some audience is watching — and caring — about what we’re doing. However, it seems this self consciousness, at least for me, was most apparent in middle school. I can’t help but feel sorry for those who had to participate in the arguments, wait for me while I changed my shoes just one more time, and hold on for the ride, hoping that I’d outgrow it. So, mothers and fathers who patiently waited for your children to realize that really, no one cares how frizzy their hair is: all I want to say, if only from my sixth grade self, is thank you.

Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at hdeixler@cornellsun.com. Shades of Grey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Hannah Deixler