What can we learn from Eighth Grade?

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I watched Eighth Grade last week. It’s a cracker of a film – and it has Enya in the soundtrack (personal teenage fave). One of the things I liked so much was how brilliantly it captures the awkwardness that I remember from a lot of situations you have to endure as a teenager. There’s a great example of this in a pool party that the main character goes to – and the whispered phone call she makes to her dad to come and get her.

We ask so much of teenagers. Eighth Grade made me remember that washing machine feeling of constantly being flung into new situations without a road map of what to do. It often felt like there were so many rules to learn and they weren’t ones your parents could tell you. How do we learn that stuff? Whether to wear your top button done up or your tie flipped round the wrong way, what length your skirt should be, what was cool to like. It’s human to want to feel accepted, but as a teenager it’s a particularly tough crowd we are amongst, everyone flailing to be in the ‘in-group’. All at a time when our skins are especially thin.

It’s normal that new situations feel a bit scary and confusing to negotiate. But when nearly everything is new it’s exhausting, and it’s hard to work out if you don’t like the new thing, if it’s just that you’re not used to it, or (the teenage feeling I remember) if that means you’re somehow “doing it wrong”.

It’s good to try new things and work out if you like them, but I wonder how many hours I spent when I was younger going to things I really didn’t enjoy – and feeling bad that I didn’t find them fun.

Now I’m grown-up I like to think I’ve got better at this… I know my tastes more and I feel much better about saying no, but with newer experiences there probably still comes this niggle that it might be something wrong with me if I’m not enjoying it.

There’s a fine balance to be struck between feeling like we have some control over how a situation will go and feeling like it’s all our fault. There’s also a tricky tightrope to walk between self-awareness and self-consciousness. When self-consciousness goes wild, as it does often in adolescence and as it can do whenever social anxiety rears up at any age, then we scrutinise ourselves so much that tiny things seem huge and our internal monologue plays a self-terrorising loop of how inadequate everyone else thinks we are.

As we get older we do naturally care less about what our peer group thinks of us. This is partly due to our brains developing and the social reward bits no longer being further ahead of the planning and consequence-working-out bits, and partly because we have more of a sense of what we can do – we have more examples of things going ok to call to mind. If I have a terrible night at a party I don’t think it means I’m hugely anti-social – I’m maybe just having a bad night, or maybe I don’t like the people there.

What does help with a self-conscious evening though? What coping strategies can we use to pull us out of that feeling of watching ourselves with our inner critic turned up loud? Learning to look up and around, to dare to look for evidence that other people might not think we are awful, to learn to treat ourselves gently in new situations, to encourage ourselves and if we mess it up to try to be as kind with ourselves as we would be with a dear friend. All these things sound too simple and feel too difficult at first, but they do get easier and they’re definitely worth a try.

I’m still not sure I’d be up for a pool party though, with or without Enya.

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