By SHARMILA NAIR and KEVIN TAN
THEY say adolescence is one of the best periods in life. Unless of course, you couldn’t get rid of your baby fat fast enough, had severe acne problem and a hairstyle that could put boxing promoter Don King to shame.
But seriously, just ask anyone about their favourite years and they would most probably cite those spent among peers in school tertiary education institutions.
It turns out that those hours spent gossiping around in cliques, developing interest in girls or boys, crying over Bs in examination are all part of youths discovering who they are and how they fit in the bigger scale of life.
“This is the time that personality development is about to reach its peak. At this point, teenagers are in transition stage between childhood and adulthood. They are exposed to many new exciting things, for instance, campus life and mobile independence with a newly acquired driver’s license and more. Hence, the environment they are exposed to may determine the kind of adult they are going to become later,” said Cyberjaya University College of Medical Sciences associate professor in Psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist Dr Muhammad Najib Mohamad Alwi.
It was during the final years of secondary school that Ng Mae Sze realised that she is a people’s person; someone who loves interacting with lots of folks and she now wants to pursue a career that involves just that.
“I’m very talkative and my friends know me for the loud and bubbly person that I am now. People knew me by name – yes, you could label me as one of the popular kids in school – but I definitely wasn’t the mean kind. Anyway, I wasn’t always the outgoing and confident person that I am today,” said the 18-year-old school leaver.
In Form 1, Ng had low self-esteem. She was a short, plump and quiet girl with difficulties making friends. “Most of the students in the school weren’t comfortable speaking in English. I had to learn Mandarin quick and I did,” said Ng.
Learning Mandarin did not only help Ng communicate with her peers, but it also developed her personality. She realised she could learn anything – even a new language – if only she applied herself to the task at hand.
Ng is now keen to pursue a career in Public Relations. “The five years in secondary school has definitely made me who I am today. The way I talk and perceive others —I learned all that when I was still in school. I also learned that I am a people’s person, and PR is the job I am cut out to do,” she said.
While Ng is happy to be labelled ‘bubbly’, there are others who are uncomfortable with the titles bestowed upon them. It is even more difficult when these labels become part of one’s identity.
“The effects of labels vary from person to person. Reflecting on my all-boys residential school days in Ipoh, many of those ‘labelled’ school boys are now directors and general managers of multinational companies. Some are psychiatrists too,” said Najib with a smile.
“The annoying labels are often shed off as adolescents become mature adults. Even in school reunions, the labels are only ‘revisited’ as old jokes.”
It took some time for Mior Luqman Hakim to shed the ‘loser’ label he carried throughout secondary school. He recalls times when he returned home in tears because he was picked on by other kids because of his small frame. “Being bullied in school made me feel like loser, like I’m useless and not good enough,” said Mior, 25.
He also remembers how he never seemed to have his own clothes growing up. Whatever he owned were hand-me-downs from his older brother. “I never owned my own clothes when I was growing up, even during Hari Raya. When my older brother got new clothes, I would wear his old ones. That made me feel like I was ‘wearing’ someone else’s identity,” he lamented.
Mior admits to always feeling like he need to be someone better, inspired by impressive figures or characters on television, comic books or magazines.
In Stephen A. Johnson’s article, Is Your Teen Having an Identity Crisis, he wrote about how teenagers identify with the people they admire and try to emulate the chracteristics of people they want to be like — whether from magazines or television. “If all goes as it should, these identifications merge into a unique and coherent whole,” he wrote.
That was exactly what Mior did. “Instead of being exactly like someone else, I saw other people whom I desired to be like to help mould my own identity. That showed me what characters I like and what I don’t,” he said.
Mior slowly built his confidence and self-esteem by socialising with friends, and extending his circle of friends. “I would socialise and made new friends on social networks. This helped me build my confidence to be comfortable with people around me, and most importantly, for me to be comfortable with myself.”
Mior eventually graduated with a Masters in Business Administration and had been working as a duty manager in a reputable hotel in Cameron Highlands, Pahang. His desire of fulfilling his dreams has brought him back to Kuala Lumpur to pursue what he really loves — to have a music career.
If there is one thing Mior knows for sure, it’s that he’s not a loser. For others, self-discovery happens outside of school. “Teenagers may also develop their identities much later in life. Many young people show their ‘true potentials’ when given the opportunity and the right environment. I don’t think it is possible for one not to develop an identity because “not having an identity” itself is an identity. What can actually happen is that, some young adults may believe that they do not have a strong enough persona or maturity to identify themselves,” he said.
In secondary school, Sanjay Subramaniam never had problems fitting in with different people — but that was the problem. He adapted so easily to different people with different backgrounds that he felt as if he didn’t have a self-identity. “In secondary school, I was the person who could fit in with everyone, but I didn’t know where I really belonged. I didn’t own the many ‘cool’ things my friends had and our backgrounds were different,” said Sanjay, 24.
Eventually, Sanjay learned to stop being so concerned about wanting to be someone else and directed his energy to focus on things he liked. “I really liked sports and loved art, and so I channelled my insecurities on these things and naturally, it became my identity. I’m who I am today because I didn’t focus so much on wearing someone else’s shoes,” said Sanjay, who is distinguished by his facial piercings, stretched ears and tattoos.
The graphic designer’s interest in body modification may be hard for some people to accept, but he took the snubs positively instead. “I don’t want to try to be like everyone else just to fit in. I did what I love and want. Now, people are able to accept me for who I am,” said Sanjay.