Millennials have been cited as one of the most narcissistic generations in comparison to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. In an age of selfies, instant gratification and self-assurance in their ability to manipulate technology, it’s no surprise millennials would be perceived as vain.
Yet is there a moment when this obsession with the self directs an inward focus on self-awareness and self-consciousness in a way that’s actually productive?
Self-consciousness is typically seen with a negative connotation under the premise that one is unsure of oneself. I would challenge that premise. I view self-consciousness as being deliberate and fully aware of one’s own existence. In the midst of a generation of self-photographers who capture images of our most beautiful, most adventurous, strongest and accomplished moments, it can be challenging to critically self-evaluate our internal feelings with our relationship with ourselves.
College is a transformational stage — a pivotal marker in defining what makes each of us unique. The years spent in college are often encouraged to be used as a period of self-discovery. By the end of one’s college career, a student should be able to answer the question, “Who are you?”
Students are often befuddled by this question. Their responses are usually a composition of one-dimensional characteristics such as their major, their year in school, activities they are involved in, how they self-identify and the beauty pageant answer of wanting to make the world a better place.
These obvious adjectives only graze the surface of who we are. “Who are you?” is not an easy question to answer; it requires thoughtful understanding of oneself. Few times in life do people set aside time to freely and intentionally think about their priorities in life, how their background influences those priorities, identify their weaknesses, and strengthen and create a realistic plan for themselves to make those priorities tangible.
As I recall hearing my freshman year during a Black Student Union meeting, college is the best time to be selfish. With an infinite amount of responsibilities, it can be difficult to strategically use college to prioritize your experiences around getting to know oneself holistically, and to know how one’s personality is enriched by academics, extracurriculars and professional opportunities. In college, there is an innumerable amount of chances for students to heighten their personal development. Such opportunities can make students feel overwhelmed with options, adding to the daily stresses many undergo. Through the duration of my time in college, Rihanna’s “Question Existing” chorus constantly reminds me of three questions I can use to check my self-awareness:
Who am I living for?
Is this my limit?
Can I endure some more?
Chances are given, question existing
Rihanna’s lyrics force me to reflect on what I elect to involve myself in.
Why am I doing this? What benefit does this give to me? What do I have to contribute? Am I really giving the most of myself that I can to make the most out of my experience and to feel utilized?
These questions serve dual purposes, both as an exercise of checking one’s self-consciousness and boosting self-confidence. How confident am I in my own abilities, talents and endurance to create and become the best version I perceive myself to be? How will I hold myself accountable for making sure I meet my goals and expectations?
Distinguishing expectations I set for myself and the expectations others have for me is a process in itself. It can be difficult to detach one from the other; often times, others’ expectations can determine how we project ourselves to the world. Yet, our passions and talents best display themselves when we set our own expectations.
As David Brooks, political and cultural commentator, brilliantly points out in his article about passion, “People who live with passion start out with an especially intense desire to complete themselves. We are the only animals who are naturally unfinished. We have to bring ourselves to fulfillment, to integration and to coherence … (People with passion) construct themselves inwardly by expressing themselves outwardly.”
Self-fulfillment is a lifelong journey. The desire to complete oneself can be powerful, so much so that it can be destructive to developing intimacy with ourselves. There’s a fine line between self-consciousness being productive and being harmful. When the process becomes antagonizing or isolating, we become vulnerable to doubt and fear, and can begin to mistrust our abilities. If we give into these misgivings, we stunt our own personal growth and fail to challenge ourselves to adjust to our current stage in the self-learning process. In our reflections, we must know ourselves well enough to identify these boundaries, and recognize when our discomfort comes from true pain rather than from the fear of understanding a level of ourselves we never had encountered before.
In one of James Baldwin’s best works, “No Name in the Street,” he wrote, “I have always been struck, in America, by an emotional poverty so bottomless, and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep that virtually no American appears able to achieve any viable, organic connection between his public stance and his private life.”
In a global society that seems emotionally bankrupt — reminding its inhabitants constantly that Black lives don’t matter, where our schools are still segregated by race and income, where civil liberties are contractual, where laws sustain cycles of poverty and second-class citizenry for ex-offenders from our iniquitous criminal justice system, where structures of power can commit heinous crimes against human rights while powerful nations act as bystanders and where historical injustices still need to be absolved — it’s imperative that we are rooted in fundamental understanding of ourselves and our role in this society.
To be our most authentic selves, our public stances and private thoughts must conjoin at a comfortable level of dissonance. Self-interrogation can be draining, but it’s necessary for growth. If we do not know ourselves intimately, how do we know our place in the world? How can we relate to one another? How can we become agents of change and progress if we do not challenge ourselves to evolve?
But before you answer those questions, take a selfie.
Alexis Farmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.