Ep 206: Building Character and Self-Awareness in Teens

Episode Summary

Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Transcend and Wired to Create, joins our show to explain how we can help teens on their journey to self-awareness. Scott and I talk about healthy self-esteem, goal-setting, creativity, and more.

Show NotesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Figuring out who we are takes a lifetime. In our teens, we might think we’re destined to become a doctor…only to find out that med school isn’t for us. We might believe we’ve found our perfect match in our twenties, but then discover that there’s other fish in the sea. We might even experience a mid-life crisis and become an entirely new person at age fifty! Identity and self-awareness are complicated and different for everyone.

To teenagers, however, it can feel like adult life is rapidly approaching….meaning they’ve got to figure it all out right away! They might rush into a college major, a relationship, or a big relocation when they’re not fully ready. It can be hard to know what you want for the rest of your life when you’ve only been alive for 18 years! This week we’re talking about identity, awareness and self- actualization, so we can help kids slow down and embrace the process of finding themselves. 

We’re joined by Scott Barry Kaufman, author of Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization. Scott is a humanistic psychologist who has taught at Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania and New York University. He writes the regular column “Beautiful Minds” in the Scientific American and hosts The Psychology Podcast, which has over 10 million downloads! His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Harvard Business Review, and Business Insider. He’s here to help us define self-actualization–and how our teens can harness it for a happier life.

In our interview, we’re discussing how we can guide kids to develop healthy confidence, define their life’s goals, and access their creativity to discover who they truly are.

Confidence Vs. Narcissism

Self-esteem can be complicated, Scott explains. While it’s definitely possible for teens to have a healthy sense of confidence in who they are, there’s also the possibility of narcissism. And although we often think of narcissists as loud, attention-hogging types, there are also quiet, unassuming narcissists, who keep their self-obsession in their internal thoughts and close relationships, he explains. Scott and I talk more about the difference between these two types of narcissists in the episode–but neither type is healthy or a sign of self awareness, Scott says.

To help our kids develop healthy self esteem instead of narcissistic tendencies, we’ve got to treat them with compassion…but not too much! Scott explains that we shouldn’t tell kids they are “the best” or teach them to compare themselves to others. Instead, Scott says we should remind kids that they are intrinsically valuable simply for existing. Instead of making them feel like high achievers, we should simply strive for them to feel like they are enough, he says.

In the episode, we also talk about how kids can have healthy selfishness as well. This means they set proper boundaries with others for their own well-being, have a stable school/life balance, and generally just take care of themselves. People often give away too much time and energy to others, Scott says, and not necessarily in an altruistic way. Sometimes people can develop a certain kind of narcissistic complex that’s fed by helping others, but only in pursuit of their own egos, he explains. In our interview, we discuss how some of the worst behavior in human history has been declared “for the greater good”, despite being destructive and even inhumane.

So teens have a healthy sense of self-confidence…but where are they going to direct it? Scott and I also talk about how teens can figure out their life’s purpose.

Setting Growth-Oriented Goals

Teens love to set lofty goals, but they’re not always realistic…or what teens really want. Many teens strive to be famous on the internet, he says, but this goal often fails to help teens grow and self actualize. Scott advises that teens stay true to themselves when deciding what to do with their lives, and evaluate their strengths and deeper spiritual needs when planning out their latest ambition! He also recommends  that parents sit down status-obsessed kids and help them reorient their goals towards personal and spiritual growth.

Scott describes something that he calls a crystallizing experience–an affirming experience which helps us realize exactly what we want to do with ourselves for the rest of our life. Some teens are lucky enough to have this moment when they’re still young, but some don’t have it until later in life. Scott explains that it could happen any time, and even more than once! Our identities continue to grow and change, so teens shouldn’t feel pressure to have it all figured out right away.

In our interview, Scott and I have an interesting discussion about hope in the face of rejection. While some animals have been researched and shown to experience a natural sense of hopelessness, humans retain the ability to remain resilient. While the sting of rejection is strong, Scott explains that teens can use both their sense of purpose and strategic minds to persevere. In the episode he explains the strategy he used as a teenger to get into the college of his dreams–despite being rejected.

One important trait kids can strive to develop is creativity! Scott and I are discussing how we can work to foster creativity among our teens.

Raising Creative Teens

There are a lot of surprising ways we can help teens be more creative, including letting them daydream! Scott explains that when teens are zoning out, they’re giving their conscious, focused minds a break and entering the world of creative thinking. By turning off their productivity, they’re able to access originality! He believes that if we want to raise teens who think outside the box, we should give teens scheduled time in the day to day dream, doodle, journal, and let their mind run free. 

 Teens who are open to new experiences also tend to be more creative, Scott explains. The more welcoming teens can be of new stimulus, the less confined their thinking will be. In the episode, he shares some fascinating examples of famous, accomplished scientists who didn’t just focus on one area, instead expanding their knowledge across different regions of the scientific world. This allowed them to think outside the box and have some of the most inventive ideas in modern science.

There are a lot of ways our education system could change to encourage more creativity, says Scott. In his view, schools need to assign more project-based learning, to help kids self-actualize and build something that incorporates their own perspectives. This is the first step to encouraging inventiveness and originality, he explains. He also suggests that kids learn to disagree with what they read in the textbook, and that teachers be more open to divergent discussions that push kids to think for themselves.

In the Episode….

Scott and I cover a lot of interesting ground in this week’s episode! On top of the topics discussed above, we also talk about:

  • The advantages of being sensitive
  • What transcendence is and how it can help us
  • The dangers of relying too heavily on labels for our kids
  • What a “Theory Z” worldview is and how we can utilize it to get results

If you enjoyed this week’s episode, check out more from Scott at Scottbarrykaufman.com or on Twitter at @sbkaufman. Thanks for listening! Don’t forget to share and subscribe and we’ll see you next week!


Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I’ve read a couple of your books and there’s so much interesting stuff to talk about here. One that I just finished this morning is called Transcend: The New Science of Self Actualization. It’s a book about some big ideas. What made you think that you could write a book about something as massive as transcendence and how did you go about it?

Scott: Yeah, I don’t know if the idea of transcendence interested me as much when I first got into it as the idea of self-actualization. Maslow’s notions of self-actualization, Abraham Maslow psychology, really captivated me. But the more I dug into his writings, I realized that he didn’t posit that the highest form of human motivation was self-actualization. The last couple years of his life started a posit it was self-transcendence, then that got me hooked on transcendence. It really got me interested in understanding how self-actualization is really just a bridge to higher states of consciousness and higher forms of contribution to society that can transcend our own ego and transcend our own self. So yeah, that took me on a journey, but I didn’t really start off that way.

Andy: What is transcendence?

Scott: Oh boy, here we go. Just shoot right to the top, right to the top. Well, self-transcendence has many definitions. In fact, Maslow wrote an essay proposing there’s 100 or so different definitions of ways people could think about it. In my book, I define it specifically in a very horizontal way, not a vertical way. So transcendence has been emergent phenomenon that arises from the integration of our whole self with the world in the service of realizing society. So a lot of the work of transcendence is really about connecting deeply with the world, not transcending the world.

Andy: I see, okay. Yeah.

Scott: You’re transcending your own geographical limitations of your biological self, but you’re really, in the most extreme way, becoming one with the universe. Yeah, you like that, Andy?

Andy: I do. I love this diagram you have in your book.

Scott: Oh yeah, yeah. The continuum, yeah.

Andy: Yeah, okay. Yeah, the continuum. Self, world-

Scott: The Unity Continuum.

Andy: That’s showing us as we move from flow, mindfulness, gratitude, love, towards peak and mystical experiences there’s an increasing overlap between the self and the outside world.

Scott: Yeah. How would you put that into practice in an education system?

Andy: That is a good question. It feels like it’s completely absent from education or that it’s not even something that we talk about or discus, where you like things that are concrete and we like to teach facts and things that can be memorized. And transcendent experiences seem too intangible or not concrete or something that our education system really just doesn’t go there.

Scott: I know, that’s really unfortunate. There’s so much potential in these kids to realize a really valuable form of actualization, potentiality that they have, something that’s very creative, in a way that makes them feel alive and makes them feel like they’re really existing in this universe. I mean, it’s really a shame. I mean, I don’t think a lot of kids feel fully alive when they’re in middle school.

Andy: Something that you write about in the book that I found interesting is the idea of learned helplessness. And this is something I learned about in psychology classes and everything like that. But you have in here the idea that the original researchers, Steven Meyer and Martin Seligman, later on decided that they had the idea backward. What do you mean by that?

Scott: Yeah, it’s a good question. The original research, which was very seminal by Martin Seligman and Meyer, showed that a lot of rats, and then they studied humans eventually, when faced with the opportunity to experience trauma or experience a challenge, after enough repeated exposures of the challenge they almost forget about it. They didn’t leave when given the opportunity, so they learned that they were helpless. But the more modern day research tends to show that, while that’s maybe the case in rats and dogs, humans, we have a higher order thought processes and cognitive maps that you tend to find that the feeling of helplessness is the automatic response in lots of other animals.

Scott: And, in a lot of ways in humans too, but what we learn is that there’s hope. And we have to add on these additional layers of understanding, which we can in humans. Which doesn’t come so easily to turtles, for instance. We have to learn hope, turtles are not a very hopeful species in terms of their consciousness. Or maybe they are, we just don’t know it. But anyway, yeah, so we really can shift our mindset in lots of ways that allows us to focus on other aspects of our lives and focus on things that allow us to escape an inner prison we may have created for ourselves.

Andy: And how do we learn hope?

Scott: Not by picking up a textbook. You live your life in a way that is aligned with your values, with your calling, your purpose, and you constantly think of lots of various different ways in which you can reach an outcome or goal in your life. There’s just tremendous research on hope in the psychology field by Snyder and Lopez showing that hope doesn’t just require the will to get there, the energy or the motivation, even though that’s a really important part of it. But it also requires being able to figure out contingency plans, like if/then, the alternatives. When I applied to undergraduate, I wanted to be a psychologist and I got rejected. Can you believe it? Ugh, because here I am, I’m a psychologist now.

Scott: And it’s amazing that I am a psychologist now because I got rejected originally. And I didn’t give up, though. The point is I had hope that I would be a psychologist someday. And I went in through the back door. I was a opera singer. I got accepted into the music program at the same school that rejected me for psychology. And then I switched to psychology once I was in there. I know, I’m glad you liked that. I’m glad you like that. So we really have to not give up. That’s a big part of hope too. So many of us give up too quickly. You get one rejection by a girl. You go to the club and you’re done. You’re like, I’m never going to talk to a girl ever again. That’s not the way to win one’s life.

Andy: You talk about healthy self-esteem in the book and I thought this was interesting because the flip side of that is narcissism. And these two unhealthy attempts by regulating the need for self-esteem; grandiose narcissism and vulnerable narcissism. What do those look like and where do those come from? And I think a lot of parents feel that our teenagers are quite narcissistic. And I’ve never quite heard it broken down in terms of these two types of narcissism before.

Scott: When people think of narcissism, they tend to think of the chest thumping, grandiose narcissist who thinks they’re the greatest and must be seen as the greatest at all times. Or very loud. But there’s another form of narcissism called vulnerable narcissism that’s quieter. A lot of these individuals, you don’t even know it. You don’t even know their inner life is narcissistic until maybe someday it’ll come out in some way where they show that they’re like, that person won the Nobel Prize. I should have won the won no prize. And you’re like, what? You don’t even do anything relating to Nobel Prizes.

Scott: Yeah, so it’s really interesting because they’ll seethe in their own head. And then in a less funny way, a much less funny way, in a tragic way, I think a lot of school shooters have very high levels of vulnerable narcissism. Not grandiose narcissism. Those are usually not the kids that are going around bragging and are loud. They’re the ones that you find in their notebook. They had all these secret fantasies of domination, of world domination, so I think that we need to be on the lookout for some of these characteristics as well. Not just the more visible form.

Andy: So how do you look for those? It’s like, you’re paying attention to comments, like what you’re talking about?

Scott: I mean, a lot of it can come from the child themselves if we care to ask them. I think we need to have compassion about it, I don’t think that once you put a label, I don’t like putting labels on people, and I don’t want to put a label on a child. Oh, that child’s a vulnerable narcissist. That child’s a grandiose narcissist. I didn’t particularly like the labels that were put on me as a child, like stupid, retard, all those sorts of things were not nice labels for me as a young kid in special ed. So we have to be very careful to view everyone as a whole person. I don’t think we need to reduce people to specific characteristics, but if a child is struggling because they constantly feel like they’re not being recognized for their greatness that they think they have, that sort of thing.

Scott: I mean, you can see the signs. You can see the signs, but help them through it. And help them come up with a more healthy self-esteem. Something that is more grounded in reality, first of all, but also grounded in inner stability, not so much the need to be recognized by others as great. Just don’t become obsessed with being recognized by others as great, that’s a pathway to just not being happy in life. Not just the damage they do to others, but also the damage they do to themselves. Especially vulnerable narcissists. They describe vulnerable narcissism because they’re so focused on resentment and anxiety and shame when they could be so much more. Do you lean more on the grandiose or the vulnerable side, Andy?

Andy: Well, I mean, I guess the grandiose, it seems like what most people already think of when we think about narcissistic. But the vulnerable is really interesting and more subtle kind of. And yeah, I think it’s really important to be aware of. I’m just wondering what-

Scott: You dodged that question. You dodged that question. I said, Andy, where do you personally lean?

Andy: Oh me. Oh, oh, oh I see. I think grandiose, yeah. I have more grandiose.

Scott: That’s good. It’s better to be … Yeah, if you got to pick one of the two form of narcissism, my recommendation is be the grandiose kind.

Andy: What do you think that we can do as parents to help kids to develop more of the healthy self-esteem? Especially if we notice some of the characteristics of vulnerable narcissism?

Scott: I think that the idea of self-esteem has a really bad connotation, especially the self-esteem movement in the 70s and 80s where it’s like, anything you want to be-

Andy: Pump people up kind of, yeah. You’re great.

Scott: That’s exactly right, but that’s not healthy self-esteem, that’s actually narcissism. I’ve shown and written papers and articles on this, that healthy self-esteem is different from narcissism. They’re different concepts. Narcissism is about being the best but healthy self esteem is just about being enough. And I don’t think we instill in kids enough a healthy self esteem where they have a health self worth. I think a lot of them feel like their self worth is only based on their friends and whether they like them, or their school performance, and so we actually actively instill unhealthy self-esteem in these kids and then say self-esteem is not important, which I think is messed up. I think we need to care about instilling a healthy self-esteem in kids.

Andy: But it’s easy to do because we point to those things like, “No, look, you’re great. You just won this and you got an A in that class and you’re doing so well in this team that you’re on,” and whatever. Almost in trying to help kids build self-esteem, we’re basing it on things that are fragile or externally …

Scott: That’s right. That is exactly right. And so, as we got it backwards there, we should let kids know that they are enough as they are in a lot of ways. Maybe not always, but in terms of their basic fundamental existence and right to be human. And also a sense of competency or real sense of healthy … Well, first of all, regulation of the narcissism, but also that they can reach their goals in life. That they have what it takes to be authentically … to have authentic pride in what they’re doing. Not hubristic pride, not this puffed up kind of pride, but I kind of, well, you know what? I realized this project, I’m showing growth. I can reasonably be proud of myself, but doesn’t mean I’m better than others. But yeah, so I think that we could do a lot for building a healthy self-esteem.

Andy: It’s interesting because I found that a connection between this and the concept you talked about later in the book, which is healthy selfishness. You talk about healthy self love and healthy selfishness. What does that mean and how could selfishness possibly be healthy? Aren’t we supposed to be selfless?

Scott: The healthy selfishness is, in a lot of ways, a response to the notion of toxic altruism or pathological altruism, where a lot of people seem to be obsessively helping others and not even really looking at what the other person’s needs really are. Not really looking to see if you’re even really helping the person. A lot of it comes down to your own ego, helping people makes you feel good about yourself. But healthy selfishness, you can really do a lot of things to take care of yourself. You do a lot of things to set proper boundaries and to, for instance, meditate or be aware of your own self doing or work. And it’s healthier than toxically projecting all your insecurities onto others in the guise of altruism. A lot of people do terrible things in the course of human history in the name of altruism. Hate to say it. Everyone thinks they’re on the right side of history.

Andy: Right. Yeah, some of the most terrible things in the history of the world have been done in the name of saving others and helping. Yeah, yeah, right.

Scott: But it’s ego. There’s an idea called Communal Narcissism, which is that you’re the greatest at helping others. It’s kind of an overconfidence in your ability to help others as well. Toxic, pathological altruism. There’s also this idea, collective narcissism, and I think that’s a problem too.

Andy: There’s a really interesting section of your book on striving and you talk about how to strive wisely. And you say, yeah, “It’s not enough to just have purpose. We need to be really conscious about what we’re striving towards and how we’re doing that.” What does it mean to strive wisely?

Scott: Maslow had a great quote, “What’s worth doing is not worth doing well.” So I think it’s really important to recognize that just reaching a goal or setting out a goal is not enough. I mean, it’s important to put some thought into, what is a good fit for you? What is in line with your character strengths? What is in line with your deepest being? Deepest being. Your deepest existence. I don’t know if this is too deep for teenagers, but there’s a lot of work that gets done before you even set out in your goal. And I don’t think a lot of people put that thought into it.

Andy: So how can we help or make sure that our teenagers are striving wisely instead of just pursuing whatever?

Scott: Yeah. It’s a big question. It’s a big, big question. Psychologists distinguish between growth goals and status goals, for instance. A lot of teenagers have status goals. A lot of teenagers, their goal will lead to things like power, money, popularity, fame, all those things. Social media likes. How many teenagers want to be a YouTube influencer? A lot.

Andy: Totally.

Scott: Those goals, in and of themselves, are not growth-oriented goals. And how do they relate to the growth of the person’s own individual self-actualization? So I think really helping the teenager look at who they really want to grow and to be. And to lead from there. Lead from growth, don’t lead from status. And that’s a start. I mean, there’s a lot more to it, but there’s only so much you can get into on a podcast. Read Transcend, folks.

Andy: Okay, one final question from this book is on the Theory Z Worldview, what does that refer to?

Scott: Yeah, so Theory Z is a worldview, Maslow call it dichotomy transcendence. We’re able to see, at a broader level of human nature, and have the wisdom to see that we’re all connected in some way. And lots of different things that are semi opposites are actually part of a larger hole. That higher level, male and female, can be integrated. Evil versus good can be integrated. Selfish/unselfish is not such an easy dichotomy as I alluded to earlier. It’s a higher level way of thinking and also it’s a motivation. It involves a motivation for transcendence, for the flow state, peak experiences. For being one with nature, with the world, and being motivated by that. Those experiences, those transcendent experiences.

Andy: So how can we facilitate or encourage more Theory Z thinking in our kids?

Scott: I mean, no one’s ever asked me that question before. It’s a great question. It’s just, no one’s going to understand what that means when you go to school like, “Hey everyone, we’re going have Theory Z thinking today.” But I like it. I like it. Let’s bring it down to … We’re very up here. We’re up in the clouds right now. But bringing it down to just basics, it’s, if you’re a teacher, encourage students to think outside of binaries that are so prevalent. Maybe teenagers even, because of the way their brain is not developed yet. Maybe they’re even more prone to thinking in terms of binaries, thinking in terms of black and white, thinking in terms of, well, that person’s good, I’m bad. Or I’m good that person’s bad. Or oh, that political group is bad because they’re different than my political group. There’s so much juvenile thinking among adults these days, quite frankly. A teenager should teach the adults something, they’re more evolved than the adults these days. But it’s just ridiculous the kind of in-group and out-group fighting we have right now. And tribal thinking.

Andy: I love that. Yeah, that’s really positive. I think it’s easy for all of us to get caught up in those kinds of us versus them. Good versus bad. It’s a reminder to just, looking for the unity, looking for the connection, looking for how those circles come together and overlap.

Scott: Boom. Well, you should write a book. Theory Z Thinking for Teens.

Andy: Hey, that would be a great book.

Scott: I would endorse it, yeah.

Andy: All right, we’re doing it.


About Scott Barry Kaufman

Scott Barry Kaufman is the author of Transcend, Wired to Create, the forthcoming Choose Growth: A Workbook for Transcending Trauma, Fear, and Self-Doubt, and more.

Scott is a cognitive scientist and humanistic psychologist. He is a professor at Columbia University and founder and director of the Center for the Science of Human Potential. He has previously  taught at Columbia University, Yale, NYU, and the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Kaufman hosts The Psychology Podcast— the #1 psychology podcast in the world. It’s received over 20 million downloads, and was included in Business Insider’s list of “9 podcasts that will change how you think about human behavior.” 

Scott’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Scientific American, Psychology Today, and Harvard Business Review, and he is the author and editor of 9 books. In 2015, he was named one of “50 groundbreaking scientists who are changing the way we see the world” by Business Insider.

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