I’ve been talking recently to older teens who are struggling to find their identity. It’s a common question for that age group, trying to figure out where they fit in the world. I’ve been struck by the common thread in most of the advice they’ve repeated to me, specifically that they need to figure out who they are before they can have a healthy relationship or accomplish goals in life. I think that advice is exactly backwards. In my experience, young adults find their strongest identity in serving and caring for other people. In other words, you learn who you are when you sacrifice for people worthy of that sacrifice.
As parents, we instinctively know that truth. A big portion of our identity is caring for our children. Of course, kids are not “worthy” of our sacrifice in the same sense as adults are. But because they are young and vulnerable, we are responsible for them and find fulfillment in taking care of them.
Adult relationships are more equal, but healthy relationships fill that same role. When we are in a solid relationship that includes mutual self-sacrifice, we learn more about who we are than we could ever learn by focusing on ourselves alone.
I stumbled on this truth about self-sacrifice when I became a foster parent. I was still single and my strongest relationships were with my parents, siblings, and pets. I was focused on my career, which I enjoyed, but it didn’t give me any sense of identity. All of that changed when I became a foster parent and suddenly had to focus on someone other than myself. I discovered that, as I explained to a friend at the time, “Being a lawyer is how I pay my bills, but what I do is raise other people’s children.”
Now, I understand and firmly believe that we have to spend some time focusing on ourselves in order to be able to care for other people. The saying that “you can’t pour from an empty cup” is absolutely true. But at some point, continued focus on ourselves becomes just self-indulgence.
And that’s the problem with advising young adults to focus on themselves first. It feeds into our natural self-indulgence and leaves young adults in a state of extended adolescence. They never have to take responsibility for another human being’s happiness, and thus never learn important lessons about themselves.
So I’ve started giving contrary advice to young adults, encouraging them to find ways to help other people. Of course, I’m not recommending that they jump into marriage and raising children. But they can volunteer for charities, work on the Board of Directors for a cause that they believe in, or just spend time with older relatives. The important point is for them to sacrifice some of their comforts, time, and resources for someone else. Our kids have to look outside themselves to find out who they really are.