Whether you know it or not, your level of popularity in adolescence has directly affected your ability to develop fulfilling relationships, success in your career and it can impact how long you will live.
While your body lies hidden behind the big metal desk, your face is planted into your left arm and your right thumb is poised up in the air. Until that moment, when the shuffling about the room silences and the teacher announces “heads up seven up!” or…. That magical and incredible moment where you feel another hand touching your thumb. Filled with giddiness and curiosity about who picked you and with a mind racing over the possibilities and what it could mean, when the announcement is made, you sit upright and look at the line-up before you.
Today we are going to talk about the psychology of popularity. We will explore the science of belonging, your origin story, and strategies to identify and confront the psychological cast of character that impact on your mood, your brain, and even your life expectancy.
We will discuss the questions:
∙ Why does popularity matter? And
∙ How can I stop my past from dictating my future?
Even though we have long departed the world of being singled out in a game of heads up seven up, we have never left a world where popularity matters. The social dynamics of adolescence continue to play out in board meetings, our government, job promotions, and in the 9-to-5.
One of the reasons for this is that social behavior and identity are largely formed in adolescence. In the book entitled: Popular: The Power of Likability in a Status-Obsessed World, author, Mitch Prinstein describes changes in the brain that occur during puberty that impact our lives in the long run. Of particular importance is the ventral striatum.
The ventral striatum is in a part of your brain called the limbic system, which is in the center of your brain. Its job is primarily related to decision making and the ventral striatum becomes particularly activated when we receive social rewards.
So, while you were playing heads up seven up your extremely malleable, reward–driven, teenage-brain was creating associative networks around the micro-nuances of your peer relationships and constructed hierarchies.
You got a social reward, your ventral striatum tagged that as important, and you craved more rewards, and this drove your behavior and constructed your sense of identity.
Your brain was mapped and your identity was formed by an adolescent brain that had not fully matured or moved away from the unaware, impulsive, and self–driven ways of childhood.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that processes higher-order thinking and helps us control our impulses. The prefrontal cortex is not fully mature until about the age of 25.
This leaves us with a perfect storm of impulsive, hormonal, largely unaware teenagers whose brains are continuously changing based on social feedback from other impulsive, hormonal, and largely unaware teenagers.
The time of your greatest developmental and neurological change was driven, in part, by your sixth-grade peer group.
Pause a moment and take that in. “The time of your greatest developmental and neurological change was driven, in part, by your sixth-grade peer group.”
What was your middle school experience like?
How is that impacting you today?
The greatest irony of all this is that throughout human history, adolescent sociological constructs have formed the foundation of mankind’s neurological development, the formation of society, culture, and anthropology.
In a study of social relationships and mortality risk, researcher Julianne Holt-Lunsatad concluded that the influence of social relationships has a profound impact on health and mortality. In fact, those who had a larger network of friends had a greater likelihood of surviving until the end of the study and high-quality relationships gave a person a 91 percent higher survival rate. She stated that unpopularity, on the other hand, was a greater risk factor for death than obesity, lack of exercise, and alcohol abuse.
As a result, we have a perfect storm of childish, impulsive, immature teenagers painting the picture of each individual’s eventual adulthood and life expectancy. The adolescent constructed a sense of hierarchy and identity largely solidifies a person’s identity for the remainder of their lives and directly impacts their social behavior, personal relationships, and health.
We don’t see things as they are, we see things through a lens of how they were. Or as Anaïs Nin wrote, in her 1958 novel Seduction of the Minotaur: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
So… what does all this mean? Are we doomed to live in a society of hedonic-driven adults running around with the maturity of adolescence? Is the rest of my life going to be controlled by what happened to me in junior high?
The answer is this: YOU CAN WRITE A NEW STORY.
The good news is that while the plasticity of childhood and adolescence is long gone, our brains are still remarkably capable of growing, learning, and changing.
While the research shows that adolescence is profoundly important, research also shows that we can mindfully change the structure of our brains and change the course of our lives.
The cast of characters in your childhood and adolescence are still relevant today, and doing an audit of your Origin Story will enable you to turn the page and start writing a new chapter. The way you want it.
While many individuals continue to be driven by their biological wiring that says that self-esteem is based on how others see us, you have the choice to change your brain so that it delivers a different message like:
My value comes from within.
My past does not dictate my future.
I can heal from past traumas.
The decisions of a 4th grader do not have to determine my choices today.
The ability to mindfully change your brain untaps your limitless potential and opens the doors to a life that you never previously imagined.
We see this in the personal triumphs of some of the most admired and accomplished people of our time. For example: What do Lady Gaga, Barak Obama, Emma Watson, and Steven Spielberg have in common? They were all victims of childhood bullying, and they did not allow that to become their story. They were able to turn the page and write a new story and you can too.
Starting right now.
There are three key steps in reconstructing your brain and therefore your life.
(1) Acknowledge where you came from by exploring your Origin Story. The Origin Story exercise is a process that we use in the Anxiety Breakthrough Program to begin to explore the key points throughout your life that stick out to you as important, impactful and profound.
(2) Next is to begin to unpack your cast of characters. This will aid us in understanding how you got here and provide us data with what your brain has been wired to believe, and may also provide you an invitation for a current relationship audit.
(3) Transformation: One of the steps of transformation involves life design, followed by intentional actions to actively walk a new path. This may involve accepting and releasing your origin story. Or it may require you to do fact-checking of your brain’s automatic messaging. It also might require that you start to re-examine your relationships from the past and in your current life. Transformation is all about creating new habits. For this step pick one thing that you can commit to yourself that you can do every single day.
Let me share with you an example of how I went through this process with a client of mine.
We’ll call her Mary. Mary’s main goal was to get off her benzodiazepine medication and be free from anxiety. Her anxiety was triggered in social events, anticipating things coming up, and she would have panic attacks at random.
When we went through Mary’s Origin Story. Let me read you a short excerpt from her notes:
“I was a bright and curious little girl, and in kindergarten, I was voted as the most outgoing among my classmates. In February of my 1st-grade year, my dad was relocated to an international deployment, and my mother and little sister and I had to move in the middle of the school year to live with my mom’s parents in Ohio. I had to start at a new school in the middle of the school year and I became very shy. I had grown up in the south and my peers thought my southern accent was funny and teased me. I also felt very lonely and I missed my dad. I remember that I felt like my dad did not love me enough to stay home, and I felt like I was weird and that people were going to always judge me.
At home, my little sister was not in school yet and she was babysat by our grandmother. My mom and her mother did not get along and would fight very loudly, causing my sister to cry. My home felt unpredictable and I would often go and play outside by myself in order to get away from the yelling. I got used to being alone, and over the next few years we spent in Ohio, I became increasingly timid and anxious.
When I was in 4th grade we moved back to our previous community in the south, and I rejoined the class that I had left. But I no longer fit in. I had missed out on all of the birthday parties, and other events between 1st and 4th grade and I didn’t have any friends.”
If we just stop here, we can start to deconstruct the 3 phases from the ACT Model:
Acknowledge: There was a profound shift in Mary’s origin story. She remembered being outgoing and having many friends, and this all changed when her father left home and Mary moved with her mother and sister across the country. She remembers being picked on and she adopted a new label for herself using words phrases like: not loved enough, weird, judged.
Repeated messaging from the brain to the self becomes more deeply ingrained over time, and even after Mary left the environment where her symptoms first began and went back to the place where she had previously thrived, the cognitive messages that she had adapted continued and carried through to her adulthood.
We cannot change what we do not know. Having an understanding of Mary’s history gives us data on how to change her future.
As you look at your story, ask yourself: How has my past impacted my present?
Cast of Characters: There are several characters in Mary’s story. First are her classmates who love her and lift her up, this social interaction stimulates her ventral striatum and she thrived. Another character is her father, and when he left, her child-like understanding interpreted this as her not being worthy of his love. Feeling rejected by a primary attachment caregiver destabilized her sense of personal value and safety which is the breeding ground of anxiety. There are the characters of the bullies at school who tell her that she is weird and tease her, further dictating a neurological environment around self-doubt, insecurity, and anxiety. The turmoil between her mother and her grandmother further destabilized her sense of security and she isolated more and more.
As you can see, all of these small details add up to a large impact.
Of course, Mary was anxious. How could she not be? It takes a lot of intentionality, healing, and transformation to live the life she desired. And this is our third step.
Transformation can only come when we have truly done the deep personal work to fully understand our story, our thinking processes, our different parts of ourselves, our unmet needs, and most of all our cast of characters whether they be our parts, our community, or our biological characters.
Mary transformed her life by following intentional actions to actively walk a new path.
She re-examined her story, her belief systems, her biologically-ingrained-cognitive narratives, and she did an audit of her relationships.
I’d like you to reflect and ask yourself three questions:
∙ What is my origin story?
∙ What cast of characters do I need to investigate?
∙ What is one thing that I can do each to transform my life?
No matter what your childhood and adolescence were like, you can live the life you desire. It will take work on your part, and I’ll be here with you every step of the journey. You don’t have to face it alone.
We may be biologically wired for popularity. But what if we turn the page on who is constructing the definition of popularity, value, and worthiness? What if we re-evaluated who is allowed into our sacred space, and what is being kept versus being returned to sender? What if you were able to rewire your brain and free yourself from the drama of adolescent socialization?
What would that look like?
You can start doing that today. And you don’t have to do it alone.
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Hey everyone. Thanks for listening, this has been Dr. Nicole Cain. If you want more free information on how to get your life back, check out my website at www.DrNicolecain.com. You can send me questions, learn about consulting with me directly, and even preview my online courses.
And now for the disclaimer: The recording you just listened to consists of the personal opinions of Dr. Nicole Cain, Naturopathic Doctor, and while these opinions are based upon literature, her counseling education, medical training, and clinical experience, this content should not be viewed as the definitive opinion on the subject.
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I’ll see you next time, here’s to your next chapter.
Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic ReviewJulianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316 retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article%3Fid=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316