“I firmly believe that respect is a lot more important, and a lot greater, than popularity.” -Julius Erving

“When people laugh at Mickey Mouse, it’s because he’s so human; and that is the secret of his popularity.” – Walt Disney

Group of people holding hands“Jenna” (name changed, although she gave permission to share her story) is a 16-year-old who entered therapy of her own volition, with the full support of her concerned parents. Presenting with symptoms of depression and voicing that she experiences social anxiety, she was willing to discuss with the clinician that she wanted to “feel better about me and my life.” She let her therapist know that like many girls her age, she worries that she will be judged for how she looks, how she speaks and what she thinks. The onset of her insecurities was middle school. Prior to that, she was confident, had many friends and had little concern about the impression she made. A happy-go-lucky kid was the image reflected in the mirror.

Her interests are many and varied; from writing (one of her admitted passions) to music (indie-pop and world music are favorites). She admits being a ‘quirky kid,’ not like her friends. She has out of the box thoughts. Her best friend is a girl she describes as “making friends everywhere she goes. I could never do that. I would have to change my whole personality.” Her fashion sense likely resembles those of her peers; ripped jeans, t-shirts, hoodies, a few ear piercings, multiple bracelets, sneakers or boots. Her hair is stylish. Most would say she is ‘cute,’ forgoing makeup for a more natural look. She seems not to feel a need to keep up with her friends in terms of appearance. She sees that as a strength, which her therapist reinforces. She seems to be able to hold her own in conversation with her counselor about topics that would be deemed more sophisticated and mature.

The subject of popularity arose in a recent session. How would she define it? “Acting in ways that have other people wanting to be like you and be around you.” For Jenna, it isn’t about quantity, but the quality of friendships. She has another close friend in addition to the one referenced earlier. With both of them, she can be authentic and true to her feelings. Sadly, she still doesn’t place herself in the popular category, since she doesn’t view herself as someone to emulate.

Why Do Teens Want to Be Popular?

  • Adolescence is a time of uncertainty; that bridge between childhood and adulthood
  • A sense of belonging and finding their tribe who engage in similar rituals
  • A belief that being popular makes them unbreakable and invulnerable
  • They may be stepping back from parent-child relationship and creating their own sovereignty
  • Defining personal values that shape interpersonal interactions
  • Feeling that what they do and who they are is of consequence
  • Bolstering a flagging sense of self-worth
  • Creating a personal identity

What Are  Qualities of the Cool Kids“?

This 58-year-old professional still ponders that question. High School was a paradoxical time for me. I felt insecure and in some ways like the aforementioned client. It wasn’t about fame, but more about inclusivity and validation. There was a push-pull element to it. On the one hand, I didn’t want to fit into a mold, instead, desiring to be unique. On the other hand, I wanted to belong and not be considered ‘weird.’ Ironically, now I claim that status and confess that there are times when I stretch beyond the cultural norms; such as using vegan hair dye in bright, vivid shades of purple and pink.  It causes eye rolls and sighs in my 29-year-old son who tells me it is “unprofessional,” but has strangers who are my age and some young enough to be my children, applauding my boldness.

When I contemplate the people in my adult life who I would consider popular, I observe that they are usually kind, caring and compassionate and place a high value on relationships. When I step into the ‘way back machine’ and return to the late 1970’s when I was in High School, I observe that those who were the ‘cool kids’ were star athletes, cheerleaders, and student government leaders. In some cases, the roles overlapped. As I reconnected with some of my classmates at our 35th reunion, we laughed at the roads we have all taken since then and I was delighted to see that many had embraced the adult values I described. In their current circles, some would say they are popular and some would claim it matters less now than it did back then.

Popularity comes at a cost

  • Increased use of drugs and alcohol
  • Increased criminal activity
  • Needing to maintain status and position
  • Limited choice of friends- since they may feel they can’t ‘lower themselves’ to associate with those less popular
  • Constant re-evaluation of appearance
  • Needing to consistently ‘take the temperature’ of the room and adapt
  • Pressure to be a trendsetter

Is It Hip to Be Square?

A study conducted at the University of Virginia indicates that those who were considered cool in school, “were more likely to have bigger troubles later in life. As young adults, they were using 40% more drugs and alcohol than the ‘not so cool’ kids and were 22% more likely to be running into troubles with the law. When their social competence as adults was quantified (which included how well they got along with friends, acquaintances, and romantic partners), the teens considered cool in middle school received ratings that were 24% lower than their less cool peers.”

Instant Ways to Become More Popular

  • Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond.
  • If you have ever wanted to be a cheerleader, now is your chance. Be a solid support to the people in your life as you champion their success.
  • Spread “good gossip,” by saying nice (not mean) things about your family and friends. You are an influencer whose words have power.
  • Welcome new people into your circles.
  • Self-confidence is an attractive quality that will draw people to you.
  • Be the kind of person you would want to have as a friend.
  • Help people feel good about themselves.
  • Be generous of spirit and heart.