Identity: Compromise? Confusion? Comfortability?

High School Identity: Compromise? Confusion? Comfortability?

This project is a requirement of the GOA Abnormal Psychology Course. Using the process of design thinking, a challenge in the world of mental health was identified, interviews and research were undertaken, and a solution prototype was developed. Below you will find information about the identified area of concern and my proposed solution. Please feel free to provide feedback on this prototype, using questions such as “How might we…”, “What if….?”, “I wonder….”, “I like…”, and “I wish.” Keep the comments positive, please. For more information on the process of Design Thinking, click here.


“The ego is only an illusion, but a very influential one. Letting the ego-illusion become your identity can prevent you from knowing your true self. Ego, the false idea of believing that you are what you have or what you do, is a backwards way of assessing and living life” – Wayne Dyer

At my high school, The Taft School, I have experienced confusion about my idea of identity. Coming into Taft, I personally was lost trying to find my place in our community, while also trying not to compromise who I am. This was proven very difficult for me. I wanted to dress the way I was comfortable, but also wanted to blend in with the other students. I wanted to act the way I would around my home friends, but also wanted to understand and embrace the actions of a Taftie. I wanted to meet new people, but I was constantly longing to be with my old friends who I had known for years. I didn’t want my ego to grow and become my identity, as the quote above mentions. It was a constant back and forth battle between what I thought of as my “old” and “new” self.  I knew that going into high school was going to be a difficult change, but it seemed like everyone around me had established their friend group, their place at our school, and the way they wanted to portray themselves. I was very wrong. 

It wasn’t until a speech given by a girl named Natalie Locarno in my english class in the fall of my junior year that I realized that there were people who shared similar experiences with me. She is someone who I always thought embraced her Latina heritage and seemed very comfortable with herself. She spoke about how in her first several months at Taft she felt the need to straighten her naturally curly hair and alter the way she acted to fit into the idolized stereotype at Taft. It made me realize that this was a much more common experience than I had previously thought. It saddened me that after her speech, the conversation about identity seemed to continue being nearly nonexistent. I was very fortunate to become comfortable after my first few months at Taft, finding reliable friends and trying my best to stay true to myself. Although stereotypes and pressures to change are still prevalent, I am much more comfortable with who I am and am able to look past them for the most part. After hearing her speech, I was interested in knowing whether there were more people who seemed very comfortable with themselves who have or continue to struggle with their identity as it pertains to Taft.


Identity compromise is something that every high school student experiences. The severity of these compromises differ, but everyone can relate to it in some way or another. However, my first few months at Taft I felt alone in this conflict. After hearing the girl’s speech, I was interested in knowing whether there were more people who appeared to be very comfortable with themselves who also have or continue to struggle with their identity as it pertains to Taft. I spoke with Dr. Rachel Jacobs, a counselor at my school, and she told me that these mini “identity crises” are actually very common. She told me that coming to Taft in particular, many students felt the same way that I had. They felt lost and out of place and it seemed as if everyone else had their lives together. This showed me that so many students put on a mask to conceal their real struggles with accepting themselves and trying to find the right people to be around. What was very interesting to me was that many people weren’t fortunate like me to become comfortable within their first few months here. There are plenty of people who act like they are happy with the people they are friends with, the clubs they are a part of, and the sports they play who are actually very unhappy and feel out of place. They have felt like they have to alter who they are for several reasons, including the desire to be a part of a popular friend group or fill a stereotype that they feel is idolized in our community. My goal of this project is to bring attention to the fact that teenagers struggle with this urge to compromise who they are to fit in at their schools. 


I took a survey (linked below) of 9 questions related to identity at Taft and high school students in general. 85 students responded to the survey and their answers supported what Dr. Jacobs told me. I used quotes and data from the surveys to create a set of photos that reflected identity at Taft.

*The people in the photos are not necessarily the ones responsible for the quotes*

“I feel like I have to change large aspects of my character so that I can be accepted” “True identity, the identity we present to our close friends, and the identity we present to our school are all very different” 

33 students responded yes to the question in my survey that writes, “Do you portray yourself differently at your current school than you previously have? (This could include way you dress, act, hobbies, interests, etc.)”.

“Stereotypes pressure me into feeling I have to act and dress a certain way to fit in.”

“When I think about conformity at Taft I usually think of clothing because not only is it a symbol of “knowledge” about what to wear but is also an indicator of socioeconomic status. Clothing is so important to a lot of people here because it makes them feel more validated in the community.”

“I changed the way I dressed mostly to wear what was considered “cool” by the preceding classes at Taft.”

“I have changed a lot [since coming to Taft] and tried to dress more wealthy.”

34 people replied “some of the time” and 3 people replied “not at all” to Overall, are you happy with the friends/friend group you have/are a part of?”. This could be explained by the previous statistic. Students have altered themselves to fit into a certain friend group, which ultimately leads to having “friends” who don’t truly know and appreciate who they are.

“Stereotypes play a huge role in our community, I don’t exactly fit into the typical blonde stereotype, which was hard for me in my first year of high school. I have great friends, and because of them I have found my place. You just need to find your people.”

“I feel as though I have gained confidence at Taft and am capable of expressing myself and thriving in the community.”

Please leave comments below about how you perceive these photos and quotes!


As you you can see, identity confusion is a very heavy, complicated, and widely spread issue in the Taft community. I am interested in if this is as common in other schools as it is at mine. Is there a difference depending on the schools? Public vs. private? This is where I need your help. Please take the 9 question survey below. It is the same survey that I sent out to the my peers at Taft. It isn’t long; on average it took students about 3 to 4 minutes. My hope is that you take this as an opportunity to reflect on your own identity as it pertains to your high school and how identity and stereotypes plays a role in the daily lives of fellow students in your community.

Survey Link:

The issue of stereotypes and identity conformity is something that I have personally felt improved as my Taft career progressed. When writing about the separation based on stereotypes (including race, socio-economic status, etc.) in The Papyrus, our school newspaper, Collin Amelsburg wrote,  “I am very proud to say that I have seen massive changes in this separation during my three years at Taft so far, especially in the upperclassman, but it is still not uncommon to see girls and guys separated into two sides in [the upper school dining hall] and all-guy and all-girl tables in [the lower school dining hall]”. As Collin said, there has been improvement in the way our school views stereotypes, similarly to how I have seen improvement in how identity plays a role in conforming to/idolizing stereotypes. However, it is very evident that there is still work to be done.

Now that you have had a chance to see the perspectives of fellow high school students and to reflect on your own identity, I would like to offer some suggestions for improving on this issue. It is very important to reach out to students, especially new ones. They need to feel wanted, valued, and like they belong. By doing so, you will help them find their place in the community. Even if this student seems like they are doing well, they might be struggling with their identity and trying to hide it. I also urge everyone to stay true to who you are. As cliché as it sounds, it is so much better to overcome the pressure to change yourself to fit in because by compromising who you are, you are going to end up in friend groups that don’t truly appreciate you for the real you. Sticking to your beliefs and personality will ultimately help you be able to say along with one of the responders, “I have great friends, and because of them I have found my place. You just need to find your people.”

After engaging in my project, I urge everyone to think about if there are similar issues at their schools. I can guarantee you that many students have felt some level of need to conform in high school. My hope is that everyone reaches out to new students, making them feel welcomed and valued. Although this is a big dream, I hope that we can move away from idolizing one stereotype at our school and at your respective school. To do this, we need to start by embracing and sharing out own identities and learning about our peer’s identities. This will create a more accepting environment in which more than just one standard identity is accepted and glorified.


Kennedy, Shealyn, and Dr. Rachel Jacobs. 13 Apr. 2018.

“Wayne Dyer Quotes.” BrainyQuote, Xplore,

Amelsburg, Collin. “Big Boys Don’t Cry?” The Papyrus, 13 Apr. 2018.


Share this project
  1. April 27, 2018 by Emma.Healy

    Hi Shealyn! I really like your project because I definitely think it’s a relevant topic at a lot of schools involved in GOA. Often times, prep schools like Taft and my school, Hawken, have a certain stereotype associated with them. For me personally, I’ve noticed that many people see Hawken as the place for smart kids who have too much money to know what to do with. This causes a lot of kids to feel like they don’t belong or that they have to change themselves to fit in. The reality is, however, our student body is the most diverse of any private school in our area in terms of race, socioeconomic class, sexuality, academic, and extracurricular interests. But still, students feel that they have to fit a certain mold in order to belong in our community. What really struck me about your presentation was the idea of how clothing, which seems like a minor thing, is such a major symbol of conformity. Overall, great job on your project!

    • April 27, 2018 by Shealyn.Kennedy

      Thank you!! I totally agree with the stereotype of the school from an outside perspective when in reality it’s so much more than just one stereotype. I think that looking at it from an outsiders perspective is really interesting. Thanks again!

  2. April 28, 2018 by leilani.ahina

    Hi Shealyn,

    This is such a relevant topic and I love that you started by explaining your personal connection to it, and why it is meaningful to you. I’m wondering what your opinion of school uniforms is – would this level the playing field?

    Dr. Ahina

    • April 28, 2018 by Shealyn.Kennedy

      Hi Dr. Ahina,
      I can see how school uniforms could eliminate the financial inequalities shown through clothing. At the same time, I think that clothing is a way to express yourself. For that reason, I wouldn’t agree with school uniforms. I think that it would be more impactful if the need to wear “high-class” clothing was lessened. I think that there are many people who are happy wearing high brands, but I also think that many people wear them just to fit in. If we were able to have role models who wore different brands and styles that they felt comfortable in, it would change the dynamic and standard.

  3. April 29, 2018 by Osi Bialunska

    Hi Shealyn,
    I think the topic of your project is extremally relevant as it influences the mental health of many students. I think your study about many people not being comfortable with their friend groups is one of the key points here – people shouldn’t be afraid to be who they are and truly express themselves, especially with their friends! I loved your project, great job!

    • April 29, 2018 by Shealyn.Kennedy

      Thank you Osi! I agree that not being comfortable within a friend group is very detrimental to a teenager’s mental health and very limiting in terms of expression of true self. Thank you!

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