Thursday, June 23, 2011
Why I think we 20-somethings need therapy
There are a million blog-post worthy things packed inside Lori Gottlieb's article on how to land your kids in therapy (see yesterday's post).
There's the whole idea that our generation has a discomfort with being uncomfortable:
"If kids can’t experience painful feelings, [Dr. Dan] Kindlon told me when I called him not long ago, they won’t develop “psychological immunity.”
“It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops,” he explained. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle. I know parents who call up the school to complain if their kid doesn’t get to be in the school play or make the cut for the baseball team. I know of one kid who said that he didn’t like another kid in the carpool, so instead of having their child learn to tolerate the other kid, they offered to drive him to school themselves. By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship. Civilization is about adapting to less-than-perfect situations, yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.’”
Or that we were raised in environments that squashed our anxiety versus letting us feeling it and develop a way to cope:
“Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their anxiety for them their entire childhoods,” Mogel said of these kids, “so they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.” Which might be how people like my patient Lizzie end up in therapy. “You can have the best parenting in the world and you’ll still go through periods where you’re not happy,” Jeff Blume, a family psychologist with a busy practice in Los Angeles, told me when I spoke to him recently. “A kid needs to feel normal anxiety to be resilient. If we want our kids to grow up and be more independent, then we should prepare our kids to leave us every day.”
But the thing I found most fascinating of all was this concept that so many among us are unhappy to the point of seeking therapy because we don't believe we're happy enough. I promise this will eventually make sense. First a quote from Gottlieb:
My parents certainly wanted me to be happy, and my grandparents wanted my parents to be happy too. What seems to have changed in recent years, though, is the way we think about and define happiness, both for our children and for ourselves. Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier. The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way. “I am happy,” writes Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project, a book that topped the New York Times best-seller list and that has spawned something of a national movement in happiness-seeking, “but I’m not as happy as I should be.”
I'm not as happy as I should be.
One more long quote:
"When ego-boosting parents exclaim “Great job!” not just the first time a young child puts on his shoes but every single morning he does this, the child learns to feel that everything he does is special. Likewise, if the kid participates in activities where he gets stickers for “good tries,” he never gets negative feedback on his performance. (All failures are reframed as “good tries.”) According to Twenge, indicators of self-esteem have risen consistently since the 1980s among middle-school, high-school, and college students. But, she says, what starts off as healthy self-esteem can quickly morph into an inflated view of oneself—a self-absorption and sense of entitlement that looks a lot like narcissism. In fact, rates of narcissism among college students have increased right along with self-esteem. THE IRONY IS that measures of self-esteem are poor predictors of how content a person will be, especially if the self-esteem comes from constant accommodation and praise rather than earned accomplishment. According to Jean Twenge, research shows that much better predictors of life fulfillment and success are perseverance, resiliency, and reality-testing—qualities that people need so they can navigate the day-to-day."
If we had to sum this whole situation up it would be that young adults today are seeking therapy to manage the fact that they feel very unhappy. The two primary reasons they feel very unhappy are 1. they've were raised in an environment that sheltered them from being unhappy/uncomfortable/anxious, so they don't know how to deal with those feelings and 2. they were raised to expect that they should be incredibly happy/successful/accomplished/directed, so thy don't know how to deal with this very unstable/confusing time in our lives when success doesn't come as easily as it appears to on TV.
I don't know how I feel about the beginning of both those sentences. The "they were raised to" part. Yes, maybe our generation of parents had a certain style about their mothering and fathering that lead to this result, but I think it was just as much the culture of the times - the school environments, the day-care centers, the families we were watching on TV.
Regardless of exactly how this happened though, I agree with Lori Gottlieb on the fact that it did happen. I've been writing about the 20-something experience for almost four years now, and if there's one thing that I've noticed about myself and my peers it's that we want and believe we should have a level of success, happiness and plan for the future that is generally unrealistic. I have never been an unhappy person (probably because my parents did insist that I cope with being unhappy at a young age), but I am anxious about how much I'm accomplished so far. I am disappointed in myself for not being more successful at this point. I am constantly trying to achieve dreams I have for myself and to figure out exactly what my other dreams are so I can achieve those too. I'm not sure I'd go so far as to say that I am not content with my life or not proud of where I am at this point, but I believe I can and should do more and go further, and the fact that I haven't makes me disappointed.
By standards of any generation, including this one, the way I feel is ridiculous. Embarrassing, even. I have everything I should want and am on a path to making my wildest dreams come true. But this is the point of Gottlieb's article. We as a generation - a generation that watched 16-year-old pop stars take over the world, feisty housewives launch namesake brands, and Harvard drop outs become billionaires - believe we should be "the one" or at least "a one." We've been raised with the constant encouragement and support to climb as high as we can imagine.
So to put a finer point on Gottlieb's assessment of why a 20-something feels like a 20-nothing I'd say it's because we're not sure how to focus on the happiness in our every day lives without keeping one eye squarely on where we should be and what we should be doing to get there.
One more mortifying confession:
In my first few months in L.A. I felt stalled. I was adjusting to so many new things that I couldn't focus on my writing. I didn't know enough people to really begin the networking process. And I found the learning curve of industry-speak harder to overcome that I'd imagined. I wasn't doing as much as I intended to be doing once I finally made the move West. "My output is too low," I'd tell R over and over again. He would shake his head at me and laugh. But inside my obnoxious complaint was so much evidence of who many of us are at this age.
We are unaware that life can't be measured in "output." There are no more superlatives - no "most likely to have the healthiest 401K" or "meet a great guy before she's 25." And happiness isn't a point you reach once you accomplish X, Y, and Z.
So thanks, Lori, for the helpful reminder, even if it did make me a little anxious to read.