The Noise of Growing Up: Learning to Listen to the Inner Lives of American Twenty-Somethings

Before you eye roll: This is not the same story you’ve read about millennials a million times before. It’s not about how selfish they are—or how cool and innovative. Written by psychotherapist Satya Byock who runs the Quarter-Life Counseling center in Portland, Oregon, this is the first essay about life as a twenty-something that struck a chord with goop’s younger staffers and parents of millennial kids. Byock works exclusively with clients in their twenties and thirties; she describes a dis-ease that many rising twenty-year-olds feel today, despite—or in part, because of—an excess of creature comforts. Byock often finds herself addressing “First-World problems,” a phrase her clients commonly use, even when they’ve suffered serious trauma. “First World or not, suffering is suffering,” says Byock. With admirable nuance, Byock explores the transition into adulthood in America today. “People can be so comfortable in some respects, and so miserable in others,” she observes. She parses the effects of growing up in a world marked by constant war and global suffering, in a society where the goal—taught at every level of the American system—is only to be successful, to do, to achieve.

Regardless of what generation you’re a part of, Byock’s case for slowing down, getting comfortable in your own skin, and finding pleasure in life holds true.

Megan is twenty-three, a law student, and an early-morning spin instructor. Her long brown hair is neatly tied back and her jeans are pre-ripped and well-fitted. She’s put together, but her pale skin and clouded eyes betray deep weariness. Her breathing is shallow and labored. She starts to tell me in an uncertain voice that she’s depressed and anxious but interrupts herself with the doubt that she doesn’t know why this is so. She says she doesn’t love the idea of being a lawyer, “but it’ll be fine,” she declares. “My childhood wasn’t as bad as other people’s,” she says. She has all the basic material comforts she needs, plus confidence that she will be able to make enough money in the future. “So what’s wrong with me?”

She thinks she may drink too much, she confesses. When I ask how much is too much, she says several drinks a night, and that sometimes several is past six, after which she can’t remember. I ask how often she blacks out from drinking and she says a lot, with a short laugh. She cannot count the number of times she blacked out from alcohol in college. This seems to be her only relationship with alcohol: She’d consulted me after a night of binge drinking, realizing that she was imagining scenes of suicide. She’d sounded scared but numb on the voicemail, and then ashamed: She thought she should make an appointment with a therapist.

I learn that Megan (not her real name) is also using cocaine a few times a week, a habit she started in college to keep up with schoolwork, and to help bounce back from the lack of sleep and hangovers. She’s not so much afraid that people will learn about her habit (uppers are pretty common in her circle), but that people will discover she’s a phony. She lives with a deep sense that she’s not who people think she is.

Despite her hard work and ambition, Megan doesn’t have a clear picture of what she wants for her life. She wears a perpetual smile and has a regular, punctuated chuckle in her speech, a defense against the fear of being discovered for how unhappy she feels. She feels like she’s faking everything.

In the first dream Megan shares with me, she’s driving a car at 200 miles an hour and can’t find the brakes. For any armchair analyst, this dream is self-evident: She is moving at dangerous speeds and has lost conscious awareness about how to stop. But for Megan, constant movement seems synonymous with life—so even a dream as clear as this one doesn’t make cognitive sense to her. When I ask her about taking quiet time, or time to herself, she stares back at me in confusion. I ask her what she used to love to do as a child; she pauses and shyly shares activities with me: piano; hiking; swimming. The memories visibly cause her breathing to relax for a moment, and her eyes to clear. But then she catches herself: “Of course,” she declares, as if I was going to make fun of her, “those things are stupid.”

The very notion of doing something because she enjoys it is perplexing to Megan; it’s antithetical to the image of adulthood in which she was raised. When I suggest that maybe those things would help ease her depression now, Megan again stares. She is so adapted to constant movement that suggesting ways she might start slowing down is like speaking in a foreign language. The words make her curious—there’s something in there that makes sense—but she can’t quite render an image of what it is that I’m suggesting. “Slow down?” “Pleasure?” She wonders how those things might help her to “be successful,” the only life goal she was ever taught. Her refrain is always the same: “I have everything I’m supposed to need, so why am I miserable?”

This level of despair is not unique to the millennial generation. Author David Foster Wallace gave voice to it twenty years ago, when he was just a little older than Megan is now: “An enormous part of my generation, and the generation right after mine, is…extremely sad, which when you think about the material comforts and the political freedoms we enjoy is just strange.” Wallace was confounded—just like Megan and so many of my clients—by how people can be so comfortable in some respects and so miserable in others. I work exclusively with individuals in their twenties and thirties, and I hear this again and again, even from those who have suffered terrible traumas (and many have): I don’t have the right to feel this way—look at the lives of other people. Despite the “apathetic” and “entitled” labels so often hurled at twenty-somethings, this is a generation fully aware of the suffering of others all over the world. They’re so steeped in it, it’s more apt to say they don’t know anything else. Traumatized and numbed, maybe, unaware of anything else, perhaps—but this generation is not apathetic.

Many twenty-somethings do not remember a world before perpetual war. Many do not remember a world before suicide bombings, global warming, natural disasters, school shootings, theater shootings, fighting in the Middle East, or kidnappings in Africa. The imagery of these events is, for many, part of their daily digital feeds. As a result, while many may be physically relatively protected from these events, they don’t necessarily feel that way.

When the question of how to live a meaningful life comes-up—and it always does—an enormous inner struggle is revealed. Twenty-somethings often battle mightily with the discomfort and confusion of life, while rolling their eyes at their own “First-World problems.” They can’t reconcile their own dis-ease with the fact that others are less fortunate than they are, so they shove the confusion and sadness away. When it shows up again, they distract themselves, or drink. They often only arrive at therapy after a series of physical ailments (the emotion has to go somewhere), or professional and social catastrophes bring them to their knees. Their spirits are often buried under years of sediment: defenses and false selves used to guard against the expectations, judgments, and condescension from peers, parents, bosses, and even articles on unflattering characteristics of “the Millennial Generation.”

First-World or not, suffering is suffering. Childhood is childhood. No one gets out of childhood without trauma, and the twenty-something years are the first opportunity to really begin healing from the labor pains of growing up. Megan’s childhood was not as bad as others—she’s right—but even so, we have all gotten pretty accustomed to egregious and perpetual violence, abuse, and tragedy—and we forget the implicit sensitivity of our animal, emotional natures.

Megan’s suffering began with fighting between her parents—an endless earthquake of stress and trauma for a child’s foundation; her parents’ divorce left her father on the other side of the country and emotionally distant when she saw him. Meanwhile, in middle and high school, she felt tremendous pressure to succeed. Like many young women in particular, she coped with the situation by being good. Good turned into never-bad, which evolved into a necessity to be perfect for the sake of others, ignoring her own needs. In order to not cause further stress for her family, she learned not to share when she was feeling scared or depressed. She did not learn to speak up. She didn’t learn it was okay to not always go with the flow and bend to the needs and desires of others—so she worked to become fun and compliant only. Alcohol helped. In college, she had a variety of sexual experiences that were either unpleasant or awful and never pleasurable. She can’t remember all of them but she laughs it off as “just college.” She wouldn’t consider any of her experiences to be rape, because a lifestyle of compliance was normal for her, and her own needs so unknown, that she could not differentiate healthy sexuality from forced sex.

These are now normal, daily American intrusions onto the developing self: We forget how painful and disorienting life can be when the forms of suffering we experience are so commonplace. When everyone around you is wandering around with the same “First-World” lacerations, you don’t think twice about the damage you’re inflicting on your own psyche. No matter your social, ethnic, or economic demographic, to be in your twenties, standing between a life in your parents’ paradigm and a life of your own, the journey into healing your past and understanding your future is complicated. In our society, there is a woeful lack of respect, mentorship, or even understanding of what it takes to walk this bridge into adulthood. The material comforts, however small or large, that one inherits can provide some stability, but they do not answer the deeper questions of who you are and what you want out of life. The comforts can instead feel like burdens, like being wrapped in layers of beautiful clothing while sinking alone in an ocean. Healthy development requires that all children shed the skins of their parents to step into their own; in some ways, the more skin, the more strenuous that aspect of the journey becomes.

College provides instruction for the brain, but not the soul. It rarely instructs on how to cook a healthy meal, fix a car, treat common ailments, or breathe well. There’s little training on the physical and emotional health ramifications of using birth control, for example, or about intimacy, or emotions like the grief and sadness that I often see underlying young men’s anger and isolation. For many (dare I say most), college reinforces the same messages of achievement and false pretense that have been sold to American children since their earliest days. College is, except perhaps in brief moments, neither terribly practical nor anything approaching spiritual. Yet there are few other forces that even pretend to offer a transition from childhood into the adult world.

To gloss over these enormous gaps in mentorship and guidance, there is the plentiful education on how to mimic happiness. Pretending to be happy is America’s breast milk. It is as if the Great Gatsby were at the helm conducting culture: The goal is to mimic the success of others and pass the social tests, while never once telling anyone you’re feeling unsure; better not even acknowledge it to yourself.

The suffering among twenty-somethings today is acute and epidemic. People in their twenties are experiencing staggering rates of depression, anxiety, and other mental illness. Just like Megan, most are highly skilled at projecting images of comfort and confidence while unbearable levels of confusion and self-judgment reside beneath. The critical inner voice is so judgmental, in fact, that it often insists on avoiding intimacy with others. No one likes you. You are loud. You are annoying. You are ugly. You are too fat.Here, again, binge drinking, drugs, and porn come in handy: They wipe out this unrelenting voice. For a moment, even with the cost of a total loss of consciousness, it can feel like a welcomed reprieve. I often refer to this angry inner voice as a tyrannical dictator in a nation of one. Male or female, this is a toxic voice of patriarchy, a culture obsessed with achieving versus being.

A critical first step to relaxing the hold of this dictator is to spend less time working and less time with people, finding more time to be alone—often to be bored, at first. At this stage in therapy, boredom is the goal and a beautiful indication that the addiction to movement and productivity is being challenged. Every person is different, of course, but I almost always recommend sleeping more. It is important never to feel ashamed about sleeping in; I also promote the value of going to sleep quite early, and winding down with a book versus a screen.

Parents can support the developmental growth of their twenty-something children by removing all commentary around sleep: When kids are home from college on breaks, it is critical that they sleep more—sleep is essential to mental health. Sleep can be a symptom of depression, yes, but it is also a critical component in recovery.

For many twenty-somethings, the suggestion of meditation brings with it so many additional rules/expectations/intellectual rabbit holes that I don’t go there: I suggest staring at the ceiling for an hour instead. There is no potential dogma or ways to fail with that exercise, except to wrestle against the boredom until the mind relaxes. I suggest cutting back—even just a little—on stimulants and depressants of all varieties: alcohol, coffee, cocaine, horror movies, video games, the internet, porn. Take a walk alone, without your phone. Write down your dreams in the morning. Your unconscious undoubtedly has thoughts on what you need—give it your attention.

There is no instruction in American culture on how to be quiet with one’s self, let alone an understanding of why one would bother. Our culture’s implicit message is that time should be spent efficiently; each minute of the day, one should be studying, or practicing, or being entertained. Megan, like nearly all of my clients, learned this lesson very well. To be inefficient is to be lazy. To be unoccupied is to be boring. To be a person who is more inclined towards the inner life is to be an overly emotional loser and a failure.

Every moment becomes scheduled, and there are devices to fill any moments in between. The result: the tender inner self is abandoned and forgotten. That internal voice—everyone has one—will bark and wail and whine when it is left alone for too long, speaking up like a lonesome pet. And just like a neglected kitten or puppy, no matter how sweet and desirous of your attention, once abandoned for too long, it will inevitably go feral. It needs to find ways to provide for itself.

I do not mean this analogy only lyrically. Over and over again, people’s dreams declare their inner reality: Rooms of animals that have not been attended to; beloved pets that one forgot to feed or water for days or years; panic at suddenly (thankfully) discovering the terrible neglect, and (hopefully) confronting the fear and guilt while stepping forward to care for what has been left alone. It takes practice, but the inner animal needs to be fed and walked and loved regularly—every day if possible. Acknowledging this animal is critical, even if it is skittish after years of neglect and abuse. The challenge of therapy is for myself, as therapist, and the people I work with, to start differentiating the sounds of the still-breathing kitten from the commanding voice of that demanding dictator.

Rainer Maria Rilke provided enduring insight on the long period of stepping into adulthood in his correspondence with then-nineteen-year-old Franz Xaver Kappus who was seeking advice and solace. Rilke wrote: “There is only one thing you should do….Go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows.” Stepping into those depths often feels terrifying at first, but once the boundary has been crossed, it will start to feel like coming home. The relationship with the inner self from that point forward can be much more subtle. Just as we learn the cues of a plant that needs more water or a friend who needs a phone call, we can learn our own body—and soul—’s needs without forcing them to resort to desperate measures like illness or nightmares. It isn’t the path that society teaches, with products and stimulants and goals to achieve, but it is the path that heroes in many of our most popular stories learn to follow: It is the Jedi training, or the instruction and practice imparted to a Hogwarts magician. For individuals who have never been offered insight into how to slow down and care for themselves, who have never left a doctor’s office without a diagnosis or more fear, the permission to listen to the multiplicity of voices within themselves can be a deep relief.

Megan and I met weekly for eighteen months. Her eyes are bright now, her breathing stronger. While she still inevitably encounters difficulties, she now radiates her own bright energy. “I didn’t realize life could feel good,” she tells me. “I have never been this happy.” She no longer binge drinks, and she’s able to notice on evenings out when she feels insecure or bored and might be inclined to drink too much; now she tries to leave without apology, and take care of herself at home. She sleeps more. She spends far less time with others, and is finding people who she respects and enjoys. Her relationships with men have changed completely: She has a voice now, and while still learning to use it like a new pair of legs, she’s excited by the strength she feels when she does. She’s excited by the future and is starting to dream about what she wants to do with her law degree for the first time. She’s noticing her preferences and her dreams.

Now not only does Megan have a sense of what she “should” feel and do, but a greater ability to notice what she does feel and want. She’s starting to imagine ways she can contribute to a less violent and inequitable world, and how her childhood struggles actually help her to understand and connect with others. She’s no longer awoken by nightmares, and no longer cringes at the suggestion of a life lived with pleasure amidst the pain.

Originally published at