For four years as the Cut’s “Ask Polly” columnist, and for years before that on my blog and elsewhere, I’ve fielded letters from young people looking for advice. I’ve noticed certain themes coming up over and over again, so much so that lately, I’m starting to believe that many of our basic assumptions about millennials — that they’re spoiled and entitled, that they’re overconfident in their abilities, that they’re digital natives utterly unconflicted about privacy and social media and living much of their lives online — are wrong. What I discover in my email in-box each morning are dispatches from young people who feel guilty and inadequate at every turn and who compare themselves relentlessly to others. They are turned inside out, day after day, by social media. From my vantage point, it looks tougher to be a young person today than it has been for decades.
Of course, I’m dealing with a small, demographically skewed sample (though no more so, probably, than our “millennial” stereotype, so skewed toward the affluent and white). And my sample is self-selecting, too (I hear mostly from those who are struggling). But their testimonies are heart-wrenching. The same words and phrases and expressions of self-consciousness and self-doubt show up in letter after letter: “I often feel overwhelmingly middle ground or average in [my co-workers’] eyes,” one writer confesses. Another asks, “When is he going to realize that I am an anxious mess who overthinks everything and hates herself, like, a lot of the time?” “I think my primary emotion is guilt,” another writes. “When I am happy, it only takes moments before I feel guilty about it — I feel desperately unworthy of my happiness, guilty for receiving it out of the pure chaotic luck of the universe.”
Many of these anxieties take the same shape: An external mob is watching and judging and withholding approval. It’s impossible to matter, to be interesting enough. Many young people describe others as “a better version of me.” This is how it feels today to be young and fully invested in our new popularity contest: No matter how hard you try, someone else out there is taking the same raw ingredients and making a better life out of them. And the curated version of you that lives online also feels hopelessly polished and inaccurate — and you feel, somehow, that you alone are the inauthentic one.
Far from spoiled, the young people who write to me don’t seem to feel like they deserve happiness. They feel self-conscious and guilty about everything they do. They can’t breathe without feeling like they’re stepping on someone’s toes. They often resolve to say less, to seem better, to work harder, to keep their mouths shut at the exact moments when they need to speak up and tell the truth in order to feel right with the world. They feel afraid of showing their true selves because they’re sure they’ll be shamed for it. Everyone is waiting to be exposed as a fake. As far as I can tell, 20-somethings don’t embody the self-assured, self-promotional values of social media any more than Gen-Xers like me do; it’s just that they’ve learned that one should never publicly reveal one’s doubts, anxieties, and ambivalence. I have spent years peeking behind the stage curtain, and it looks to me like maintaining that performance has become excruciatingly difficult.
I started writing advice at the early webzine Suck.com in May of 2001, then continued on my blog when Suck went under a month later. Back then, advice columns were more prescriptive, pedantic, problem-focused. But I was less interested in such concrete hazards than I was in the broader poisons of our culture, how we ingest and metabolize them until they feel like a part of us, yet we still can’t figure out why we’re sick. “Avoiding confrontation is bad for you,” I wrote in one early blog post. “Dishonesty in one of your relationships tends to leak into all the others.” I was 31 years old, unemployed, a little depressed, and avoiding confrontation with the older divorced guy I was dating. I wanted to be honest, but I also wanted to be loved. These things were already starting to seem like they might be at odds with each other.
But there was still some breathing room for messiness back then, at least online. (Computers were already essentially consumer appliances, but not everyone recognized that yet.) These days, it’s not hard to notice how careful image management and aggressive self-promotion and anxieties about “staying on brand” have seeped into the online mix. We’ve integrated all the pressures of the commercial realm into our personal lives, applying the same extremely competitive expectations to love, friendship, family, and even our internal state of mind. Teenagers and 20-somethings have grown up with social media, which means they have been doing this their whole lives. And the pressure that creates is enormous: Not only do many of us now expect to make money at creative careers that used to be seen as the poverty-stricken purview of a small handful of artists, but we also expect to establish a name for ourselves quickly, to find our work deeply satisfying, and to become famous overnight — or at least to have tens of thousands of followers. This pervasive subconscious longing is the background noise generated by the new digital realm, like the terrible hiss and hum of an old refrigerator. And it affects all of us, even if the pain it causes is most visible in the young. It tells us that no matter what our circumstances might be, we should be dressing like fashion bloggers and vacationing like celebrities and eating like food critics and fucking like porn stars, and if we aren’t, we’re losers who are doomed to non-greatness forever and ever.
Most people don’t consciously believe any of these things, of course — teenagers or 50-year-olds. We may believe that we just want to muddle through the day without screwing up or embarrassing ourselves. But screwing up and embarrassing ourselves turn out to be the meat of what we experience these days, because behind the hazy filter of our conscious desires lie those obscenely inflated expectations. And merely muddling through, doing your best, seeing friends when you can, trying to enjoy yourself as much as possible, is, according to the reigning dictates of today’s culture, tantamount to failure. You must live your best life and be the best version of yourself, otherwise you’re nothing and no one.
It gets worse. We now recognize that getting the lives we want depends on cultivating the right attitude, so we beat ourselves up every time our state of mind is less than 100 percent optimistic. If there’s a mass religion of global culture, it’s the high-capitalist belief, trumpeted at every turn by every single voice in the spotlight, that by believing in yourself (without fail!) you can get everything you’ve ever dreamed of. Everything depends on your faith and your ability to squelch the doubts in your head that arise when yet another glamorous on-brand winner pops up in your Instagram feed.
Very few people tell you anymore that those doubts in your head are part of the noise you hear when you’re alive, full stop. Very few people explain that success rarely happens quickly, and that even if it does, there are still lingering worries and bad days and hours and hours of tedious work involved. There aren’t many inspirational quotes about how discouragement will plague you as you work and that’s just how it feels to work at something difficult. There aren’t many memes reminding you that you won’t get everything you dream of — and that getting everything you dream of might not make you happy anyway, no matter what that constantly scrolling feed of highly curated “best lives” seems to imply.
Obviously, as an advice columnist, I’m always at risk of becoming part of the problem. I tell people to believe in the lives they really want, to set their expectations high and strive tirelessly to achieve their dreams. But I also want to say to them, time after time, that there is no “better version” of you waiting in the future. The best version of you is who you are right here, right now, in this fucked-up, impatient, imperfect, sublime moment. Shut out the noise and enjoy exactly who you are and what you have, right here, right now.
*This article appears in the July 11, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.