She asked a simple enough question, but it required a dissecting of history as I remember it. How did we get here? How did we lose ourselves from one another? When did the shift happen? I had to walk back my thoughts and go back in mind. The when, became important as I explained to my 26 yr. old client that we did not always see each other as disposable, fear vulnerability, and be self-promoting all at the same time? The shift was happening just around the time she was welcomed into the world and as we talked some things started to click that helped me understand some things about why some Gen Z’s have high anxiety, depression, and isolation. Gen Z’s find their mental health affected by the turbulent state of the world. As political activism among Gen Z has increased, many Gen Z‑ers have internalized the unrest surrounding issues like financial instability, police brutality, inequality, war and climate change increase anxiety and depression.
Generation Z, which has been referred to by some as the “loneliest generation according to The institute of family Studies by Daniel Cox 4/2022,” The survey conducted by the institute list single parenting, divorce, shrinking family size as major contributors of loneliness for Gen Z’s, and I’d like to add that smartphones have made it possible for my clients to spend endless hours on social media or watching a multitude of streaming options equates to less time cultivating relationships and pursuing interest. On the other hand, too much screen time can compound feelings of isolation and lead to underdeveloped social skills foster feelings of isolation and depression. Additionally, many young people fall prey to the “compare and despair” trap that social media present, and add the swipe left culture of dating, and pressure of “black excellence” and finding your passion, it’s no wonder they are overwhelmed with the expectations of life and believe that they are failing.
Couple all the above with the emergence of growing self-obsession, digital oversharing and self-image inflation, we have young folks needing to create dazzling personas of grandeur to be seen, while at the same time, pretending to be impervious to external criticism. Add the rise of technology and the development of hugely popular social networking sites, which further changed the way we spend our free time and communicate. Internet addiction is a new area of study in mental health and recent cross-sectional research shows that addiction to social media is strongly linked to narcissistic traits and low self-esteem.
Pat MacDonald, author of the paper Narcissism in the Modern World, describes an explosion of the rise in narcissistic traits. Stating that examples are everywhere. It has become normal for celebrities to broadcast trite daily activities that they fill social media eluding to their importance. This delusion then spills out to the non-celebrity; recording mundane events becomes proof of your importance.
Over the past few decades, we have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or the self. The self-esteem movement was an important turning point in this. It determined that self-esteem was the key to success in life. Educators and parents started telling their children how special and unique they are to make them feel more confident. I recalled that my children received trophies for participation as a way of conferring self-esteem, rather than letting them achieve it through hard work.
MacDonald goes on to explain a key point in the paper “Narcissism in the Modern World, that the distress that our Gen Z’s and Millennials feel comes from a sense of disconnection, and that we have a narcissistic society where self-promotion and individuality seem to be essential, yet in our hearts that’s not what we want.
The past few decades have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or the self. The rise of individualism with its focus on the self and inner feelings and decline in social norms that accompanied the alteration of society also meant that the community and the family were no longer able to provide the same support for individuals as they once did. And research has shown that being rooted in social networks, being actively engaged in your community, and connected with friends and family has major health benefits.
As the social fabric deteriorated, it became much harder to meet the basic need for meaningful connection. The question moved from what is best for other people and the family to what is best for me. The transformations of society seemed to award fame, wealth, celebrity above all else. All this, combined with the breakdown in social ties created an “empty self, cropped of social meaning”.
But all this self-love and self-promotions hasn't led to greater happiness. Millennials and Gen Z’s report being more depressed and anxious than previous generations. One thing that could play a role is the rude awakening many faces in their twenties when their high expectations don't match reality and they don't turn out to be as successful and important as their parents promised they would be, and they learn that adult demands can feel like a snowball thrown in your face. Our competitive culture in which asserting one’s difference, one’s specialness doesn’t make you ready for the world. This dynamic also plays out in dating and could be why some fail to consider another person on an intimate level, seeing them only relationally, meaning, “what are you bringing to the table”?
From what I can tell, in our quest to live better, we somehow lost track of why it was important. I often say that we (Gen X and Boomer) failed them. Don’t get me wrong, we did the best we knew how with what we had, and most did it with love. Many of us were guilty of living vicariously through them, dumping our hopes, wishes and dreams on them, hopeful that our working class, middle class, upper class and striving to be millionaires lifestyles could afford them access and opportunity to things that some of us did not have. Now we have this disconnect with our young people. Most of them won’t tell you that they are suffering because some believe that they should be able to handle their problems themselves, in this case, we must remind them that no one is an island unto themselves. I wish I had all the answers, but one thing I know is that they want to be part of a community, they want to be supported when their struggling, and they want a sense of belonging. They need to know that being extraordinary is not a necessary component to being loved.”