Millennials have been described as a more self-centered, thin-skinned, and lazy generation than any before. According to Jean M. Twenge, PhD, author of, Generation Me: Why Today’s young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled—and More Miserable Than Ever Before, these criticisms of Millennials are largely accurate.
Twenge uses data derived from extensive research to give an overall view of Millennials and how they compare to other generations. She found that Millennials, who she defines as those born between 1982 and 1999, are more self-centered than previous generations were at the same age. They grew up during what Twenge refers to as a self-esteem movement; they were literally taught self-esteem. The elements of self-esteem that they were taught included that self-love is the greatest love of all; that they shouldn’t care what others think as long as they make themselves happy; that they are special and capable, regardless of what they do or don’t do; and that they should look out for themselves, and always put themselves first. Essentially, they were taught to be what Twenge refers to as an, “army of one”.
The self-esteem movement sounds great in theory, but it turns out that self-esteem is not the answer to being happy, successful and fulfilled. What Twenge refers to as an, “army of one,” I refer to as, “skilled at being alone.” Millennials were taught how to be alone. In teaching self-esteem, they were taught individual skills, not relational skills. There’s nothing wrong with being alone, but millennials, as humans, are relational beings. We all are. Teaching relational beings how to be alone is a recipe for depression and anxiety. And, as we now know thanks to Twenge’s extensive research, the self-esteem that Millennials were taught has led them to be anxious, stressed out, depressed, lonely, and disconnected adults.
Without relational skills, Millennials have their work cut out for them when it comes to dating and relationships. Relational skills are necessary to enjoy and thrive in relationships. Without these skills, closeness, connection, vulnerability and intimacy are difficult, rather than enjoyable.
Millennials were not taught relational skills like:
As Twenge writes, “the sadness of being alone is often the flip side of freedom and putting ourselves first.” Being single doesn’t have to be lonely, but it often is. And, without relational skills, it’s easy to be lonely within a relationship too. Enjoying intimacy and closeness requires relational skills.
Millennials were raised in a society that drilled self-esteem into them so fiercely that it morphed into something closer to unintended, misunderstood selfishness, rather than a high level of self-worth, and feelings of security and self-love. Luckily, as with any skills, the relational skills they need can be learned, practiced, and honed.
Practice the following relational skills, and start improving your dating experience or deepening the connection within your relationship:
1. Learn to connect in your differences with curiosity. Practice curiosity so you can invite others in when there are differences, rather than pushing them away. It’s easy to feel connected to others when they agree with you, and it’s harder when they don’t. Part of the joy of dating and relationships is learning more about your partner or dates, whether they are like you or different. But if you feel defensive when others see the world differently, you miss opportunities to learn about them. Instead of taking it personally, practice curiosity. Ask questions. Be interested to know more. Ask about the opinion; clarify what the person means; ask how long they’ve felt that way, or if they have ever felt differently. If you can only be with someone who sees the world the same way you do, you’re eliminating many potential partners and many opportunities for connection if you’re in a relationship.
2. Be flexible. Rather than deciding you will always put yourself first, or never put yourself first, practice being flexible. As you go along on your relational or dating journey, you will always have to make choices. You can choose to do what’s best for your relationship, what’s best for someone else, or what’s best for yourself. There is no absolute, and usually, there is no clear right decision. Choosing to put someone else or your relationship first sometimes is not a weakness or an act of surrender. It’s a choice you can make. To start making choices, slow down; take deep breaths to soothe yourself. Then, consider your options. Spend time in the space of not knowing, as uncomfortable as it is, until you are ready to make a choice. This choice is now made with awareness and consideration, rather than because you were taught to put yourself first and do what makes you happy regardless of others.
3. Chew, spit or swallow. Before you reject what your date or partner says when they disagree with you or when you feel criticized unfairly, chew on it. The act of chewing, rather than immediately spitting it out, is an opportunity for connection because you’re showing that you value your partner or date, whether you end up agreeing with them or not. You also have an opportunity for growth when you chew on what others say, because they may see things you can’t see or don’t want to look at. But, you have to chew for a bit before you can really know if there’s validity in what’s being said to you. And, you can spit the whole thing out if none of it fits. Remember, you are a work in progress. If you chew, you allow for connection with others, and you may grow toward your full potential if you learn something new about yourself. Chew, spit or swallow: a recipe for growth and connection.
4. Practice compassion. Millennials were taught not to care what others think as long as they’re happy. The idea is that they can’t care what others think and remain uninfluenced. To hold onto themselves, they were taught not to care when someone criticizes them or judges them. It’s hard to create closeness without caring about what others think, and it’s hard to care when you feel criticized or judged. However, you can, in fact, care what others think without having to change what you think, and without taking it personally, when you practice compassion. Start by shifting your intent from being right, to wanting to care for your date/partner, support them, and deeply know them. Try talking to your date or partner as though they deserve to be heard, even if you don’t agree with what they’re saying. Be curious, interested, and caring. You never have to change what you believe (unless you want to), but you can still care what others have to say. Care will lead to connection more easily than lack of care and defensiveness.
5. Be open to learning how to date and have relationships. Millennials were told they’re great as they are, which makes feedback or criticism hard to hear. It’s often met with defensiveness or blame because it is not seen as an opportunity for growth. It’s often seen, instead, as information that they are not great as they are, and therefore, a failure. You must remember that you are not a finished product-- ever. It’s ok to grow and change. It doesn’t mean you’re not great as you are, it just means you’re not done with who you can become. It’s ok not to know how to date or to have fulfilling relationships. No one was born knowing these things. Be open to learning. Be open to feedback. Ask friends, family or your therapist for guidance. None of us has all the answers, and all of us need support. Just remember to chew before you take in feedback.
Even though the criticisms of Millennials are largely true and it may be difficult to always be compassionate toward them, it is important to remember that Millennials struggle and suffer like all human beings. And, like the rest of us, they grew up to be who they are in part because of covert and overt messages they received from parents, families, schools, and society in general, all of which they did not choose. Also like the rest of us, they now face the challenge of overcoming what they were instilled with, so they can get out of their own ways and create the futures they want.
Twenge, Jean M. (2014). Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled---and More Miserable Than Ever Before. New York, NY: Atria Paperback.