Is Generation Z as emotionally handicapped as people say? There’s certainly a lot of evidence that suggests it. And at the same time a question like that is never as “yes or no” as it might seem. I do know this – Gen Z has more distraction than any generation of young people in all of human history. The full list of Gen Z distractions would be too big for this page, but I think everyone would agree the distractions are sufficient enough to tempt any developing pre-adult to insulate themselves from rising anxiety and other negative emotions that emerge during adolescence. The problem comes when teens insulate themselves too much from negative emotions and thereby quit growing in their emotional development and emotion regulation.
I recently had a 17 year old tell me he thinks his Effexor (anti-depressant) isn’t working as well as it used to becasue some depressing thoughts are getting through. Apparently this young man thought a good and effective anti-depressant should erase all distressing thoughts from his brain. That’s a scary thought in itself… Would he really want to exist in a delusional state of mind where he pretends all negative circumstances and negative emotions those circumstances evoke are nonexistant? I recounted to this young man some of the hard things he’s going through and asked if they were true, and he said yes to them all. Our conversation went something like this:
“Is it true that you made some pretty bad decisions last year and became so unmanagable that you had to be placed in treatment far from home?”
“Is it true that it’s super hard being away from home and all your friends and basically your whole life?”
“Is it true that you struggle with both some guilt and also bitterness at the circumstances you are in?”
I went on a rant, “Then why in God’s name should you not feel some sadness? If your Effexor made you feel no sadness at all and made you never think about the friends back home or what you might be missing out on, etc, then I’d say the medication has made you worse because you would’ve become delusional – living a lie. Listen, son, never suppress any emotion (positive or negative) that is based in fact. Always toss out any emotion or thought based in a lie. For example, it’s hard being away from home and that’s a fact; so it is healthy and right to feel at least a little sadness about this. You told me you sometimes feel like you can’t do anything well and that’s a lie. That thought and the resulting insecurity and sadness needs to be recognized as an intruder that does not belong in your worldview, your paradigm, your psyche, and tossed out like the garbage it is. Work at becoming a master of analyzing thoughts and emotions and evaluating them for truth and facts. Then become a master at tossing out the lie-based emotions and leaning into the truth-based emotions.”
The young man liked this idea. I then talked to him about being the master of those negative emotions I was prescribing for him to feel. One reason we try to suppress emotions is we are scared of them not because they hurt, but because they might take over. I told this young man to schedule a night this week when he will get 20 minutes of uninterrupted time and appoint himself to feel and process the negative emotions he’s been trying to run and hide from. I also told him to set a timer and once the 20 minutes is up, he is to dry his eyes and go on about his day with a glad heart. If he will do this exercise, I believe he will find that he has more control over his emotions than he has ever realized. He doesn’t have to be scared of depression taking over, because he is not afraid of his real and authentic sadness. He’s not afraid of it because it’s real and it has its place and he’s not running from it.
What are you using to hide from or blunt your negative emotions? Chances are that very thing you use to run from emotion has become a problem in itself: an addiction or a life controlling habitual, unhealthy behavior. You don’t need it. You CAN handle your emotions. They are good – even the bad ones. They are part of your story. They are part of you. Denying that part of you makes you unwell. You can feel them, process them, and even lean into them. Just don’t decide to get stuck there and wallow in them. Set the timer – chose to live in joy. And your joy is more authentic when its negative counterparts are well processed and healed.