Mel Magazine: Why Millennial Men Don’t Go to Therapy

Excerpted from a Mel Magazine article by Eddie Kim:

A major social debate among millennials about gender, including the idea that it isn’t a binary decided solely by our sex birth, is changing the way we define what a man is, and what, if any, traits are “masculine.” But “manhood” remains an elusive goal that men feel pressure to achieve, however they define it, with research suggesting that the inability to capture it leads to aggressive and stress-ridden responses.

Satya Doyle Byock, a Portland, Ore.-based psychotherapist who exclusively treats millennials at her practice Quarter-Life Counseling, has seen a heavy current of disillusionment in her patients, including men who feel lost in their careers and personal lives. Some may seek help after feeling suicidal thoughts or a panic attack, but many more choose to co-exist with a simmering unease they can’t ignore.

“The mid-life crisis, what used to happen in the late 30s or 40s, is happening earlier for young people today,” she explains. “The breakdown often has to do with the question of one’s ‘unlived life,’ and young people are coming to the conclusion that something about society doesn’t work. The problems might be in dating, binge drinking, anxiety or depression, but those things usually have a larger question underneath them.”

One of Byock’s theories is that while older generations often used religious services or intimate community gatherings to reflect on their lives, many of those meditative spaces have been removed from modern life. “Even churches are more like mega-churches now, not for quiet thought,” she says. “It’s created a gaping hole where young people need something to find nourishment.”

They’re not finding it at the office either. Specifically, work-life balance has become harder for a cohort of millennials who matured into the workforce during the dregs of the Great Recession, with shiny college degrees in hand but few employers to court them. More than 50 percent of college students graduated with a job offer in hand in 2007. That number fell to less than 20 percent two years later. And those who did get jobs saw lower starting salaries, with a 2010 study showing that a 1 percent increase in unemployment in a given year meant a 6 to 8 percent drop in starting salary for a college graduate, impacting lifetime savings and benefits. “This cohort of millennials that graduated amid the recession, in the worst of the job market, we’ve got this idea to work so much harder to make up all that was lost,” says Muellerleile.

Read the full article here... finding a 'quarter-life crisis' instead of dream jobs

An excerpt from a article for which I was interviewed:

'The APA reports that on average, millennials experience the highest level of stress than any other generation, suggesting a need for more conversation surrounding mental health and the pressures facing recent graduates.

The situation also creates room for unhealthy comparisons to other recent graduates, many of whom post seemingly high-achieving photos of their lives on Facebook and Instagram. Recent studies suggest social media feeds feelings of envy and anxiety.

"Having external validation as our only validation is damaging. So I think it's really critical for all individuals, in particular, young adults to have time for introspection and self-love and self-knowledge," said Byock.'

Read the full article here

Caught in the In-Between: Making Sense of Post-College Life

originally published on


Like clockwork, for better or worse, the back-to-school craze takes over our lives every year—and it’s not just the parents among us who catch the spirit of the season. But the excitement of September can be alienating: For recent grads (and anyone nostalgic for the structure that came with the first day of school for two decades of life), it feels less like a time of new beginnings and more like a reminder of what isn’t anymore—of the uncertainty of what’s to come ahead. It’s a period of transition that psychotherapist Satya Byock finds young adults are largely unprepared for. In her Portland, Oregon practice (aptly named Quarter-Life Counseling), she counsels twenty- and thirty-something clients on meeting the liminal stages of life—when, as Byock describes it, “You’re saying goodbye to one identity and starting to create the next.” While particularly relevant on the eve of September, Byock’s advice for making peace with the unknowns of life applies well beyond back-to-school season and the millennial cohort. (For more from Byock, see her goop piece, Why Millennials Can’t Just “Grow Up.”)

School is soon to be back in session. As if with one coordinated snap of the head, focus has turned from vacation mode back to class and work. But some people are left feeling out of sync. For people no longer in school, but not yet adjusted to life without its structure and ready-made purpose, the back-to-school season can stir up anguish. Suddenly it feels like you’ve missed all the rehearsals on how to be a confident, happy adult. Summer may have brought relief from uncertainty as everyone frolicked on the beach, read novels, and wasted time, but now the burning questions return with vengeance: What’s next? Who am I?

With school, there were always clearly defined goals. Within each class, there were guidelines and deadlines, and each grade led onto the next. Often, graduation day is about as far as life’s plans reach. There is not much time for planning, nor guidance for how actual life out of school will look.

As a psychotherapist working with people in their twenties and thirties, I see regularly how navigating life after high school, college, and graduate school can take its toll. Where purpose and goals were once pre-defined, there are now often years and years in which each person needs to define those goals for him or herself. When life is no longer segmented strictly according to nine months on, three months off, goals can take a long time to sort out.

Other cultures before us understood these in-between periods of life. They named them and had gods and complex rituals to aid in the transition from one identity to another. The Tibetans call these times bardo states. The Greeks had the god Hermes. The Romans had Janus.

Unfortunately, our culture tends to teach us that the course of life is like the bar graph of a Ponzi scheme: Only growth! Success! Meanwhile, we receive implicit messages through social media that can serve as public shaming of anyone who doesn’t appear joyful, gorgeous, and woke at all times—as if from a belittling coach, high on steroids: Do it! Keep going! Failure is not an option! Be perfect in every way!

But, just like the reality of the stock market or the limits of physical form, a healthy life—not one built entirely on façade—includes periods of uncertainty, depression and confusion, and even mini-deaths of identity in which one’s sense of purpose feels distant, or nonexistent.

Our culture needs a good education in these realities of life. We need to practice honoring periods of transitions, and the long periods when identity and purpose feel distant or invisible. For the most part, this notion doesn’t even have a place in our vocabulary.

The best word we have remains largely unused and comes from the 20th century anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who coined the term “liminal”—from the Latin limel: threshold. A liminal phase is the period in ritual initiations—primarily those rites that defined the entrance into adulthood—when the identity as a dependent child has died, but before the identity as a full adult has taken form. It was once well known that such a shift of identity is a passage, a journey, a transition. It is an in-between stage like crossing a bridge, or traveling through a dark, mountain tunnel. You’re no longer on one side but not yet on the other.

Despite the level of attention paid to the apparent aberration called the Milennial Generation, the modern epidemic of confusion/grief/anxiety/self-hatred in early adulthood is not new (though anguish and anxiety are certainly heightened by social media and other modern inventions).

In the mid-’60s, J.D. Salinger rendered the malaise of modern twenty-somethings with prescient accuracy in his novelette Franny & Zooey. Franny Glass is a beautiful college student with a handsome Ivy League boyfriend, her own high-priced education, a set of devoted older brothers, and a seemingly well-paved future. Yet she’s absolutely miserable. In the throes of a wrenching emotional crisis and wracked with self-loathing, Franny tells her brother about the torment she feels for her meaningless life and her compulsive cruelty to the people she feels are oblivious to their own meaningless lives: “I knew how I was depressing people, or even hurting their feelings—but I couldn’t stop! I just could not stop picking.”

Franny gives voice to some of the self-hatred and social lamentations I hear regularly in my practice: “I actually reached a point where I said to myself, right out loud, like a lunatic, if I hear just one more picky, caviling, unconstructive word out of you, Franny Glass, you and I are finished.”

It is a glimpse into the inner world of the twenty-something crisis, beyond the symptoms of anxiety and self-harm, of addiction and depression. Ultimately the deepest questions are existential ones: Why am I so miserable? What is the point, and what am I doing here?

Preceding Frances Glass, another Frances had insights into the inner struggle of highly educated youth. In her 1927 book, The Inner World of Childhood, Jungian analyst Frances Wickes depicted a prototypical young man of the era and suggested that the singular pursuit of education is the very root of his widespread sense of disorientation and angst:

“Consciously he is grateful for the opportunities which may include college, a professional training, long apprenticeship; unconsciously he feels the urge to prove himself, to know that he is a man. Scholastic things, in which he may take a genuine interest, fail to satisfy…intellectual training, social conventions have crowded out the other issues which are, after all, the essential ones… Growth comes through individual experience and the understanding of experience. This must be gained by each one for himself.”

(Or herself.)

The current social script that calls for extending academic work into one’s twenties (and beyond) amplifies emotional anguish for young adults. At the moment when instinct should take over to guide a young person along the age-old journey into life—depicted throughout fairy tales and the Hero’s Journey cycle of mythology—they are instead listening to lectures, studying, reading, and taking tests. Amidst all that education and accumulation of knowledge, the experience of embodied life, curiosity, excitement, and failure has gone missing, or underground into unsettling symptoms of anxiety, depression, and self-hatred.

I can’t help but see the questions of adults in their twenties and thirties as being similar to the silent question of young wives that Betty Friedan so eloquently illuminated in her seminal work, The Feminine Mystique: “Is this all?”

Similarly, Simone de Beauvoir’s description of narcissism and neurosis within housewives in the feminist classic, The Second Sex, helps to reframe the judgment of narcissism lobbed at many young people today: “She is forbidden virile activities. She is busy, but she does not do anything…not being able to accomplish herself in projects and aims.”

“It is a painful condition,” de Beauvoir writes, “to know one is passive and dependent at the age of hope and ambition, at the age when the will to live and to take a place in the world intensifies.”

The picture de Beauvoir paints is not unlike that of caged animals: Unable to fulfill their instinctual and biological drives, it is no surprise that many women and men in young adulthood today develop tendencies toward self-aggrandizement, self-harm, refusal to eat, or erratic behavior. They want to move, but they cannot: They are stuck by prescribed academic expectations, cultural norms, constant comparison with others, traumatic experiences, meaningless jobs they are told they are supposed to love, or an utter lack of opportunity altogether—trapped by economics and social expectation as they were once trapped in the home.

If we replace the man-catching preparation for marriage with the years of prescriptive, yet often inapplicable, liberal arts education, the end results are about the same: relative isolation and the cultural prescription to pretend that you are happy and carry on, no matter what. What other choice do you have? Meanwhile, the desire to become oneself, even if the urge to do so is vague, remains unsettling and unmet.

For these reasons, life after school is typically disorienting. Where there was once structure and goals, there are only loose expectations and financial needs. Where there was emphasis on typically “impractical” knowledge, there is now need for tremendously practical skill sets. Where there was once community in abundance, there are now thousands of miles between friends. Where there were once demands that you follow the prescribed goals for life, there is now an expectation that you define your own, with no guidance or support.

So, here’s the part where I offer advice for how to handle these years ahead, this liminal time between your identity as a student and your identity as a person with individual purpose and interests, and goals that make your heart sing:

Before you worry too much about the future, acknowledge that this is both a beginning of something new, and an ending. Look at where you’ve been before you try to sort through where you’re going. Slow down. This is a time to take stock, to sort through your past, just as it is a time to look ahead with courage and excitement. It is both a time of conclusions and new beginnings. The death of your past needs to be honored in order to truly step into the next phase. The god Janus had two faces for just this purpose—to look towards the future and towards the past.

Your identity, like your daily routine and your housing situation, may be in flux. You are no longer a student. You are, according to all cultural expectations, no longer a child. And yet, like most of your peers, you may not be quite sure what you are yet either.

Take time to honor what has ended. Give yourself space to grieve and relax. Allow yourself to sleep and play and get into your creative self. Embrace the fears that may be tapping you on the shoulder, or the anxiety that may bug you in your stomach. Look it all in the eye and acknowledge that it is there.

Because this period of in-between tends to be all about the unknown, the unseen, the not-yet understood, try not to hide from the uncertainty. To pretend that all is well when you are scared or sad will only cause greater disorientation. You can celebrate this time, to be sure, but if you don’t feel like celebrating, don’t fake it. Faking joy around others (or on social media) is a quick path to unrelenting depression (and it doesn’t help others’ mental health either). If you are struggling with your sense of life’s purpose, know that you are not the only one.

Instead, embrace the unknown as if you could, in fact, wrap your body around the darkness and let yourself sink down. Let it devour you and devour it back as if you are lovers, or adversaries who must tangle in order to fight. Tangle with this death of old things, so that you can more swiftly and truly find your way through to your new identity on the other side.

Practically speaking, when people ask you what you’re doing next with your life, tell them that you’re not entirely sure. Tell them with a calm heart that you are in a liminal period, a state of transition, that you’re saying goodbye to one identity and starting to create the next.

Then, you can sleep. Rest. Gain perspective of what you’ve been doing in school for the last two-odd decades. Read excellent novels that wake up your heart and make time disappear. Spend time in nature. Listen to music. Swim in fresh waters. Make art. Journal. Cry. Dance. If you’re like most modern people, your left brain has just had a lifelong workout. Let it rest. Give your right brain—your artistic, curious, imaginative self—some attention for a change. Give your body attention for the sake of love, not sculpting or photos.

Remember how to play. (Without the assistance of alcohol or drugs.)

When you embrace the uncertainty and allow your identity to be in flux, you will slowly begin to re-collect yourself. You will remember in bits and pieces who you are at your roots and who you want to be. Notice the humans who are further along in life who make your heart light up. Learn about their journeys. Make notes on what it is about them that gives you hope. This will all help you to clarify who you want to be, and who you already are.

Look into the world and see what social issues pull at your heartstrings. Then take time to notice what truly brings you joy, with no pressure or expectations. See where these things might overlap. Do not rush this process.

The feminist poet Audre Lorde begins her essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” with this exquisite insight: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”

Be it through psychotherapy, devoted journaling, or a regular art practice, the exploration of oneself, one’s personality, past, likes and dislikes, dreams and hopes, sexuality and physicality, ancestry, and goals for the future, one begins to discover structure for the otherwise uncharted path for coming into adulthood.

Do not shy away from alone time, without your devices or company. As the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “Your solitude will be a support and a home for you, even in the midst of very unfamiliar circumstances, and from it you will find all your paths.”

Rediscover your joy by staring deeply into the unknown, without guilt or shame or expectation. It is the greatest thing you can do for yourself. And, if you are truly going to help the rest of us get through this messy world, it is the greatest thing you can do for us now too.

originally published on

Fall Seminar on "The Banality of Evil"

Please join me at Literary Arts in downtown Portland for a seminar on Hannah Arendt's important post-WWII work: Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil.

Sundays, September 17-October 8, 2017
5:30-7:30 p.m. (four meetings) Tuition: $140

In 1961, Jewish political theorist and philosopher Hannah Arendt traveled to Jerusalem to report on the trial of Adolf Eichmann, an architect of the mass deportation and extermination of Jews in World War II. Commissioned by The New Yorker, Arendt’s report was originally published in the magazine in three parts. Highly controversial at the time, her writing on the trial challenged the world to wrestle with the concept of evil and the possibility that evil is far more banal than we would like to think. In this seminar, we’ll read the subsequently published book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil. In rich story-telling journalism, Arendt will guide us through an exploration of human psychology to ponder the inevitability, or probability, of violence–sometimes in the form of bureaucrats who believe they are doing nothing more than following orders. Like Orwell’s fictional work, Arendt’s non-fiction and philosophy is currently experiencing renewed collective curiosity and interest.

Reading List: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil by Hannah Arendt (1963, Penguin Classics)

Register for the Seminar

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