Dr. Meg Jay, a psychotherapist and author of The Defining Decade, tells us 30 is not the new 20. I agree – it’s the old 20. By this I mean that despite the freedoms and liberation of postmodernity we are still human, all too human.
In my response to her work I will engage post-structuralism, gender theory and the history of psychotherapy – hitting on my main point that Dr. Meg, Judith Butler and most people miss the function of the superego and wind up motivating themselves and others through negativity, often not realizing they are doing this or that there is another way.
Her popular book and TED talk (and a healthy dose of click bait) brand her as an expert at dealing with the problem of “twenty-somethings.” What is the problem of these Twixters? Their problem is that they don’t take their 20’s seriously – by which Meg means they aren’t being productive (This means immature, which means bad).
To Dr. Meg’s credit she does soften the blow through a parental instilled fear of future loss, though most people still hear it as “they should grow up already” because explaining the uncomfortable presence of this judgmental thought is why they looked for the book in the first place. Meg helps other people feel less bad about judging 20somethings.
I will return to this key point because what Meg is avoiding is the knowledge that you can’t be motivated by future loss if you haven’t grieved the past. You will instead remain motivated by past loss – which usually means not motivated, the problem in question. Meg is well aware of this, as evidenced from her doctoral work on melancholy, specifically as related to identity formation. I will form a speculative case for why this apparent irregularity may exist.
Docteh-Jeh’s message is that kidults need a swift kick in the abject-horror to counteract a societal zeitgesit which states or implies “your 20’s don’t matter.” This is where I start my critique. The question, as always: “Is this true, or does she wan’t it to be true?”
Meg wants it to be true that 20fuckthings are being told by society that their lot in life is inconsequential, that these same people are incorporating this message, and that they should reject it in favor of leaning into life because your 20’s are a golden opportunity (to work and prepare for the future).
Unfortunately I polled the collective unconscious of history about this subject and discovered what I already knew: nobody is telling them this. Do a google search for “your twenties aren’t important” or “your twenties don’t matter” and ask yourself how a psychotherapist could conclude that this is a rampant problem? The majority of the links are either (1) to Dohktuh Jaighs book, or (2) other articles about how critically important your 20’s are, usually with a product to sell about how to solve the problem.
Twenty somethings are telling themselves their 20’s don’t matter, like a child leaving a carnival with no iced cream who can’t really believe there will be a next time.
There are at least two ways for your life to matter: to yourself and to others. The reason young adults can’t tell the difference is because old adults can’t tell the difference. Neither can most therapists.
The Ambivalence of Crossing the Street
They can’t understand because they don’t want to understand. Understanding is horrifying.
How do you think children learn to cross the street (or not)?
You can remember not to cross the street because you are afraid of father and his punishment. You could also remember because you love mother and want to show her. Or, you can cross the street and look both ways, remembering that mother and father love you no matter what.
All of these are easier than being alone in the yard thinking about death and realizing that mother and father are gone.
Harder yet may be to know that they fear death, too, and can’t tell the truth about it. Perhaps your fear used to be their fear. If you show them you aren’t afraid… even this connection you will have to lose.
Nevertheless, on the other side of the street lies another yard full of happy children to play with. If you cross the street will you be happy, too?
How this turns out for you depends on how much you already enjoy playing in your yard right now.
Crossing the street is scary, but do you have faith it is worthwhile? Will it be good enough? Is it worth looking both ways – all the way down the street and to the end of time?
Perhaps you had better check with mother, or wait quietly until father returns.
The Brief-Therapy of Dr. Meg Jay
The best way to sell people a solution is to create a problem bigger than the one they say they have, but smaller than the one they fear they have. Begin with a narrative that shocks them and accounts for the presence of disavowed fear, inferiority, guilt and shame. Then reify the narrative into a thing, spun anew. The narrative about the problem makes people feel bad and the narrative about the solution makes them feel excited. Kind of like church, only you can’t deduct it on your taxes.
Then they buy the product to feel good about trying, relieving their anxiety about the underlying issues and enjoying the catharsis of participating in the ceremony.
The best way to do brief therapy is to offer a solution to a problem you created which is bigger than the one the client says they have, but smaller than the one they fear they have. Begin with a narrative that shocks them…
Dr. Jay presents the vignettes of two women: Alex and Emma, who are dating two “knuckleheads” – men who aren’t good enough for Dr. Meg’s father…er for Dr. Meg…I mean for her clients… Meg’s talk is also peppered with the fear of not being able to have a baby when you get old. Wait a minute, I thought this is about psychotherapy and 20 somethings (presumably persons of both genders, errr, sexes, I mean…oh fuck it…) not “Lean In 2: Return of the Killer Superego.”
- Alex: Alex dresses like a flouncy slob (according to Meg, who is disgusted with women who don’t act like it because of her disavowed attachment issues) and baits Dr. Jay with jokes about her boyfriend. “Oh well, 30’s the new 20…” What distracted Meg is the joke, what it distracted her from was the self-hatred behind the humor. “What does it feel like to not take your life seriously?”
- Emma: Same story, the difference is Dr. Jay told Emma to sack up and Emma took it like a man.
- The Man: Oh, wait, Meg doesn’t talk about male clients because their 20’s don’t matter since they don’t have ovaries. If a man was dating a woman who isn’t good enough for him it means he’s an ass – all women are equivalent because, according to the melancholy Dr. Meg and her customers, they don’t matter or only matter in comparison to men or women with children.
The Depth-Therapy of Dr. Meg Jay
Judith Butler’s seminal article on gender identification called Melancholy Gender: Refused Identification, is a real classic. But Butler misses why.
Butler identifies that Freud changed his concept of grief between Mourning and Melancholia and The Ego and the ID. In the former, grief was resolvable through the remaking of broken attachments. In the latter, he notes that melancholic attachment is required to let an object relationship go. You have to mourn the loss.
As Butler notes, he also changed what he meant by letting an object go. In MM he meant the Id detached from it (you stopped giving a shit, and could therefore give a shit about other things).
By the Ego and the Id Freud means detachment of the drive qua incorporation of the object. You never let it go. It becomes part of you. You can’t have what you never wanted, and you couldn’t want it because you couldn’t have it. Tag – you are it. Enter the super-ego (punitive ego, negative self talk, inner critic, stinking thinking, deep negativity, critical inner parent, damaged sub-selves, persecutory objects, original sin, demon posession and so forth).
This means that to be able to give a shit about your life now you need to remember you gave a shit about it in the first place, which means dealing with the loss of what you first gave a shit about and your feelings about why you had to give it up.
If you don’t do this what you get instead is melancholy – incomplete grief and the apathy which hides it from you. You hide it because you can’t take it seriously because you are ashamed of it. You are ashamed of it because nobody else took it seriously either.
In Butlers terms female gender is only not being a man and the sorrow of the lost love of women (and the feelings you have(and can’t have) about it)). Melancholy gender is the unknown and unknowable grief of having to give up the same-sex relationship. You can’t mourn it because you can’t know you have it because it’s existence threatens you, since all you are is not-it. (Men and homosexuals work the same mutatis mutandis).
Dr. Meg wrote an award winning article engaging with Butler in 2005. (Meg Jay Ph.D. (2007) Melancholy Femininity and Obsessive—Compulsive Masculinity: Sex Differences in Melancholy Gender, Studies in Gender and Sexuality, 8:2, 115-135)
She proposed that this melancholy gender is worse for women since their primary relationship with the mother is same sexed vs. opposite sexed for men. In short – why more women are depressed than men (Which isn’t true, by the way. When you include aggression, substance abuse and risk taking behavior in the diagnostic categories. By the way, the belief that women are more depressed might be evidence of masochistic drives of the superego.)
She also notes men (knuckleheads) are more likely to become obsessively compulsively masculine than to experience melancholy gender.
Men can avow the love (libidinal or embodied cathex) of the mother to some minor extent, and its loss, but cannot avow the love of the father and instead obsessively try to be like him. They cannot mourn the loss of the love-for because they are forever acting it out, the energy or drive of this same love having become invested into the ego. In laymens terms, they put the energy of love-for into being-like.
Women cannot avow the love (libidinal or embodied cathex) of the mother and thus cannot grieve its loss.
What Butler and Meg miss is the profound difference between Freud’s two books in that Freud was working with two radically different models of the Psyche. In MM Freud was operating under the assumptions of Id Analysis, the Drive Model. In Ego, Freud introduced the Structural Model. The key difference between the two is the existence of the super-ego and the nature of repression.
- ID Analysis, Drive Theory: Primitive drives come in conflict with societal standards and must be repressed. Keeping them from awareness causes symptoms. Bringing awareness to them and channeling them in a new direction causes relief.
- Ego Analysis*, The Structural Model: Ordinary drives come in conflict with primary caregivers and subsequently the superego, “the precipitate of abandoned object cathexes.” This is fancy Freud babble for the lasting impression of significant past relationships.
*Freud never used the term ego analysis. After 1923 and the publication of Ego and the Id he spent most of the rest of his life dying of cancer and running from Nazis, so he was a little too busy to elaborate. This distinction was first noted by Otto Fenichel in Principles of Psychoanalytic Technique, and was then mostly forgotten outside of some obscure circles, never to fully return. People preferred the drive model and it lives on in public understanding because it lets them explain, express, and avoid awareness of the superego by blaming people.
The reason this matters is that Butler and Jay draw most heavily upon MM, missing the distinctions offered by the superego in the later work. This is all very obtuse, thought I suggest you read the linked articles for a real roller coaster.
What you need to know is that the Psyche does not have the character of drives and conflicts but of relationships between wishes and ideas about other people. The fact that these relationships seem like reality is the hiddenness of the superego. It hides in plain sight.
What lead Freud to this realization after decades of analysis was his attempt to explain the negative therapeutic reaction – why psychoanalysis didn’t work for most people and made lots of them worse.
If love goes unavowed and unavowable it means you are ashamed of yourself with respect to caring. The experience of the broken attachment, the withdrawal of a libido cathex (giving a shit), is often one of shame and guilt or the defense against it. The way you can remember you once loved at all, if you had to stop, is by internalizing guilt you can’t explain and shame you can’t admit.
Consider Derrida on The Secret: To have a secret you must always remember it, so as not to tell it. To hide it from yourself, you must put it somewhere else.
The place you put it is into explanations for why you can’t enjoy yourself, the labyrinthian and myriad justifications for disavowed agency.
There are only two sexes, which is a shame, since we want them to mean so very much more than they do.
Why then the kick in the pants?
Maybe what helps Meg’s clients is the fact that she shows them it is OK to act like a man and not be a lesbian. (Ok, to be nicer: how to just model a well-integrated female psyche.) Hell, I didn’t say this, Meg did in 2005. Much like Lacan thought the way to cure impotence was to make women wear strap-on dildos under their dress. (Shit-you-not: Ecrits, 825).
Wait, it’s OK to be a Lesbian, too, right? Sure, but why all this talk about babies? Well, according to her publishers, lesbians, gays and men aren’t really in the target demographic for self help books authored by professional women.
But we’re all still talking about 20somethings, right?
So why write the book?
If you humor me by agreeing that the book is not for 20somethings, but for 20something women then consider why Meg needs to hide this fact from her clients and possibly herself.
One possibility is that Dr. Meg went through these issues herself, resolved them, and has learned a lot from her practice. This fits the narrative of her story. I’ll leave you to speculate on her motives for going into therapy and gender studies as a career, then subsequently turning away from deep gender issues to promote brief therapy and self help.
Another possibility is that Meg herself has unresolved melancholy gender issues. Listen to her voice and watch her gestures in her TED talk: Can you hear the echo of the sadness and see the uncertain-but-carefully-polished lack of comfort in her own skin?
Her motivation in writing the book and pretending it is about 20somethings (as opposed to women) is that she is still struggling with her shame and doubt about doing what she is doing in life and is trying not to. It’s an attempt to quiet anxiety by becoming a public expert – a demonstration of her benign narcissism about having worked through these issues herself. Much like starting a cult, religion or self-help group (if there was ever a difference between the three). Or a blog….fuck me!
She knows that young women wouldn’t buy the book if it was about the psychological problems of young women so she pretends it’s about something else.
They wouldn’t buy the book because of a defense against shame, which is largely their problem to begin with. And they can’t see their shame because people like Meg can’t see it either.
They keep the secret for each other, from each other.
Being a 20something man rules unless your father was a pussy and your mom was a hysteric- which unfortunately is most men. Your dad was afraid he’s gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that), which is why you’re afraid to be masculine (isn’t there supposed to be something wrong with that?).
To Meg, starting a career and family of your own is a behavioral strategy, a way to foreclose the unresolved grief beneath the melancholy of identification and ambivalence. In being like your parents and other adults you can in that way be an adult and perhaps bypass the super-ego. This makes entry into adulthood the world of being like.
What Meg cannot convey in her book or brief therapy is the difference between being and being like. According to Dr. Jay it is identity capital – object relationships which prove who you are. I say that whether this works or feels phony depends on whether you can enjoy yourself and can give a shit about anything (Whether your ego is contaminated by super-ego effects).
The problem with her approach is that it will work decently with those who struggle with guilt but less so with those who struggle with shame. In the case of the former it will reinforce negativity as a way of motivating the self and others. For the latter it will become grist for the mill of self hatred and striving, yet another book in the heap of self-help. This is so because they are already telling themselves and the Dr. Meg’s of the world that 30 is the new 20.
What you miss is the experience that being an adult can be a lighthearted game big kids play.
The Ego-Analytic Alternative
If you want to improve your sense of what works vs. what doesn’t in psychotherapy study sex and violence. Two of my favorite and most often cited sources are Bernard Apfelbaum, a sex therapist in the Masters & Johnson lineage, and James Gilligan, a therapist and violence scholar who spent his career in criminal justice. To understand their work in a nutshell see the links above.
Apfelbaum & Gilligan show us the shame and guilt underneath the problems that bring people to therapy or worse. Shame and Guilt tend to disappear into the unconscious. They are hard to realize we have because they are hard to express and have accepted in the public discourse or empathized with (mirrored) by others. This is because everybody else is trying to avoid guilt and shame in themselves and as a result tries to avoid it in us. If they see ours, they feel theirs, so they avoid ours.
This pattern reinforces shame and guilt about shame and guilt. To a large extent this is the problem with life.
The old twenty meant being an adult. It meant being accepted into an ordinary world of normal adult satisfactions and entitlements. Thirty, the new (old) twenty, means adults hate you for an additional ten years before they take you seriously.
Don’t blame them for this, it’s the economy.
They don’t take you seriously without an education and they don’t take your education seriously (Because they don’t take themselves seriously, and are threatened by you.)
This leaves me at the fundamental question: If others don’t take you seriously how can you take yourself seriously? For the first time in history neo-liberal youth have a protracted period of relative freedom. Asking why 20somethings can’t grow up is the wrong question. Why can’t twenty somethings enjoy what everyone has always been fighting for? Maybe they believe (or can’t consciously believe) that adults are spiteful and jealous and still want (can’t consciously want) our approval?
Some conclude the problem is we have too much freedom, which I think is unfortunate. I say we can be more than dogs who sleep in open cages.
To return to the illustration of crossing the street: Your 30’s are the other yard across the street. You will get there eventually, even if father has to make you. Whether you enjoy yourself when you get there or not, all things being equal, can be well predicted by whether or not you are enjoying yourself now. What is it that makes you not enjoy yourself now?
Why isn’t your life good enough? If you think the answer is that you’re not working hard enough to plan for the future you might be in trouble.
Dr. Meg Jay’s moral lesson is reminiscent of the Ant and the Grasshopper, so I’ll leave you with Apfelbaum’s analysis of it:
Like the ant and the grasshopper. The ant constantly works, all summer long, storing up food for the winter. Now the grasshopper, he just sings all summer long. He makes no provision for winter. So winter comes and the ant does fine, but the grasshopper starves to death. Do we feel sorry for him? Is that the point of the fable? That the poor grasshopper has this slow agonizing death from starvation? Of course not. It’s his own fault! We don’t waste sympathy [note: sympathy can be wasted] on him; he has forfeited his right to it. No one says. “Pity the poor grasshopper.” Because he asked for it.
That’s blame logic. Outside of blame logic we should be able to see that if you are responsible for your own suffering, you are even more in need of sympathy. If you have only yourself to blame that’s a much worse punishment than if you can blame someone else. And the reason for that is that we relate to ourselves according to the logic of blame.
The poor grasshopper not only has to starve to death in the snow, he has to blame himself for it. He has to beat himself up for not being practical and responsible like the ant. “Why, Oh why did I have to be such a jerk? What is the matter with me? What is such a big deal about singing that I couldn’t at least take a little time to put aside a little food?”
In other words, negative self-talk is the same as negative other-talk.
Not only does the grasshopper have to starve to death, he has the added misery of having to blame himself. It could even be that he was pretty depressed all summer so he had to keep singing to keep up his spirits. And every day he thought he would put aside some food, but he just never got around to it, and before he knew it, it was winter. It just got away from him.
But he wouldn’t be able to spare himself with that explanation. He’d be just as self-condemning, telling himself: “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out that after summer comes winter, for Chrissake!” How stupid can you be?” That’s negative self-talk. There are no extenuating circumstances. Just like negative other-talk.
So we don’t even have any way of knowing how much we are suffering from living in this world of blame, and forfeiting our right to suffer[sic]—no way of knowing how stressed out we are, living in the courtroom, and how much our thinking is limited by having to work up a case for ourselves.
Dr. Meg Jay might help you store up for winter. I say the ant and the grasshopper can both learn to whistle while they work.
For the apathetic, here is a bit of original fill-in-the-blank poetry:
Apathy, my weapon!
Apathy, my crutch!
Apathy is all I have
For I have so very much _____!