At a lunchtime workshop at Princeton for overscheduled, underslept college students a few years ago, I was teaching a three-step practice of self-compassion. The practice encourages a stance of self-kindness in the face of setbacks. One 19-year-old college athlete looked askance.
“So, you want me to be nice to myself when I mess up?” she asked. I nodded.
“Doesn’t that mean that I’ll just sit in my room all day in my pajamas and watch Netflix?” she asked. Her classmates laughed knowingly. For many in this driven generation, more of whom than ever now rank themselves as more competitive than their peers, self-criticism is their Red Bull. By their logic, you can’t move yourself forward, racking up achievements and building out your résumé, without beating yourself up.
The problem, researchers say, is that while self-criticism may give us a swift kick in the pants, it elevates symptoms of anxiety and depression in the long run. And this generation of adolescents can hardly afford much more unhappiness: Today’s teenagers are plagued by more distress than any generation on record.