Let me start by saying I do not speak for all millennial therapists. In fact, until I was asked to write this piece, I didn’t even consider myself a true millennial. Sure, I realized my birthdate fell within a window that technically put me in that category, but I’d never actually used the term as a descriptor for myself before. After all, true millennials Instagram their avocado toast, they live with their parents until they’re in their late 30s, and they communicate exclusively via hashtags and emojis. And I don’t do any of those things! (And when I have, it’s been ironically, I swear.) So like the true definitely-not-a-millennial that I am, I turned to Wikipedia to find out: am I one of them?
Spoiler alert: after careful review of the criteria typical to this subset of human—passionate, technologically savvy, social media bound, with a touch of narcissism—I realized that . . . (drumroll please) . . . I am, in fact, a millennial: #sigh #itme #truthbomb. And despite the negative connotation often imposed upon this generation by the media, by the generations that came before us, and until today, by me, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing after all—especially for a therapist.
A Passionate Path
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” – Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go, 1990, inspiring a generation of millennials
Millennials, told countless times by our boomer, picked-themselves-up-by-their-bootstraps parents that we were special and could be whatever we wanted to be, have grown up to believe it. So, like my peers, I dreamed. I dreamed I’d be a ballerina, a movie star, a novelist, and a trapeze artist, but I never dreamed I’d be a therapist. By the end of college, I dreamed of being a big-time magazine editor. I’d majored in English and minored in dance, so taking that unpaid internship at Dance Magazine in New York City—at the height of the recession—was my big break. I did it, folks! I was practically living out a fantasy designed by millennial-icon Taylor Swift: I was feeling 22. And I felt 22 for five more years.
It turns out, the millennial #dreamjob changes at the drop of a hat—and so did mine. Don’t get me wrong; I spent half a decade attending Broadway shows, interviewing dancers, and even appearing on a dance reality show that I refuse to name in print for fear of destroying my professional reputation. But ultimately, I began to feel that this was a fun job instead of a long-term career—and I’d been conditioned to think big. I started to take on freelance work for various online publications, mostly about sex and relationships. I was interviewing an MFT and sex therapist as a source one day when it hit me: I wanted to do what she did! I started researching grad schools the next day. After all, I’d been one credit shy of a psychology degree. I felt ready. I felt inspired. I felt terrified. I had no idea what I was getting in to.
When I started my masters in marriage and family therapy, I was what my program referred to as a “career changer.” My plan was to specialize in sex therapy—something that I hoped would help me stand out from peers. My one-track mind was often tested by supervisors, who pushed me to work with child and adolescent clients and take on family cases during my practicum. While I’m grateful for these experiences, my resoluteness to stick to my clinical specialty only grew stronger. I had visions of private practice. I pictured my diploma on the wall, a comfy couch with a gorgeous view, and offering my clients water in real glasses. (And they say millennials are materialistic.)
As graduation neared, the question of where to get a job loomed heavy over my head. My professors had told me that the best move—read: the only move—for a newly graduated, unlicensed MFT was agency work, hospital work, or something similar. Needless to say, paying my dues while underpaid was not at the top of my #dreamjob list. I had no intention of returning to living with a roommate, surviving on $1 pizza, or having the “hey, mom and dad, I need some money” talk ever again. I wanted to jump to the finish line, and I’d decided to settle for nothing less.
My steadfastness (paired with actual hard work, tons of studying, and a healthy dose of networking) paid off. I was hired to work in a group private practice specializing in sex therapy. The transition was quick and not without its challenges, but every day felt like the adventure I’d been hoping for. Of course, there were still dues to be paid and small disappointments to come to terms with. My office was shared (no diploma on the wall), the percentage of my fee I gave back to the practice felt steep, and the late nights and Saturdays were long. But pursuing my passion was priceless.
My caseload was quickly full of sex therapy cases. My supervisor made sure I never bit off more than I could chew and always had the resources and support I needed. I served my clients water—and sometimes tea!—in real glasses, my view of downtown Chicago was pretty snazzy, and I’ve stayed for almost three years, which is very unmillennial of me, since we’re known for our job-hopping.
The nice thing about choosing a path I’m actually passionate about is that any urge to drop everything and change jobs can instead be focused on delving deeply into areas that expand my work within my specialty. I’ve developed a keen interest in working with nonmonogamous relationships, for example, and I’ve done quite the deep dive into the impact of chronic pelvic pain on a relationship.
Yes, I can see the tradeoffs of my single-minded determination in grad school. I’m not a jack-of-all-trades therapist. I don’t have much experience, for example, working with children or with severe mental illness. But my focus on that which I was most passionate about has added a lot to my career. During my training, I seized every opportunity to work with individuals and couples who were experiencing intimacy issues or sexual dysfunction. I read every book I could get my hands on and attended any specialized training that would have me. And while I wouldn’t say I’ve completely mastered this specialty, I did put myself on an accelerated path toward #dreamjob. I’ve seen the same thing happen with the peers I graduated with as well, many of whom chose their specializations early. After all, as we millennials say, “YOLO!”
The Me Me Me Generation
“I’m gracing you with my presence.” – millennial role model Kim Kardashian, 2015Are we selfish? Or just self-focused? Are we narcissistic? Or do we just take pride in our work? I suppose it’s all in how you frame it.
I’ll admit that a part of what made the transition from journalism to therapy difficult for me was the change in my ability to show off my accomplishments. As a writer, successes were tangible and easy to display to others. When this article comes out, I’ll post it to social media, excitedly share it via my practice’s newsletter, and make sure my family and friends know that “I wrote this cool thing!” But when a client shares a truly vulnerable moment, connects to a partner in a new, more intimate way, or offers me a heartfelt thank-you, the success is private, internal, and often fleeting. Instead of finding satisfaction in a “like” from that guy who lived on my floor in college or that third cousin I’ll never see again, I’ve had to learn to hold on to validation for myself—and to have that be enough.
At first, the isolation of private practice hit me hard. I was used to constant banter and collaboration, and though I love and respect my coworkers, they’re usually behind closed doors with clients. I’ve had to learn to be much more proactive about seeking the camaraderie I crave. And I’ve had to make socializing outside of work a priority to fill the requirements of being an extrovert. Some friends from grad school set up a biweekly consultation meeting, which became a saving grace, and days doing paperwork are now often spent in coffee shops with other therapists or work-from-home friends.
The flexibility of private practice is nice, but the schedule has its tradeoffs for a gal with a serious case of FOMO. (That’s “fear of missing out,” for you nonmillennials.) It took about a year for me to balance the stress of being at work on a Saturday while everyone else was outside with the joy I get from taking a 9 a.m. workout class while everyone else is heading to the office—or, my favorite: grocery shopping on Friday afternoons. (No lines at checkout, and all the cheese samples to myself!) And I’ve made a rule: no checking social media while I’m still in the office. It makes the symptoms of FOMO much more acute.
“Dance like the photo’s not being tagged, Love like you’ve never been unfriended, Tweet like nobody’s following.” – @PostSecret, describing a world before millennials (in under 140 characters)
Though being an “older millennial” means I do remember a time before smartphones, there’s no doubt that I’m dependent on technology. I’ve yet to become obsessed with Snapchat filters or even held on to a consistent Twitter handle (all in good time, I’m sure), but my phone is always within arm’s length, and my Instagram story and Facebook wall are consistently updated.
I think it was during my second year of grad school that a supervisor informed me it was probably not ethical to look up my clients’ Facebook profiles before meeting them (or ever). It had never occurred to me that that would be a problem. I’m not used to sitting with limited information on a person—knowing their name, but not being able to look up their face, or their partner’s face. Where did she go to college? Do we have any friends in common? Is that restaurant he owns any good? I knew that the potential answers were one Google search away, and it was surprisingly difficult to avoid online stalking.
Of course, sticking to these boundaries now has monumentally helped my therapeutic alliance with clients. After all, it prevents me from making assumptions or judgments based on their online presence before meeting them, and I actually have to ask the questions to their face if I want answers. (Okay, okay, I know this seems obvious. But the urge to search was just so automatic!)
Alas, setting social media boundaries with clients goes both ways. I’ve had the client followers and friend requests, and I’ve changed my last name on most social media platforms to keep my private life from seeping into the professional.
One of the toughest lines to navigate has been around online dating. I’ve had stints of singlehood during my time as a therapist, and like any devoted member of my generation, I had to exhaust all options within a five-mile radius before choosing a new mate. After my last breakup, I downloaded all necessary tools and settled in to start swiping. The first match that popped up on my screen was—you guessed it—a client. Panicked, I swiped left and immediately deleted the app: the equivalent of a child quickly shoving an entire cookie into her mouth in hopes her mom wouldn’t notice. Did he see me? Was my secret revealed? Does it even matter?
It’s these accidental moments of self-disclosure that make boundaries in the age of social media trickier. My past has been documented in detail on the internet since college. And though there’s nothing I’m aware of that would be objectively problematic, having it all accessible to clients without my choosing to disclose feels like a personal boundary crossing. So I’ve scrutinized privacy settings and spent hours carefully picking through past posts. For younger millennials, social media documentation goes back much further, starting in middle or high school and remaining easily accessible for their entire adult lives. Even with the meticulous trimming of my online presence, the remnants remain. But perhaps it allows millennials the freedom to be more human with our clients. Certainly, it gives us the opportunity for conversations about the therapeutic relationship and boundaries, which I’ve had a good number of in my office.
I think being part of a generation that grew up as the internet grew up, social media blossomed, and reality television was born gave us millennials a curiosity about others’ lives—and the ability to quench that curiosity—that actually serves us well as therapists. Countless adventures into YouTube black holes and hours watching reality TV aren’t what I’d ever list as clinical resources, but they’ve given me a look at the range of human experience and diversity that wasn’t as available to the generation before me. (Yes, I realize it’s a sensationalized look. But it’s a look, nonetheless.)
What my clients share rarely shocks me, so it’s not difficult to maintain a nonjudgmental stance. Even during my Sexual Attitude Reassessment, a requirement toward my next goal of becoming a certified sex therapist (#dreamjob), we were shown media that paled in comparison to what I grew up watching on HBO’s Real Sex (after my parents had gone to bed, of course). I’m not easily fazed, and I’m insatiably curious about my clients’ lives. I don’t shy away from asking tough questions when I think that the answers to them are interesting and important. I hope my comfort level helps put my clients at ease. I hope my curiosity helps them feel important and understood.
With access to those unlike ourselves comes an awareness of the bubbles that we live in. It shows us that feeling misunderstood or like the “other” comes with very real consequences. I’ve heard millennials be chastised for being too politically correct, asking everybody about affirming pronouns, carefully avoiding microaggressions like landmines, and being all too quick to point out our privilege. I struggle to see this as a negative trait.
Becoming a therapist with this lens has helped me stay curious instead of making assumptions, and to be acutely aware of the fact that my clients aren’t just sitting in any therapist’s office: they’re sitting in a white, Jewish, heterosexual, cisgender, female, 30-something therapist’s office, who serves them water in real glasses. And whether or not they’re aware of all these things, and whether or not they identify similarly, that’s always important.
Beyond Avocado Toast
“I have work, and then I have a dinner thing, and then I am busy trying to become who I am.” – self-appointed millennial spokesperson Lena Dunham, as Hannah Horvath on HBO’s Girls, 2015
As a millennial, what place do I occupy in the evolving (yes) but still deep-rooted world of therapy? Despite the challenge that always exists in being the least experienced in the room, I’ve never felt unwelcome by older generations of therapists. Those who’ve been in this field longer have so much to teach us—and we have something to offer them as well. We have a unique lens: we’re digital natives, we grew up with a language of nuance around gender and sexuality, and we have a deep passion that brought us here, as do therapists of all generations. I’ve always felt heard and respected, and that respect goes both ways.
Thinking now about the ins and outs of millennialhood, I find myself fitting quite cozily into the mold so carefully laid out by the dedicated researchers at Wikipedia who define it. It turns out that with just a little bit of reframing, the majority of millennial traits that I’d thought of, or that are often thought of by others, as having a negative connotation are actually among the things I pride myself on the most—and that I consider assets to the therapy world. Selfishness and narcissism can be transformed into a self-focus that breeds passion and pride in our work. We have a deep curiosity and acceptance about others’ lives, and we’re acutely aware that the details matter.
Still, these generational divides feel to me like horoscopes often do: it’s easy to fit yourself into a template when you know where you’re supposed to fit. The process of writing this piece has left me feeling a bit like Harry Potter: once the Sorting Hat told him he could’ve been a Slytherin, he was acutely aware of his Slytherin tendencies. As I expand my lens to my millennial colleagues, however, the edges of the category begin to blur. Yes, I prioritized an office with a view over fluorescent hospital lighting, but I have plenty of peers who’ve done exactly the opposite—and not because they didn’t have options. I know millennial therapists whose public Instagram feeds are full, and others who’ve sworn off social media altogether. I even went to brunch with a fellow millennial therapist today, and neither of us ordered the avocado toast.
The helpfulness of defining a generation only goes so far. It’s easy to categorize a client as boomer, millennial, Gen Z, or whatever term comes next based on birthyear, but, like any other categorization in the therapy room, it’s useful only if it means something to that client. Assuming that millennial clients are hooked on Snapchat or live with their parents may get us in trouble. Remember, millennials (well, really, humans) pride ourselves on being individuals, so it’s always a safe bet to treat us that way.
Rachel Zar, AMFT, is a clinical associate at Enliven Couples Therapy in Chicago.
ILLUSTRATION © NEIL WEBB