Skip to main content

Shaming Younger Generations Perpetuates Cycles of Trauma: Let’s Stop It and Focus on Empathy

April 2, 2024

By Jennifer Chesak

In what I refer to as the “generation wars,” I frequently see memes from older generations that say, “We are not the same.” The memes are intended to shame younger generations. And my thought when I see these posts is, “Thankfully we are not the same, because I don’t want younger generations to suffer in the same ways.”

This breed of memes floating around features different variations. But they all essentially say the same thing: “We were not coddled, and you, Gen Z and younger Millennials, have been.”

When you post these memes, you show exactly who you are: someone who wants other people to endure pain and suffering, someone who lacks empathy. But I have to stop myself from getting angry and tap into my own empathy, because a lack of empathy, as exhibited in the memes, can stem from childhood trauma.

The memes I’m referring to say something like this: “I grew up getting my butt paddled. You grew up getting a trophy for participating. We are not the same.” Others show some egregious safety issue, like babies riding in the front seat—no car seat, no seatbelt—again with the tagline “We are not the same.”

Born in 1978, I’m Gen X, but barely. I have Millennial pals (born 1981-1996). At the university where I adjunct, I teach mostly Gen Z (1997-2012). And although I’m not a parent myself, my friends have mostly Gen Alpha kiddos (born 2010-mid 2020s). I do not want these generations to endure the things Gen-Xers (born 1965-1980) or Boomers (born 1946-1964) or the Silent Generation (1928-1945) did just so they have some sort of street cred.

I can laugh now about some of the dangerous stuff I was allowed to do simply because no one knew any better. I can laugh now that my parents had a stick labeled “Brat Paddle” on top the fridge. (They never used it, by the way.) But I’d be abhorred to learn that any of my friends were spanking their kids—or even threatening to—or letting them fly down a hill on a bike sans helmet. We know better now.

I don’t get the concept of making subsequent generations “pay the same dues” we did. I don’t want my Gen-Z students to have to take unpaid internships; that makes valuable field experience inaccessible for young adults who need to work a job that pays the bills. I don’t want my Gen-Z students to get sexually harassed at their first jobs.

Why would you want someone to suffer just because you did? Shouldn’t it be the opposite? I would think that enduring some forms of trauma would make one feel more empathetic and not want others to face the same.

My journalist mind wondered about this, so I dug into the research. It’s mixed. In some cases, the research shows that traumatic events can make us more empathetic. In other instances, the research shows that trauma can make us less able to empathize with others. The latter occurs because dialing back empathy can serve as defense mechanism when people face trauma. It may be the only way they can survive in the moment. And for that I can empathize. But it’s time to make a change. We have various tools for building our empathy muscles.

In our brains, we have something called the default mode network, a network of brain regions that work together. The DMN is concerned with our identity and our autobiographical memories. But it’s also the brain network we use to empathize, to put ourselves in another’s shoes. That’s because, to do so, all we have are our own experiences and feelings to draw on.

Psilocybin is one of the tools we can use to get the DMN to do its thing. When we do a macrodose (think 3 grams, give or take) of psilocybin, some interesting things happen to the DMN. Parts that normally connect will disconnect, while other parts that don’t normally connect will connect. When this happens, we may experience what’s called “ego death.” That term can sound scary, but it has benefits. Ego death can reduce your focus on yourself and make you feel more connected to the universe at large, to nature, to the people you love, and more. This extra connectedness is called “oceanic boundlessness.” Oceanic boundlessness can really make you feel the love for others and know, in your body, that they love you back.

If you aren’t ready to dive into psychedelics quite yet, other tools can help. Research shows that reading fiction or memoir can help you build your empathy muscle. Reading encourages you to put yourself in a character’s or author’s shoes and to imagine how you would feel in their situation as the plot progresses. Talking with others and really listening to their experiences can also help. Doing kind things for others can also make you more empathetic. Finally, seeing different places and different people can build empathy. That doesn’t mean you have to travel around the world. But if you’re always sticking to your own bubble, with people who are relatively similar to you, you could be missing out on opportunities to build empathy and connection. Volunteer at a local shelter, a care facility, or a nonprofit.

We have three different types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate. Cognitive empathy is our ability to interpret how someone else might be feeling. To do this, we must understand that we all come from different backgrounds and have had a different set of circumstances. Yet we all have ways we can relate. For example, even though I don’t have children, I can comprehend that raising them is beautiful but complicated. Emotional empathy is your ability to empathize because you’ve had a similar experience as another person. For example, if my mom’s elderly dog passes away, I will understand how she feels because my beloved dog passed away a few years ago. Compassionate empathy involves both cognitive and emotional, and it drives you to act. Perhaps I would send my mom flowers, as others did for me when I faced such a loss.

Empathy is important, not only for your sake, but for future generations, including your children if you have them or plan to. Empathy is both innate and learned. So if you lack empathy, your children may too. And right now, and going forward, our world could use a whole lot of it—and a whole lot less of memes that shame younger generations. I encourage you to do the work of empathy-building. You won’t regret it.

More On These Topics:

More From This Issue: