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Boiling Water or Bubble Wrap: The Problem with Gen Z’s Conflicting Coping Mechanisms

Hardship, adversity, hurt. Three things we are all forced to cope with now more than ever in a world where it seems everything that could go wrong, has. But how are we coping with this calamity? Generations before us have had a million different mindsets towards facing adversity, however our society appears to have isolated two distinct approaches: the ‘tough it out’ attitude or the ‘self-care’ attitude.

The ‘tough it out’ attitude, echoes in the bits of advice young people have been hearing from parents, guardians, and authority figures for generations. We’ve been told to ‘grin and bear it’, to ‘take it like a champ’, at times, even to ‘take it like a man’.

This approach embraces the notion of ‘toughing it out’—of letting yourself get a little bit roughed up and bruised, of sitting with the uncomfortable, of pushing through mental and physical barriers. It rejects ruminating over sadness, fear or discomfort, rather it preaches resilience and determination.

The essence of this mindset in some ways is incredibly beneficial. It embraces throwing yourself into the boiling water of trying times and refusing to quit even when that seems like the best option.

However, in our day and age, with our increased awareness of mental health, we can see that this attitude which sounds strong and powerful on paper, is proving to be truly detrimental in practice.

For men, especially young men, the ‘tough it out’ attitude over time has manifested into the ‘man up’ mentality, a fundamental pillar of toxic masculinity. Men have been shamed into silence, fearing social isolation if they show or share their struggles, fears or any basic human emotion that suggests vulnerability.

While for young neurodivergent people, this mentality doesn’t work either. The emotional neglect associated with ‘tough love’ generates feelings of guilt and shame, rather than determination or hope. This only leads to self-frustration and distress, according to research by Lifeline Australia.

Thankfully, there is a softer approach. Gen Z has adopted a “Self-care” attitude, born from a newfound focus on mental health and spread mostly through social media, and the concept of prioritising our wellbeing has taken over the world.

The self-care approach values taking time to process your feelings, sharing and discussing trauma and protecting your own comfort and beliefs with a firm layer of bubble-wrap at all times.

This positive mindset has contributed to the mass increase in recent years of people seeking out mental health assistance and as a result has saved countless lives. For that reason alone, it definitely sounds like a better alternative to “toughing it out”.

But, we know this attitude too can be downright detrimental.

For some, mental illness has become competitive.

Mental health is popping up more and more in our daily lives from conversations to TikTok to TV and movies, where at times it’s been glamourised and romanticised. As a result, meaningful terms like depression, anxiety and trauma get thrown around more, and in turn we can be more critical and ask more questions behind closed doors about those that use them. Such as whether people are really depressed or just self-diagnosing? Or whose trauma is the most severe and therefore most deserving of sympathy? Reducing these problems to playground competitions.

While for others, this bubble-wrap has manifested into overprotective self-centrism, where people struggle to take on constructive criticism that could benefit them.

So where is the middle ground? If one approach disregards emotional hardship to the point of mental destruction, and one tip toes around it to the point of social destruction, how should we approach and discuss the adversity we face?

The answer: is to be kind.

As basic and cheesy as it sounds, the answer to our problems lies in the simple lesson we’re taught as kids; we need to be kind, to ourselves and to each other.

Kindness means accepting each person’s unique struggles as just that; personal unique struggles. Kindness isn’t measuring or comparing severity in ways that make other people’s pain feel insignificant. Kindness is acknowledging that a nasty comment that could feel like a graze to one person could genuinely feel like a punch in the face to another. In the same way that just because one person could have broken every bone in their body, doesn’t mean that another person’s twisted ankle doesn’t still hurt.

We must keep in mind that we can’t ever truly know how problems affect the people sitting next to us, or our families or even our closest friends. And for that reason, we mustn’t compare.

But being kind also means being kind to us; ourselves; yourselves. It means combining the acceptance of “self-care” with the resilience of “tough love” to create a positive, nuanced middle ground approach that provides the flexibility we all need to approach all our unique, personal problems.

Ultimately, wrapping ourselves in bubble wrap or throwing ourselves straight into the boiling pot, probably both aren’t the best ways to face our problems. But by being kind to one another and taking on challenges with a flexible, open mind, I believe we are truly capable of surviving and might I say, thriving through just about anything, thank you.

By Scarlett McLellan (12H)