Shame: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

We, as a society, are permeated by shame. It soaks through the fabric which connects us to our friends, our families, and our romantic interests. It is what drives us to tell certain stories and omit others. Shame is the catalyst in taking who we were and changing into who we will be.

Shame coexists among other emotions– pride, joy, anger, resentfulness, love– but there are very few forces which hold so much power over us, if only because of how hidden we are forced to keep it. What gives shame so much power is the fact that by its very nature, we are too afraid to speak about it. When we feel these other emotions, we can vent more openly, share our feelings with those close to us. Shame is the emotion that we keep closest to our chests.

In The Defining Decade, Meg Jay finds each possible source of shame inside of you and, rather than unpacking it and allowing it to sit out in the open, twists a barbed hook into the wound. Whether it be career or romantic aspirations, Jay takes a good hard look at anything you might be embarrassed about, laughs, and insists that it’s your own fault.

In perhaps her longest chunk of dialogue, Jay breaks down a young woman’s relationship with casual sex. In the beginning, the woman seems comfortable with her sexuality, but Jay proceeds to break her down with increasingly aggressive dialogue. Now, I am not claiming to know what was right for the client in question. What I am saying is that filling your book with phrases such as:

  • “accepting even the thinnest excuses”
  • “I [Jay] expressed concern”
  • “and look what you are practicing. consider what part you’re rehearsing to play”
  • “that’s sad”
  • “I don’t believe it’s fine or that you think it’s fine”

all of which were stated with condescension (I listened to the audiobook) are making implicit assumptions as to the morality of the client’s actions, and thus the actions of the reader. Yes, our world might be more sex positive than a decade earlier, but that doesn’t mean that women are free to live without shame. Let people be happy with casual sex. If you are going to dedicate over 20 minutes of my life to hearing a scathing review of it, then give us an example where someone is happy to have sex every night. I know I see examples of that in my real life.

When it comes to career, rest assured that according to Jay, it’s your fault that you’re struggling there as well. Never mind the fact that underemployment is all too often a result of being unable to find a job, not for lack of desire to. Jay insists that if you just applied, you would be doing better than you are already. Even if you’ve already applied and lost the position, as one of her case studies had, that’s just because you applied the wrong way. With her help, the case study got the job and was able to start his life!

What Jay also shares with us is her gross ability to ignore the financial reality of most of America. Finding a job that pays well is harder than ever, even has open positions at minimum wage jobs skyrocket. The vast majority of 20-somethings that “slipped” into moving in with their partners did so because they couldn’t afford their rent alone, and it made more sense to choose a boyfriend than a random roommate at 25. Choosing between an entry-level career job and a higher paying barista job isn’t the obvious decision Jay posits, because taking a pay cut at that salary range will impact the individual’s ability to live a happy, fruitful life where they are able to pay their credit cards on time.

Of course, it’s no surprise that Jay ignores all of this. Her primary clientele is 25 year olds with “dead end” jobs who are still able to afford therapy. One of them considered going to visit his friend in Cambodia for a year. Another had a father who wanted them to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer. Jay bases her analysis of all 20-somethings on the privileged demographic of people who is able to afford her help. And once someone can pay, she does everything she can to break them down so that they conform to her idea of the ideal societal narrative.

Relationships should always be “enjoyable but serious undertakings” that ultimately end in a marriage where you do not cohabitate before an engagement. Your career success is defined by how quickly you sell out completely to the capitalistic machine. If you are not doing these things, and doing them well, then this is your fault. You are failing your defining decade.

None of that is true. Meg Jay buys into these realities, yes, but rather than helping her clients she is embedding them with a deeper sense of shame. In your 20s, and at any age, you are free to date who you want. To have sex with who you want. To work whatever job you can afford to work, and not be ashamed if it’s not the job of your dreams. To not work at all if you don’t want to, to visit Cambodia when you have the opportunity.

Yes, if you start your career at 30 you will be behind your friends who started at 22, but you will only be behind in your career. Your travel dreams, or your volunteering days, or whatever else you were passionate about, will be far ahead of your friends. If you date casually (or not at all) until 35, you will probably marry later than your friend who got married to their high school boyfriend, but you will also have more life experiences, and if you enjoyed those times then there is nothing to regret.

An important takeaway from this book would be that you need to consider what your choices mean for your future, but that is true at any age, and it was never the point that Jay made. What is more important is unpacking the shame that makes us hate these qualities about ourselves, and find acceptance in where we are in the process.