The list of safe topics to bring up at a dinner party is, as we all know, shrinking. It used to be just politics and religion that were outlawed from “polite society.” But then everything became political — and politics itself became an object of widespread religious faith (#seculosity) — and to get along, you now either have to have a creepily accurate knowledge of your audience or keep the conversation to sports and possibly Netflix.

What’s a person to do? Well, if recent social engagements are any indication, in addition to the Red Sox and The Haunting of Hill House (!), it’s acceptable in mixed company to… rag on millennials. Even if those around you are, in fact, millennials.

I’ve watched friends who disagree on pretty much everything under the sun find common ground when hating on the twentysomethings in their workplace. And I’m ashamed to say I’ve chimed in myself from time to time. The overwhelming consensus seems to be one of frustration, confusion, and blame — some of it recreational, sure, but some of it genuine. When I say “blame,” I’m not talking about blaming those who raised or educated millennials — or the culture they were forced to navigate — but the young people themselves. Surely every generation harbors some form of resentment-bordering-on-panic about the one on its heels, but like much else right now, this feels particularly extreme. Destructively so.

Anyhoo, the point here is not to sort out the culpability but to draw attention to a stellar essay in Heather Havrilesky’s new collection, What If This Were Enough? The entry in question, “The Popularity Contest,” contains a compassion-inducing, and in my experience deeply true, generational pulse-taking.

For four years as the Cut’s “Ask Polly” columnist, and for years before that on my blog and elsewhere, I’ve fielded letters from young people looking for advice. I’ve noticed certain themes coming up over and over again, so much so that lately, I’m starting to believe that many of our basic assumptions about millennials — that they’re spoiled and entitled, that they’re overconfident in their abilities, that they’re digital natives utterly unconflicted about privacy and social media and living much of their lives online — are wrong. What I discover in my email in-box each morning are dispatches from young people who feel guilty and inadequate at every turn and who compare themselves relentlessly to others. They are turned inside out, day after day, by social media. From my vantage point, it looks tougher to be a young person today than it has been for decades.

Of course, I’m dealing with a small, demographically skewed sample (though no more so, probably, than our “millennial” stereotype, so skewed toward the affluent and white). And my sample is self-selecting, too; I hear mostly from those who are struggling. Even so, their testimonies are heart-wrenching. The same words and phrases and expressions of self-consciousness and self-doubt show up in letter after letter: “I often feel overwhelmingly middle ground or average in [my co-workers’] eyes,” one writer confesses. Another asks, “When is he going to realize that I am an anxious mess who overthinks everything and hates herself, like, a lot of the time?” “I think my primary emotion is guilt,” another writes. “When I am happy, it only takes moments before I feel guilty about it — I feel desperately unworthy of my happiness, guilty for receiving it out of the pure chaotic luck of the universe.”

Many of these anxieties take the same shape: An external mob is watching and judging and withholding approval. It’s impossible to matter, to be interesting enough. Many young people describe others as “a better version of me.” This is how it feels today to be young and fully invested in our new popularity contest: No matter how hard you try, someone else out there is taking the same raw ingredients and making a better life out of them. The curated version of you that lives online also feels hopelessly polished and inaccurate — and you feel, somehow, that you alone are the inauthentic one.

Far from spoiled, the young people who write to me don’t seem to feel like they deserve happiness. They feel self-conscious and guilty about everything they do. They can’t breathe without feeling like they’re stepping on someone’s toes. They often resolve to say less, to seem better, to work harder, to keep their mouths shut at the exact moments when they need to speak up and tell the truth in order to feel right with the world. They feel afraid of showing their true selves because they’re sure they’ll be shamed for it. Everyone is waiting to be exposed as a fake. As far as I can tell, twentysomethings don’t embody the self-assured, self-promotional values of social media any more than Gen-Xers like me do; it’s just that they’ve learned that one should never publicly reveal one’s doubts, anxieties, and ambivalence. I have spent years peeking behind the stage curtain, and I can see how excruciatingly difficult it is for them to hold that pose.

From my own perch as a minister to undergraduate college students, mainly what I have to offer here is a hearty Amen. The law lies heavy heavy heavy around the necks of these kids — reminders of not-enoughness coming fast and furious, 24/7, “the strange persistence of guilt” lurking at every turn. By and large, instead of providing a harbor of comfort, the church has established itself as another venue in which to assert one’s enoughness, be it moral or political or relational or all of the above. No thanks.

Of course, the point here is not to suggest that millennials are pure victims, or any less complicit in their own misery than the rest of us. But neither are they somehow weaker or more villainous than any generation that came before. Meaning, our twentysomething colleagues are no more justified in their personal impossibilities than those of us whose ironclad certainties about the issues of the day are making casual conversation so arduous. They, like us, are perfect candidates for the glorious announcement that enoughness is a gift wrapped in crimson, not a diploma printed in disappearing ink.

Who knows, maybe that’s the message they’d hear—if they’d answer the phone every once and a while. Zing!