Are You Responsible for Others, or Responsible to others?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being responsible for others, and being responsible to others.

Feeling and acting responsible for others often reflects our struggle to tolerate another person’s distress. When we sense anxiety in others, a quick way to calm ourselves down is to calm others. To manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that do not belong to us.

How do you get caught up in feeling and acting responsible for others? When you pick the restaurant, do you need everyone to enjoy their food? Do you avoid bringing up an important topic in your marriage, because it makes your spouse anxious? Do you reassure your child, “It’s going to be okay,” before you hear their thinking about a challenge?

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Please Don’t Upset Me.

We all have topics that bring out the reactivity in us.

Often they are subjects like money, sex, politics, religion, or death. Rather than learn to manage ourselves while thinking and talking about them, we often try to teach others how to not push our buttons. This is because we often rely on others to fill in the gaps of our own emotional maturity.

When I experienced deep anxiety about student loan debt in my 20s, I would become very reactive when other people would talk about their financial challenges. I would quickly change the subject or exit the conversation. I recall snapping at my dad, “I can’t talk about money with you! It stresses me out too much!”

I often have conversations with therapy clients who are trying to teach family members or friends how to avoid certain topics, or how to help make them feel better.

This can look like:

  • Trying to teach a family member not to talk about politics.
  • Trying to teach your mother not to fret about her weight, because it makes you anxious.
  • Telling your partner not to talk about work problems because it stresses you out.
  • Telling a parent not to talk about aging, their death, their will, etc. because it upsets you.
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Feeling rejected? Look for the triangles.

This week I’ve been thinking about how our position in relationships can affect our ability to think clearly.

triangle is a three-person relationship system. At any given moment in a triangle, two people are on the inside, and one person is on the outside. When things are tense between two people, you want to be on the outside position, away from the drama. But when things are calm and content between two people, it’s hard to be on the outside looking in.

You might be in the outside position of a triangle if:

  • Your partner is hanging out with a friend.
  • Your boss is praising a coworker.
  • Your kid wants the other parent to help them.
  • Your friends are hanging out without you.  
  • Your in-laws are visiting.
  • Your siblings disagree with you.
  • One of your parents has started dating again.  
  • Your adult children want to get together without you.
  • Your friends are laughing about an inside joke.
  • One parent seems closer to another sibling.

When you are in the outside position of a triangle, it is easier to feel abandoned, unheard, or not supported enough. It’s easy to lash out, accuse others of being unfair, or try to pull one person to your corner.

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Are You Directing or Reflecting?

When you’re close with someone, it’s easy to treat them like they’re an extension of yourself. You might act as if your family, friend group, or workplace is one giant blob of humanity. Because if the blob is anxious, you feel anxious. If the blob thinks that Bob from accounting is a mess, then yeah, maybe you do too.

The fancy word for this stuck-togetherness is emotional fusion. When fusion is strong in relationships, more of our decisions are influenced by how other people might react (or have reacted). It becomes difficult to know your own mind, what you believe and value. Your choices quickly become about stabilizing the blob instead of following your best thinking.   

The more fusion there is in relationships, the more we tend to treat people like they are ambassadors representing us. You might worry more about your boyfriend’s fashion choices, how your parents act in public, or how well your kid performs in school, because these variables have become a direct measure of your own worth.  

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How We Water Down Our Relationships

This week I’m thinking about all the ways we abandon ourselves to keep our relationships predictable and steady.

In her book Alone Together, psychologist Sherry Turkle wrote, “As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves.”

Turkle is referring to the danger of our online personas, but I’d argue that self-abandonment is hardly a modern phenomenon. People have been changing themselves to please the group since the dawn of time. Most of us can say we’ve changed beliefs to please our families, changed our fashion to match our friends’, or changed a conversation topic to avoid potential conflict.

When our goal is to please others or to avoid upsetting others, our relationships become watered-down versions of themselves.  

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The Quick and Convenient Ways We Abandon Ourselves

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we use quick social comparisons to temporarily boost our mood and functioning. Because in the absence of our own measures, we grasp for the most convenient ones.

I caught myself doing this just last night. Minutes after we had put our daughter to bed, I remembered a story I’d heard about another child’s bizarre sleep schedule. I started to tell husband this story, but then I stopped and thought.

What am I trying to accomplish here? I was trying to boost my mood by comparing my parenting choices to another’s.

Psychologists have studied how upward social comparison can motivate you to achieve more, and downward social comparison can help you feel better about yourself. This is how many people end up mommy-shaming, Internet bullying, and worshipping celebrities. But what gets lost when these strategies become our automatic way of managing our distress or uncertainty?  

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What if your love language. . . is your anxiety language?

Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages has been a constant bestseller for years. People seem to like the idea that the root of marriage problems is a disconnect in how we express love (i.e. one person speaks “words of affirmation” while the other speaks “acts of service”).

Perhaps this is true, but when people come to therapy, I tell them that I’m very interested in learning about their anxiety language. In other words, the automatic ways that relationship systems manage anxiety.

How do you keep things calm in your relationships? How do you expect others to keep you calm? Because you might find there isn’t a disconnect at all—both parties are actively participating in a predictable pattern.

These patterns could look like:

  • One person does too much, and the other lets them.  
  • One person withdraws, and the other anxiously pursues them.
  • Both people insist that it’s the other one who needs to change.
  • Both people worry about/complain about another person (often a child).
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Let People Be in Charge of Themselves

Energy is a precious resource in pandemic life. Most people are worn down, worried, and struggling to do the bare minimum. Yet somehow I still find myself using this scant energy to try and manage the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. This is not surprising, considering it’s what humans do when we get stirred up.    

Recently I was having a conversation with a therapy client who poked fun at his very human desire to have everyone like him. “If I pick a restaurant,” he admitted (referring to pre-pandemic times), “Then I will ask people five times whether they like the food.”

“What a wonderful life goal that would be,” I said. “To be able to enjoy a meal even if other people weren’t completely happy with it. And to let people be in charge of telling you if they didn’t like something.”

We both laughed at this idea, but I think it reflects the challenge of being in relationship with others. We want people to like what we like, think what we think, and do what we do, so we can avoid any discomfort or rejection.

I’ve decided that how much I let people be in charge of themselves is going to be one of the ways I evaluate my functioning this year. Because the more connected you are to someone, the easier it is to treat them like an extension of yourself. When we’re stressed, it’s easy to back away, or to overstep and overfunction. But to be in contact, and to treat that person like a capable individual. . .well that’s a true test of maturity.

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20 Ways You Had an Incredibly Anxious 2020

Have I been too hard on myself, or not hard enough?

This is a terribly unhelpful question I often ask myself.

After a year like 2020, it’s easy to waffle between intense self-criticism and total absolution from working on yourself. But this is the challenge of growing up—to walk the middle line by staying curious about how you function and who you could become, even in darker times.  

To muster some of that curiosity, this week I’m reaching back into the past to access a calmer, more thoughtful version of myself (the version that grabbed doorknobs with abandon and ate food in buildings that weren’t my house).

Last December I wrote an article for Thrive Global I called, “20 Ways You’re Going to Have an Incredibly Anxious 2020.” I wasn’t prescient enough to have the pandemic on the list, but I think the anxiety of COVID-19 only intensified the examples I gave.

Take a look below at the list I composed for the article. Was I correct? Do any of the behaviors remind you or yourself over the past year?

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How managing other people’s emotions can make you less capable.

Do you ever become less capable when you can sense that someone is upset with you? If I worry about an editor being disappointed with me, I’m a less productive writer. If I know that a therapy client is unhappy with our work, I tend to become a less effective counselor. Sometimes it takes me months to send a thank you card, because I imagine how disappointed a person might be with its delay.

It is nearly impossible to manage one’s self when you become over-responsible for other people’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

We are all sensitive to the emotional reactions of others, but we vary in that sensitivity. Often our experiences in our family teach us how much disagreement, disapproval, or rejection are to be feared and avoided. When agreement, approval, and praise are valued above living out one’s own best thinking, then we need these things to stay calm and motivated.

To upset as few people as possible, you become an expert at deciphering their emotions. You dedicate an enormous amount of time and energy guessing what they’re thinking or feeling, or trying to pry that information out of others.

What does it look like to be more responsible for yourself, and less responsible for everyone else’s emotions? To embody your own definition of being your best self, instead of solely preventing upsetness in others?

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