When an entire family is gathered for Thanksgiving, it’s easy to go on the defensive. Who’s going to ask you intrusive questions? Who’s going to bring up politics and make everyone tense? Who’s going to drink a little too much, or offer unsolicited advice?
I often ask my clients to consider how they can approach family gatherings with curiosity instead of anxiety. To see these events as laboratories instead of haunted houses. For many people, it’s a rare opportunity to see how a family functions on a larger scale. You cram everyone together, pump them full of carbs, and watch the family do what it does best—try very hard to manage the anxiety in the room.
Families all employ a number of fairly predictable strategies to calm things down. And the less surprised you are by them, the less people will seem like villains out to get you. Like you, they’re simply reacting to the tension of togetherness with the behaviors that feel the most comfortable.
Do you expect to see any of these behaviors at your family gathering? (more…)
My daughter is turning one this month, and I’ve been thinking about the role that anxiety has played in my functioning this past year. How much has my anxiety clouded my perception of her distress and her development? When have I been able to gain some degree of objectivity to determine what her real needs are and aren’t?
My ultimate goal is to strengthen my ability to switch from anxious attention to thoughtful attention in times of stress. Here are a few ways that I can tell the difference between these two modes: (more…)
When we feel distressed, we want to find and eliminate the cause as quickly as possible. In our search for an explanation, we often focus on the people closest to us. You may begin to think, “If that person would only do X, then I could feel better.”
Have you ever said something like this to someone close to you?
It is impossible to tell how mature a person really is. This is because everyone borrows a little bit of “self” (i.e. their maturity, their calmness, their motivation) from others.
Washington, DC is full of high-energy achievers. A number of them end up in therapy when whatever has bolstered their sense of self has disappeared. It might be an adoring boss, or an encouraging romantic partner. Sometimes it’s an administration change that leaves many without their important personas. People are quick to borrow the appearance of maturity from their achievements, their jobs, their relationships, or even political or religious groups.
But at some point, positions, organizations, and people will disappoint you. And you may find that your mood, health, and overall functioning will take a nose dive.
A two-person human relationship is about as steady as a two-legged stool. We often look to family members, coworkers, and friends to calm us down when we’re angry, disappointed, or confused by another person. When we pull in or focus on a third person to manage our anxiety, we are activating what is called a triangle.
When you start to look for triangles in your day-to-day life, you’ll find them everywhere. How many of these examples feel familiar to you?
People often tell me things they have never told anyone. It’s quite useful to talk to someone who won’t criticize, lecture, or panic. What people don’t realize, however, is that it can also be useful to talk to the very people who might.
After people relay their challenges to me, I ask them whether these challenges have been shared with family members. Here are some common replies:
This week I’ve been thinking about how we keep score in our relationships. It’s a common complaint from therapy clients. “I always call my mother. She never calls me.” Or, “I don’t want to be in a one-sided friendship, where I’m always the one inviting him to go out.”
Keeping score is one way that we maintain distance in anxious relationships. A seemingly self-absorbed parent, an inconsiderate sibling, or a radio silent friend are convenient excuses to reduce contact. It’s easy to label one person as the problem, but often both parties are participating equally in the behaviors that maintain this distance (or sometimes conflict) that keeps them from a closer relationship.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how difficult it is to be in the same room with a person in distress. Maybe it’s a kid who cries over confusing homework instructions. Or a friend who can’t decide whether they want to break up with their partner. Perhaps it’s a spouse who feels overworked and overlooked at their job. As a therapist, for me it’s often a person who feels anxious or depressed and wants to feel better as quickly as possible.
When I was in kindergarten, stepping through my piano teacher’s front door felt like entering another universe. I was excited to learn a new language and show off my developing skills to others. Eight years later, I dreaded my weekly lesson. I had stopped practicing, and every week I was struck by temporary amnesia. I believed I could just show up and sight-read my way through increasingly difficult pieces. My progress stalled, and I quit before high school.
Working on being a more mature human, especially in your family, is a lot like playing an instrument. If you’re only calling your parents once a month, or making a single “duty visit” home for the holidays, you may find yourself clunking and wincing your way through relationships. (more…)