I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the skill of self-regulation. This is because I have a baby, a wide-eyed, mini-scientist, watching me 12 hours a day. Is this new person scary? Is this medicine no big deal? Should I be concerned that I bonked my head with this toy? My body language and voice have a huge influence over my daughter’s reactions.
For a long time, it will be my job to calm her down when she’s distressed. But this comforting will be ineffective if I can’t stay calm when she’s upset. I don’t want her to have a mom with a fear-based relationship with the world. This is challenging when there’s plenty to fear. SIDS! Choking! Sodium! Climate change! Freaking measles.
A few weeks ago, she took her first plane ride. I was very anxious about her screaming the whole flight or having a diaper blowout. We had a calm start, but eventually she began to fuss. My anxiety sky-rocketed, and I frantically bounced between calming strategies. Predictably, this made her more upset. I wish I could have remembered that a screaming baby on a plane isn’t the end of the world. But now I will! Sometimes you just have to be baptized with fire.
As my daughter gets older, she will develop some capacity to not take everyone’s reactions, even mine, as reality. How much capacity depends a lot on how her dad and I manage our own distress. She will become an individual, or a self, who doesn’t see the people around her as extensions of her own body.
Adults can see a stranger death-gripping the arms of their plane seat and not think the plane is going to crash.Of course this is much harder to do with people close to us. If your spouse, or your mother, is freaking out, then it’s difficult to stay rooted in reality. Their anxiety is more contagious, and so is yours. So the more you can regulate your own reactiveness, the better you serve your family and others.
One of Dr. Bowen’s most famous quotes sums this up nicely:
You can’t control a whole damn family, but you can control you, and any time you can control you, the family is a healthier organism. That is a reason to become a self. The more you can become a self, the more to your advantage, and the family’s.
This is why self-regulation is such a key component of leadership. Leaders who are running around trying to put out anxious fires, instead of staying calm themselves, are largely ineffective. But it’s so easy to stay focused on everyone else’s faces instead of considering what your own looks like. It’s so tempting to try and “fix” distress rather than modeling objectivity.
When I think about family members, mentors, and other leaders who’ve had the biggest impact on my life, they are people who never once tried to calm me down. They never said, “Kathleen, get your shit together,” or “Kathleen, you’ll be fine. Everything will work out.” Their body language, the tone of their voices, and their words communicated that I was a capable human who would find a path through the chaos. By managing themselves, the whole room calmed down. I calmed down.
I’ve always wanted to be a person who could manage my own distress, but I do think that being a parent has made me desire this even more. The stakes just feel higher, because I have a constant watcher who needs me (and others) to show her that rejection, failure, and disappointment are no big deal. That you’ll miss out on life if you’re always asking, “What if?” Other people have given me that gift, and I want to pass it on to the people I love.
This week, I’d like you to think about opportunities in your life where staying a little bit more in touch with reality could make you a better leader, friend, and family member. When you don’t get sucked into the fears or the “what ifs,” you are a true blessing to those around you.
But how exactly do you do this? Maybe you try to calm yourself first before asking a friend for reassurance. Perhaps you take a few seconds to breathe before you rush to your distressed child. Maybe you need to take the time to organize your thinking before a stressful staff meeting at work.
Cultivating a reality-based relationship with the world, instead of a fear-based one, is the best gift you could give someone you love. What better reason is there to learn to be more of a self?
1. In what anxiety-producing situations do I have trouble staying objective?
2. How can I stay focused on calming myself rather than calming others around me?
3. What relationships would improve if I were better able to manage my own distress?
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