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.
Distress is contagious. And we are most susceptible to the distress of the people we love the most. So it’s no surprise that a person’s automatic reaction is to jump in and fix the distress in front of them. We offer solutions, take control, or even criticize. Or we comfort, encourage, and try to convince them of their own capabilities.
At best, these strategies provide a temporary calm. At worst, we turn our relationships into frustrating projects that never seem to reach perfection. If you could just find the right reading specialist for your kid, then everything will calm down. If you could just get your brother into rehab, then the family drama will subside. If you could just teach your mother to stop making insensitive comments about your weight, then you’d have a great relationship.
But then a funny thing will happen. Your child’s reading improves, and your marriage erupts into conflict. Your brother gets sober, and everyone bristles at his sudden zealotry for AA. Your mother becomes more interested in managing your dad’s health, and you wonder if she ever thinks about you. The problem may have shifted in this game of anxious whack-a-mole, but the processes that birth them are still lurking under the surface.
In her book Growing Yourself Up, Dr. Jenny Brown talks about the great paradox of marriage. “If you want a better marriage, you will need to give up making a project out of changing the relationship or your partner and instead make a project out of expressing your own maturity within it.”
It makes sense, right? You can only control yourself, so focusing on yourself is more effective in calming down a relationship. Anxiety and immaturity are contagious, so maybe calmness and maturity are as well? Rather than jumping into fix, being a mature person in the room can interrupt the emotional processes that birth symptoms and conflict in our relationships.
This sounds brilliant. In practice, however, it’s much harder. We want understanding families, a more thoughtful partner, ride or die friendships, adoring colleagues, and obedient children. And we have lots of ideas about how all these people can transform into these paragons. But being a calmer, more mature point of contact for a dramatic family, an imperfect partner, flighty friends, anxious colleagues, or a frustrated kid feels a lot like getting the short end of the stick.
But this is the reality of growing up. You are not the third base coach in your relationships. You are always up to bat. Every conversation, every text, every holiday, and every meal is an opportunity to stay focused on the project that is yourself. When you can dial down the anxious focus and the anxious fixing of others, you also make space for them to do the same. You give them the opportunity to be surprised and encouraged by their own capabilities.
Being a mature point of contact doesn’t mean that you never give advice or help those you love. It does mean that you’re willing to not automatically do what you would normally do to calm down the room as quickly as possible. And when you can sit with the anxiety of not fixing, you’ll probably find that the stakes aren’t as high as they seemed. Anxiety is uncomfortable, and annoying, but ultimately survivable.
This week I’d like you to think about your automatic functioning when a person you care about is in distress. Do you swoop in to direct or calm them down? Do you avoid them like the plague? Do you pick a fight because your distress is more important?
What would it look like to interrupt these responses and simply be a person in the room who is interested in hearing their best thinking about the problem? A person who is genuinely curious to see how they’re going to respond to this dilemma? When you can do that, it almost feels like magic. But it’s a magic trick that takes decades of practice and plenty of failures.
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