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:
- I don’t want them to worry about me.
- It will only make my mother even more anxious.
- They will say, “I told you so.”
- I don’t want to burden anyone.
- They’ll try and tell me what to do.
- They won’t understand.
When we’re distressed, it’s incredibly difficult to tolerate anxious reactions from the people closest to us. We are the most allergic to our family members’ worry, disappointment, criticism, or their “anxious fixing.” And the quickest way to prevent this anxious response is to withhold information from them. Conversations become more superficial, and visits become more formal and duty-oriented. We become mysteries to the people who are supposed to be our greatest resources.
When you distance from your family, it’s easy to become intensely focused on another person. People will become critical that their partner isn’t supportive. They will become inseparable with a new friend. They’ll begin to obsess about pleasing their boss, or become fixated with a new love interest. They might feel dependent on their therapist for lifting their mood or directing their actions. But the fresh buzz of this intense closeness will wear off, leaving them to search for their next obsession or confidante.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about challenges I share with friends but not with family. Friends are more likely to listen without fixing, but a family member might offer hasty advice for a problem they don’t quite understand. But when we don’t give people the opportunity to practice listening and understanding (and ourselves the opportunity to stay mature while communicating with them), then no one is ever going to get any better at being in contact.
In their book, Family Evaluation, Dr. Bowen and Dr. Kerr wrote that having emotional contact with your family isn’t about having perfect ”harmony” or “complete honesty.” For me, increasing contact with family members is about growing my own ability to share my own thinking, regardless of the response. It’s about believing that if I can stay calm and thoughtful, it will be just as contagious as the anxiety I was trying to avoid.
I also think about emotional contact as simply giving people the gift of information. Information can dial up the anxiety, but it can also keep people’s imaginations in check. It helps a family stay plugged into the reality-based challenges, rather than assembling hypothetical worries in their brain.
Have your family members ever withheld information about the following topics? Have you ever kept this information from them?
- Political or religious beliefs
- School or career plans
- Medical concerns
- Romantic partners
- Financial challenges
- Important interests or hobbies
- Mental health concerns
- Substance use problems
- Retirement plans
I’m an only child, and an only grandchild on one side of my family. For years, I worried about having to care for multiple aging adults. Would they have to come live with me? Would I have to move home? A million questions flooded my mind. It took an embarrassingly long amount of time for me to realize that I could just ask them about their plans. And I was surprised to find out that they had already been doing this work. They weren’t expecting me to take responsibility for their future, but my anxiety had just assumed I would. By having the facts, I could get clearer about my own role in their lives instead of worrying about problems that had already been solved.
This week I encourage you to think about how you could give your family the gift of information. Information is not confrontation. It’s not pouring out the depths of your soul, or voicing every worry that’s kept you up at night. It’s simply letting people know the reality of your life, and your best thinking about what you’re going to do about it. It’s letting them know what you believe about important topics. When you start to increase this type of contact, you might find that others are eager to trade you valuable information as well. Slowly but surely, a family can begin to inch towards knowing each other, even if they don’t always agree.
A huge part of growing up is about doing the opposite of what anxiety would have you do. And anxiety often wants us to stay very quiet in relationships where our thinking might disrupt the calmness we’ve worked so hard to maintain. But a relationship with an anxious parent or sibling might be the crucible from which you emerge a little calmer, and a little more mature. It might even prove to be a resource greater than a good friend or therapist.
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