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?
“If only you. . .
- helped more
- encouraged me more
- agreed with me
- listened better
- reassured me
- changed your behavior
. . . then I would feel better.”
Of course we want the people who love us to listen, be encouraging, and help out. But when we’re anxious, our sensitivity to other people increases. What normally might pass as acceptable behavior feels threatening or inconsiderate.
Demanding immediate approval, attention, and agreement from others can inhibit our own ability to calm ourselves down. It can also cause conflict in a relationship, because no one wants to be told they’re the cause of your distress.
Here are a few ways that feelings can obscure what’s actually happening in a relationship:
Perception: “You aren’t encouraging enough when it comes to my career.”
Reality: I feel guilty about being behind at work, and am looking to find someone else to reassure me that I’m doing okay.
Perception: “You talk to your other friends more than you talk to me.”
Reality: I am stressed this week, so I’m probably more reactive to other people’s closeness.
Perception: “You don’t care about how clean the house is.”
Reality: Perhaps I am overfunctioning at home, which doesn’t give other people a chance to step up.
Perception: “You embarrassed me when you talked too much at dinner.”
Reality: When I feel anxious, I try to manage everyone’s behavior.
Perception: “You always run away when we have a disagreement.”
Reality: We are both reactive to each other’s anxiety. When I anxiously pursue, they anxiously distance.
Perception: “You never text or call me first.”
Reality: I am more likely to keep score in friendships when I feel stressed.
These examples aren’t about blaming yourself instead of another person. They’re about seeing how anxiety affects everyone’s behavior, including your own. Focusing on yourself helps you calm down enough to determine whether there’s a real need or only a perceived one.
When you’re tempted to rely on others to manage your anxiety, here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- Am I relying on others to fill in the gaps of my own maturity?
- How are we each reacting to the anxiety in the room?
- How can I give myself at least a few seconds to decipher whether this is a real need or a perceived need?
If you’d like to think more about this, I’d recommend that you watch the latest episode of Family Matters. I interviewed Bowen Center faculty member Amie Post about conflict in families, and how individuals can help dial down the intensity and sensitivity to others. The title is “High Conflict Families,” but I think that anyone would find it useful.
News from Kathleen
Preorder my book! Everything Isn’t Terrible, will be published by Hachette Books on 12/31. I can honestly say it is the best $20 you can spend to start 2020 a little calmer. You can preorder it at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, or wherever books are sold. But I especially encourage you to support your local bookstore! Preorders help my book succeed and get more visibility in stores.
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