Becoming a Responder in a Reactive World

It has been a week.

As I was thinking about how to write this newsletter, a few thoughts poked at me. Will people think it’s not my place to speak right now? Will people think I’m complicit by staying silent? Will people be more reactive in their responses than usual, or more positively engaged?

Do you see the trend in my thinking? When anxiety is high, relationship pressure (aka the reactions of other humans) tends to become our compass. We begin to mimic the actions, the emotionality, and the urgency of those around us for fear of being called out. We are keenly aware that responses that deviate outside the norm will not be tolerated. So we comply to avoid conflict, or we rebel to invite conflict. Or we do nothing, and hope no one notices.

Conforming, rebelling, and distancing are all just anxiety wrapped up in different packaging. They are signs of how little “self” a person brings to a crisis. This week I noticed how little self I was bringing in my response to national events. I was genuinely concerned and motivated to act, but many of these actions were emotional and rooted in relationship pressure. The perfect recipe for burnout.

Have you engaged in any of these behaviors in the last week?

  • Distancing because the problem feels too complex
  • Distancing because anxiety is too high
  • Becoming over-involved in directing others’ responses
  • Automatically borrowing the beliefs and behaviors of others
  • Joining someone who is criticizing others
  • Making random donations to feel better
  • Vacillating between “fixing” the problem and retreating from it

Many of these behaviors can be positive. What Dr. Bowen called “emergency, feeling-oriented, fragmented measures” can bring about significant change. We wouldn’t engage in them if they didn’t. But often they’re more about calming ourselves down than they are about helping others. And once we’re calm, we are at risk of reverting to our previous behaviors as quickly as we fixed the very symptoms these behaviors produce.

These fast, feeling-based responses also tend to focus on changing other people. It’s true that you can pressure people into adopting your beliefs. That societal norms can scare people into behaving better. But as far I know, no one has ever been pressured, or pulled, or bullied into maturity.

The truth is that we bring others into maturity when we become more responsible for ourselves and for our own maturity. It takes time and energy to sit down and define your principles, and then a great deal of discomfort to stand up and activate them in a world (or a family) where pushback is all but guaranteed.

When it comes to fighting systemic racism, climate change, and many other challenges, it’s hard to do the standing when I haven’t done the sitting. And in times of high anxiety, I think my focus naturally shifts towards those who are standing the loudest instead of those who have put in the hours defining what they believe and how they want to live.

When I look for those who are responding instead of just reacting, I see people who are able stay in contact with hard problems over the long haul. They’re the people at my church who started a book club four years ago to have conversations about racism. They’re my colleagues at the Bowen Center who manage to stay curious about climate change when it isn’t in the news cycle. They are people who can help us do hard things simply because they have worked on being more responsible for themselves.

I think it is possible to get clearer about your beliefs in isolation, but I think it’s easier when you have contact with people who have done the work. Anxiety may be contagious, but so is maturity. So I’d encourage you to think about how staying in contact with hard problems might look like having more contact with the people who have somehow managed to pull this off. Look at your family, your school, your congregation, or even your Facebook feed. Who are the reactors, and who are the responders? We’re all a mix of both, but some people manage to pull off more of the latter. My hope is that someday, someone could say the same of me.

Some questions:

  • Have any of my actions this week been more about calming me down than becoming more responsible?
  • Have any of my actions been guided by relationship pressure instead of my best thinking?
  • Who in my life is clearly working towards being more responsible for themselves?
  • What would it look like to “respond” to hard problems instead of simply reacting to them?

News from Kathleen

Two weeks ago I did a presentation on managing COVID-19 anxiety for the Vermont Center for Family Studies, which you can now watch on YouTube. This week their free Zoom chat is about systemic racism.

Sign up to hear me present on Wednesday, June 17th at the Family Systems Institute’s ½ day Conference – Systems Thinking in Stressful Times (*note this is the evening of June 16th for US participants). I’ll be in conversation with Dr. Jenny Brown, who will also be presenting.

Buy my book. If you haven’t gotten your copy of Everything Isn’t Terrible yet, you can buy it from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndieboundTarget, or anywhere you buy books! But I encourage you to support your local indie bookstore. The book is also available in e-book and audio book form.

Anxiety Journal –The folks at Hachette have helped me create a new, free digital resource to supplement your reading of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible. It’s called Calming Down & Growing Up: A 30-Day Anxiety Journal, and it includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors, using the ideas in Everything Isn’t Terrible. 

To get a copy of the digital journal, you can submit a copy of your receipt for my book at the Hachette page, and they’ll send you it to you. Or you can email me.

If you’re new to the newsletter, you can check out my website for past newsletters about anxiety and relationships. You can follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about the book, want me to speak to your group, or want to learn more about my therapy practice in Washington, DC. You can also visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about Bowen theory, as well their conferences and training programs.