How Changing Yourself Changes the Game

My uncle was the youngest in his family. Growing up, I heard many tales of him terrorizing his sisters and getting away with it. He’d chop the arms off their dolls, or trap someone’s head in the car window. By the time I was born, he had abandoned his childish antics but was still an avid teaser. Since I had no siblings and wasn’t used to verbal sparring, I would cry and complain to my grandmother, who’d basically tell me to lighten up.

As I got older, my response to the teasing didn’t really mature. I would continue to rant to other family members, who merely brushed it off. The intensity of my response didn’t seem to help my cause or motivate my uncle to behave better.

When I began to learn about Bowen theory, I saw my relationship with my uncle as an opportunity for me to grow up a little. I began to play around with my responses to his teasing. He’d make a joke about a TV show I loved, and instead of playing the wounded child, I’d smile and chirp, “Well, I think it’s great!” I was amazed to see that this kind of response seemed to neutralize the situation. I had stopped stomping my feet, and this seemed to shut down his immaturity. He teased me less frequently, and I felt less provoked by it. I had changed the nature of the dance.   

Have you ever tried to drag someone towards maturity? Here are some examples.

  • Lecturing your friend about how to be on time.  
  • Teaching your spouse to be a better parent.
  • Demanding your mom stop making comments about your appearance.
  • Asking someone to drink less at social gatherings.
  • Begging someone to help around the house more.
  • Asking someone to be a better listener.
  • Bribing your kids to get along.
  • Telling a romantic interest to text you more often.
  • Teaching your partner how to make more romantic gestures.  

Conventional therapy wisdom says that expressing your feelings and hurt is the way to resolve conflict. But if reactivity is high in a relationship, it’s highly unlikely a person will be interested in hearing your grievances. In fact, talking about your feelings is likely to make the conflict more intense.

Putting the focus back on yourself can feel a lot like losing, or letting the other person get away with the behavior. But what’s the goal? Is it to be right and win an argument, or is it to calm down and open up a tense relationship? Apologies are great, but there’s no magic in them. Reconciliation happens all the time without one. We trick ourselves into thinking that the other must change first in order for things to work out. Because my uncle was older, I assumed he had to change first. But I learned that by changing myself, I changed the game. I removed the fuel that our conflict needed to burn.

There are times when it might be important to say, “You hurt me,” or set boundaries if someone is being verbally or physically abusive. But instead of asking the other person to change, you can simply share how you will respond to the undesirable behavior. Let me give you a few examples:  

Other-focus: Mom, you need to stop making comments about my hair.

Self-focus: Mom, I’ve decided that I’m going to end the conversation when you begin to criticize my appearance.


Other-focus: You need to stop drinking so much and embarrassing me.

Self-focus: I’ve decided I cannot hang out with you when you’ve been drinking.  


Other-focus: Could you please not talk about sports all the time? It’s exhausting.

Self-focus: I’d like to talk to you about the crazy day I had!

You may not have caused your distress in a relationship. But what you do with your distress is your responsibility. In tense relationships, we tend to act like the third base coach. We shout and wave at the other person to start changing. We forget that we’re also up to bat. When another person behaves poorly, do you use the opportunity to throw immaturity back at them? Or are you able to interrupt the dynamic by calming down and growing up?

If you’re feeling confused, here a summary of what I just described:

  1. Think of a recent conflict you had with someone.
  2. How did you respond when they behaved poorly?
  3. Consider how the intensity and immaturity of your response might reinforce the conflict.
  4. Is there a new way to respond that might dial down the intensity?
  5. How does this new response disrupt the old relationship dynamic?

Growing up isn’t admitting defeat. It’s simply refusing to play the game the way you always have. Someone has to go first, so why not you?

News from Kathleen

Want me to speak to your group? I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on managing anxiety during the pandemic. If you’d like me to speak to your group, contact me for rates and presentation options.

Buy my book. If you haven’t gotten your copy of Everything Isn’t Terrible yet, you can buy it from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books! The book is also available in e-book and audio book form.

Anxiety Journal – Get a 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. To receive 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.