Dr. Kathleen Smith is licensed professional counselor. A graduate of George Washington University and Harvard University, she also works as a freelance writer on the topics of mental health, anxiety, and relationships.
In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, George decides to do the opposite of everything he’s ever done. He stops ordering tuna on toast at the coffee shop. He goes up to a woman and tells her he’s unemployed and lives with his parents. Hilariously, he finds that this seems to work, at least for a while. “Yes, I will do the opposite!” he declares.
When I’m anxious, I think of my automatic functioning as my tuna on toast. It’s comfortable, it’s safe, and it works fairly well most of the time. It’s what my anxiety would have me do to keep my relationships stable, and to get the most praise and approval from others. The problem is, I often don’t like the taste it leaves in my mouth. (more…)
Relationship systems are small economies. Look closely at your family, or your workplace, and you’ll see that there is a good amount of borrowing, lending, and trading of what Dr. Murray Bowen called “self.” When people close to us are in distress, we lend our abilities, our calmness, and our confidence. And when we are anxious, we borrow them from others. This system of borrowing and lending can be very effective at stabilizing relationships. But the constant, automatic borrowing of self takes its toll.
I often marvel at how much “self” a person loses when they get married. When I lived alone, taking out the trash was a manageable chore. Now that my husband handles this task, it feels like a Herculean effort when he’s traveling. I can navigate well when I’m driving alone, but put him in the passenger seat, and I might ask his opinion on the route. What is it about adding another person into the mix that can weaken our calmness and capacity?
The other day, one of my publishers posted a picture of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, on social media. I try my best not to read people’s comments, but I couldn’t help but notice one:
The planet is BURNING, DROWNING, DYING! We need to STOP looking at ourselves, like the NARCISSISTS we are AND BE PROACTIVE about why we were put on this Earth.
While I appreciate the passion and urgency of ANGRY COMMENT person, I have to disagree with them. Looking at ourselves, and harnessing our ability to act outside the bounds of a panicked, reptilian brain, is exactly what makes us human. And it’s exactly what will save us and the planet from ourselves.
It’s a common sentiment these days that if you’re not angry or anxious, then you’re not paying attention. Perhaps this is true—it’s impossible to read the news and not feel fearful or hopeless. How we choose to respond to these facts, however, is more interesting to me than the degree of our panic. Because when we feel panicked about politics or the environment, often our reactions become more about relieving the anxiety we feel in the moment than about generating thoughtful, reality-based solutions to the world’s problems. (more…)
2019 is on the way out, and self-help season approaches. As a therapist, I’ve always thought it cruel that we try to force radical change on ourselves the week after most of us have mega-consumed carbohydrates and material goods. Self-help books flood the bookstores, demanding that we live simpler and calmer lives, when most of us are still trying to find closet space for gifts and recover from encounters with family.
I don’t like to ask my therapy clients how they’re going to live a calmer 2020. That is a softball question. It’s easy to answer, but daunting to operationalize. Instead, I ask them, “If you weren’t paying attention, how are you going to have an incredibly anxious 2020?” (more…)
I have a lot of book news today, but the newsletter comes first! I wrote this week’s newsletter earlier this month, and it was picked up by Medium’s self improvement magazine, Forge. Are you skeptical about New Year’s resolutions? Do you still feel anxious, even when you accomplish your goals? Then you’re going to want to read my essay, “Breaking the Cycle of New Year’s Resolution Disappointment.”
Now for book news!
LAST CHANCE TO GET PREORDER BONUS – Everything Isn’t Terrible will hit bookstores in the US, Canada, and the UK on December 31st. Hardcover, digital, and audiobook versions are available. Monday, Dec 30th is the LAST DAY that you can preorder to get the bonus materials. So if you’d like some helpful charts to guide you through the book, you can preorder at your local bookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound,Target, or wherever you buy books, and submit your receipt here. If you preordered at your local bookstore and don’t have a receipt, just shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org I’ll send it to you.
INTERNATIONAL DATES – Australian readers, you can expect your copies on February 4th. Dates for the Chinese, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish translations will begin to roll out over the coming year.
Come join me for a book event in January. I’ll be having conversations with some great folks and answering questions from attendees.
Columbia, TN – January 21st at Maury County Public Library (hosted by Duck River Books) in conversation with Ross Jaynes, 6pm
That’s it for now! I’ll have some more essays for you in the coming weeks, so stay tuned.
Check out my newsletter archive to catch up on old letters. You also can reply to this email if you have a request for a newsletter topic, questions about the book, want to connect with me about my therapy practice, or would like me to speak to your group. You can also follow my thoughts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, or read more of my writing.
I don’t have an essay for you this week, because I’m working on several essays that will be featured in online publications next month. I’ll be sure to share them with you, so keep your eyes on your inbox! You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for updates, book events, book giveaways.
I have gotten so many new subscribers to this newsletter in the past few months. Thank you to those who are forwarding it to friends and coworkers and sharing the links on social media. I’m proud that I managed to write 25 free newsletters for you this year, with a new baby and a book to write. And I wanted to take some space today to make sure you didn’t miss some of my favorites in 2019.
How do you want to grow in 2020? Do you want more authentic or calmer relationships? Do you want to be guided more by your own principles than by societal narratives of success? Do you want to be a person who can thoughtfully respond to local, national, or international crises? Browse through the list below, and see if any of these 2019 newsletters can help you start that thinking.
Do you want to give your children or family the gift of calmness by increasing your ability to self-regulate your emotions? Read my newsletter about The Gift of Self-Regulation.
Do you wanted to be guided more by your own thinking than by other people’s reactions? Read my newsletter about Being an Inside-Out Person.
Do you want to build stronger one-to-one relationships that don’t revolve around superficial conversation? Read this newsletter.
Would you like to be more curious and less anxious at family gatherings? Read this newsletter.
Would you like to spend less time obsessing about what other people think of you? Read this newsletter.
Last month I wrote several newsletters about observing your anxious functioning around your family. So I thought it would only be fair if I shared one of my observations with you.
My grandmother does not recycle. And this behavior. . .well it drives me absolutely crazy. Recycling is not the norm in my hometown. I watch people use plastic shopping bags like water, and or drink their water from tiny plastic bottles they toss into the trash, and I feel anxious and overwhelmed.
Being hyper-focused on “fixing” a family member’s behavior is one way that we try to manage the anxiety in the room. And now that I have a kid who has to live in the world we leave her, I’ve found that my reactivity to waste has ramped up. So over Thanksgiving, I acted as though teaching my grandmother to recycle would singlehandedly save the planet from doom. It sounds silly, but anxiety often raises the stakes in our brain, obscuring reality.
So what did I do? I found myself vacillating between two reactions:
Next week’s newsletter is a little early, because I’m heading to Tennessee tomorrow for Thanksgiving. American readers, I hope that you have a lovely Thanksgiving, however you spend it! If you’re planning to buy my book, consider stopping by your local bookstore on Small Business Saturday, and tell them you want to preorder Everything Isn’t Terrible.
Imagine you’re walking into your next family gathering. As soon as you open the door, your brain is scanning for potential threats and comfort zones. It locates those you don’t enjoy, or others whose names you can’t remember. Your veer away from the cousin who likes to stir up drama, and move towards an aunt who is sure to offer comfortable, familiar conversation. Without even thinking, your anxious autopilot has grabbed the controls and is directing your behaviors. (more…)
When an entire family is gathered for Thanksgiving, it’s easy to go on the defensive. Who’s going to ask you intrusive questions? Who’s going to bring up politics and make everyone tense? Who’s going to drink a little too much, or offer unsolicited advice?
I often ask my clients to consider how they can approach family gatherings with curiosity instead of anxiety. To see these events as laboratories instead of haunted houses. For many people, it’s a rare opportunity to see how a family functions on a larger scale. You cram everyone together, pump them full of carbs, and watch the family do what it does best—try very hard to manage the anxiety in the room.
Families all employ a number of fairly predictable strategies to calm things down. And the less surprised you are by them, the less people will seem like villains out to get you. Like you, they’re simply reacting to the tension of togetherness with the behaviors that feel the most comfortable.
Do you expect to see any of these behaviors at your family gathering? (more…)
My daughter is turning one this month, and I’ve been thinking about the role that anxiety has played in my functioning this past year. How much has my anxiety clouded my perception of her distress and her development? When have I been able to gain some degree of objectivity to determine what her real needs are and aren’t?
My ultimate goal is to strengthen my ability to switch from anxious attention to thoughtful attention in times of stress. Here are a few ways that I can tell the difference between these two modes: (more…)