Author: Kathleen Smith

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.

The Trouble With Fixing Your Family

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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:

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Bring Your Measuring Tape to Thanksgiving

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.
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Want to Have a Less Anxious Thanksgiving with Your Family?

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…)

Anxious Attention Vs. Thoughtful Attention


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…)

Please Calm Me Down

Gaining quick love, attention, and agreement from others can inhibit our own ability to calm ourselves down. (1)

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.”

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I am less mature than I appear. . .

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It is impossible to tell how mature a person really is. This is because everyone borrows a little bit of “self” (i.e. their maturity, their calmness, their motivation) from others.

Washington, DC is full of high-energy achievers. A number of them end up in therapy when whatever has bolstered their sense of self has disappeared. It might be an adoring boss, or an encouraging romantic partner. Sometimes it’s an administration change that leaves many without their important personas. People are quick to borrow the appearance of maturity from their achievements, their jobs, their relationships, or even political or religious groups.

But at some point, positions, organizations, and people will disappoint you. And you may find that your mood, health, and overall functioning will take a nose dive.

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Let It Begin with Me

There’s a popular hymn, often sung at Christmas, that goes,

Let there be peace on Earth
And let it begin with me.

When I’m frustrated with someone, I sing a different version in my head.

Let there be maturity in this room
And let it begin with me.

Though less lyrical, these words remind me of an important principle. It’s the idea that better relationships start with changing the only variable I can manipulate—myself.

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25 Ways You’re Using Triangles to Manage Anxiety

A two-person human relationship is about as steady as a two-legged stool. We often look to family members, coworkers, and friends to calm us down when we’re angry, disappointed, or confused by another person. When we pull in or focus on a third person to manage our anxiety, we are activating what is called a triangle.

When you start to look for triangles in your day-to-day life, you’ll find them everywhere. How many of these examples feel familiar to you?

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The Gift of Information

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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.

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The Trouble With Keeping Score

This week I’ve been thinking about how we keep score in our relationships. It’s a common complaint from therapy clients. “I always call my mother. She never calls me.” Or, “I don’t want to be in a one-sided friendship, where I’m always the one inviting him to go out.”

Keeping score is one way that we maintain distance in anxious relationships. A seemingly self-absorbed parent, an inconsiderate sibling, or a radio silent friend are convenient excuses to reduce contact. It’s easy to label one person as the problem, but often both parties are participating equally in the behaviors that maintain this distance (or sometimes conflict) that keeps them from a closer relationship.

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