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.
My toddler started school last week. A few days before, her school sent an email encouraging parents to make the drop off quick and light to minimize anxiety. One sentence in the email stood out to me:
The energy of the person dropping off, and his/her thoughts, tone, body language, and confidence will set the tone for how a child feels about being dropped off.
There’s so much wisdom in such an obvious sentence. If a parent is anxious and clingy, a kid will believe there’s something to fear. But if a parent can act like school is manageable, then that calmness is equally contagious.
After a successful drop off, I had a simple question for myself. What if I treated every day like it was the first day of school?
In other words, what could happen if brought that same level of observation and intention to all of my relationships?
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.
Nina* came to therapy because her husband thought she was coddling their adult daughter. But as we talked, I noticed that Nina was less focused on her relationship with her daughter. Instead, she detailed the conflict between her family members. Nina saw herself as the peacemaker, trying her best to help her others get along. She complained of her husband’s blindness to her daughter’s needs, and she described her daughter’s talent for triggering explosive fights with her father.
It was easy to see how focusing on her husband and daughter’s relationship was a stabilizing force for Nina. She felt like the mature, rational one who had to put up with squabbling family members. She saw herself as the good parent who cared for her daughter, and the patient spouse who had to put up with her husband’s moods. She didn’t feel pressure to change her behavior, because she wasn’t doing any of the shouting. She saw herself as outside the conflict, and not a member of a very active emotional triangle.
Distancing is perhaps the quickest way to bind anxiety. We move across the country from our parents. We stay late at work to avoid our spouse. Or we never share our real beliefs with friends who might disagree. It’s also why many of us, initially energized by all those Zoom calls in early COVID days, have begun to internally withdraw from other humans.
Physical and emotional distance are adaptive—we wouldn’t engage in them if they didn’t help us manage our anxiety. But distance has its price. We lose the opportunity to build real person-to-person relationships, and to work on our own maturity, when we automatically withdraw. When we let ourselves choose immediate calmness, we often forsake our best thinking about how to be in relationship with other humans.
How do you use distance to bind anxiety in your relationships? Do you see yourself in any of the these examples? (more…)
My toddler daughter loves to press her face against translucent Tupperware lids. Suddenly the whole world becomes red or blue. Everything is the same, but different.
I think anxiety works in a similar fashion. Anxiety is a lens through which we see the world, and our families. But an anxious focus on those we love limits our ability to see reality—all the colors, complexity, and capability of others.
As a therapist, I try to pay attention to the adjectives that people use to describe their family members. Words like critical, lazy, sensitive, emotional, toxic, or overbearing are commonly deployed. I try to challenge people to consider what gets lost when we view people through the lens of an adjective. When we say to ourselves (and our therapist), “That’s just the way they are.” (more…)
One of the most frustrating things about my work is that I have a thousand comical stories I can never tell. Many of them involve the theatrical lengths that people will go to get a family member into therapy. People will therapy-shop for their adult child, only to bristle when I ask why their child isn’t calling. They will send their spouse or their aging parent with printed instructions detailing what’s wrong with them. And they often disappear when I suggest that they might benefit the most from meeting with me.
I do have empathy for these people. It is only human to turn our focus towards fixing others when we are distressed. To think that additional focus from an “expert” will solve the problem. While therapy can be helpful for anyone, we forget that an entire family benefits when any person is willing to work on being more responsible for themselves. We convince ourselves that it must be person with the “problem.”
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? (more…)
When I first meet with therapy clients, I ask them lots of questions about their families. I try to ask fact-based questions, like when someone was born, or where they live now. But a funny thing will happen as people talk about their family. A narrative emerges, as villains, heroes, and victims take the stage.
Humans are natural storytellers, so it’s not surprising that our stories about our families lean toward the question “Why?” We want to assign motive and meaning to people’s behavior. My mother called because she’s controlling. My spouse doesn’t help because they’re lazy. My child won’t cooperate because she’s impossible.
There are a few problems that emerge when we assign motive in our stories. First, it keeps us focused on others’ behavior. Second, it makes it hard to think flexibly about our own behavior. About how “leveling up” on our own maturity could make a difference in the relationship equation. (more…)
Anxiety is notoriously uncreative. When we feel distressed, our brain tends to hyper-focus on certain goals we have for ourselves. If you’re like me, you might find that your definition of success has become uncomfortably narrow in the last few weeks. So narrow that you finish every day feeling like it’s been an absolute waste, only to wake up the next morning thinking that THIS WILL BE THE DAY you become a robot who can plow through your to-do list without needing to sleep or stress-eat any cheese. (more…)
I had a lot of goals when the pandemic started. I was going to run more and organize the closets. I’d be cranking out these newsletters, doing 20,000 podcast interviews, and writing letters to friends like in olden times. Instead, I’ve been plowing through romance novels, going on long walks with my family, and getting more comfortable with dishes in the sink.
Did you feel a sense of relief when you read that first paragraph? After all, we do love to be told that we’re too hard on ourselves. We love it when people give us permission to set aside our to-do list and enjoy what we were going to do all along. Hundreds of articles have flooded the Internet lately, reassuring us that we do not have to be mega-productive employees or super parents in this difficult time.
But the problem isn’t that I’m too hard on myself. It’s that I need someone else to tell me not to be. When anxiety rises, so does the impulse to borrow calmness and direction as quickly as possible. This is how we end up with endless headlines that tell us to slow down, calm down, and scale down our expectations. As if we were incapable of coming to that conclusion ourselves. (more…)