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…)
When I sit down to read articles about the COVID-19 crisis, it’s interesting to see the disparity in people’s opinions about human nature. Some essays tout the belief that crises bring out the best in human communities. Others complain that hoarding, political squabbling, or blatant disregard for the safety of others highlight our baser instincts.
The truth is that humans vary in our ability to stay thoughtful in anxious times. Some people can know their own minds, while others grab as many solutions from others as they can. Some people can stay relatively calm around anxious family members, while others sink quickly into the stew of emotional reactivity.
The good news is that this ability isn’t fixed—you can show up and tinker with it every day. (more…)
To be human is to feel that you are not enough. I can’t think of a better word to describe my anxiety. Am I giving my daughter enough attention? Was that email I sent nice enough, or not clear enough? Am I eating healthy enough to live long enough? Am I doing enough to help keep this country from careening further into chaos? Who the hell knows.
The anxiety of not being “enough” can emerge when you lack a solid, realistic definition about who you’re trying to be as a human on this planet. Because when you don’t have one, you tend to evaluate yourself based on how you feel at any given moment. So if you feel like a bad mother, you must be one. If you feel unqualified for the job, this must be true. This is exactly why feeling incompetent can sometimes get you into more trouble than being incompetent. (more…)
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…)
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…)
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…)