We live in an answer-focused society. There’s no shortage of experts telling us how to make money, lose weight, get more sleep, have a better marriage, or just be happier.
Answers are a convenient way to manage anxiety. You might feel calmer when you get a diagnosis. A family calms down when they have a scapegoat to blame. And it’s reassuring when your therapist hands you a worksheet and says, “Just do this.”
I think answers fail us when they shut down our thinking. When they don’t allow us to be curious. These are answers like:
My relationship will only get better if my partner stops doing X.
I’m an anxious person and there’s no changing that.
I’m burned out because people expect too much of me.
I have low self-esteem because my father was too critical.
My relationships have failed because I’m unlovable.
Cause-and-effect thinking fails to capture the complexity of human relationships. We’re quick to slap labels on ourselves and others, because seeing the bigger picture, the patterns of actions and reactions, takes a lot more effort and discomfort. It’s easier to ask, “Why?” and fill in the blank with the most obvious answer.
Here are some non-why questions that can jump-start your thinking.
There are two things you need to know about families:
1. Families operate in predictable patterns to keep things calm.
2. Some families can respond more flexibly to stress than others.
Sprinkle some festive holiday anxiety on top, and family patterns become even more rigid. When I spent a week with my family at Thanksgiving, I saw these truths in action. Inevitably, I participated in them as well.
Humans are masters at adaptation. We change to fit our environment, and this has helped us survive as a species. But adaptation has its costs.
How do you adjust yourself to preserve harmony in a group? When no one will make the dinner reservation, do you step up? When Mom makes a fuss about holiday plans, do you give in? Do you adopt or abandon political beliefs because you fear being called out? Whether we realize it or not, many of our decisions are influenced by relationship pressure.
I work with a lot of clients who are the adapters in their families. They feel like they always have to take over, or the ship will sink. Or they believe capitulating to others is the only way to keep everyone happy. Either way, they are adapting to preserve stability. They’re helping the family or the organization chug along while sacrificing bits of “self” in the process. Unsurprisingly, these people are often the ones who experience the most physical or emotional symptoms.
Each person believes that the other needs to change.
We see calming down as the goal, but not a part of the solution.
We act as if our functioning/mood depend on people behaving better.
Have you ever had any of these thoughts?
I’ll be happy/calmer if they’ll just. . .
Text/call me more often.
Not tell me what to do.
Help out more around the house.
Stop criticizing me.
Share more of their thinking.
Let me help.
Make more romantic gestures.
When we are distressed, our emotional tentacles tend to reach outwards. We direct others in order to manage ourselves. Unfortunately, many of our efforts to get others to change encourage the very behaviors we’re trying to eliminate. A person who checks their partner’s phone can invite more distance and secrecy from them. A boss who micromanages your work doesn’t make you more eager to do it. If a friends demands that you call them more often, it doesn’t make you want to get to know them better.
Thank God I don’t get a report on this, like my daily screen time usage. It would be pretty embarrassing.
The more you require positive reactions to regulate yourself, the more time you will spend focusing on others’ reactions.
I think pandemic life has increased this anxious focus on others. It’s easier to assume that people don’t like you over a Zoom call, or that a friend resents you for not keeping in touch. The less you connect with your partner, the more you will personalize their bad moods.
What are the stories, spoken or unspoken, that you tell about your family? Who is the leader, the victim, the villain? Who just can’t seem to get their life together, and who runs circles around everyone else?
Humans are storytellers. It’s how we make sense of the world. But this skill isn’t always rooted in reality. It often fails to see the bigger picture. Conveniently, it also can overlook the role we play in our relationships.
As a therapist, I try to help people see how these narratives affect how they treat others. Because in relationships, we often act based on the anxiety of the past instead of the reality of the present. Or we assume we know what people need, instead of considering what they really need.
Here are some common stories we tell about family members:
She’s too sensitive to hear the truth.
Our son needs a lot of extra help.
Don’t bother Dad; he works hard and is tired.
Mom is only happy if she’s in charge.
These stories can be useful but limiting. The challenge is to zoom out and see how the entire family participates in the pattern. To shift from storytelling to systems thinking.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being responsible for others, and being responsible to others.
Feeling and acting responsible for others often reflects our struggle to tolerate another person’s distress. When we sense anxiety in others, a quick way to calm ourselves down is to calm others. To manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that do not belong to us.
How do you get caught up in feeling and acting responsible for others? When you pick the restaurant, do you need everyone to enjoy their food? Do you avoid bringing up an important topic in your marriage, because it makes your spouse anxious? Do you reassure your child, “It’s going to be okay,” before you hear their thinking about a challenge?
We all have topics that bring out the reactivity in us.
Often they are subjects like money, sex, politics, religion, or death. Rather than learn to manage ourselves while thinking and talking about them, we often try to teach others how to not push our buttons. This is because we often rely on others to fill in the gaps of our own emotional maturity.
When I experienced deep anxiety about student loan debt in my 20s, I would become very reactive when other people would talk about their financial challenges. I would quickly change the subject or exit the conversation. I recall snapping at my dad, “I can’t talk about money with you! It stresses me out too much!”
I often have conversations with therapy clients who are trying to teach family members or friends how to avoid certain topics, or how to help make them feel better.
This can look like:
Trying to teach a family member not to talk about politics.
Trying to teach your mother not to fret about her weight, because it makes you anxious.
Telling your partner not to talk about work problems because it stresses you out.
Telling a parent not to talk about aging, their death, their will, etc. because it upsets you.