anxiety therapy dc

Let People Be in Charge of Themselves

Energy is a precious resource in pandemic life. Most people are worn down, worried, and struggling to do the bare minimum. Yet somehow I still find myself using this scant energy to try and manage the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. This is not surprising, considering it’s what humans do when we get stirred up.    

Recently I was having a conversation with a therapy client who poked fun at his very human desire to have everyone like him. “If I pick a restaurant,” he admitted (referring to pre-pandemic times), “Then I will ask people five times whether they like the food.”

“What a wonderful life goal that would be,” I said. “To be able to enjoy a meal even if other people weren’t completely happy with it. And to let people be in charge of telling you if they didn’t like something.”

We both laughed at this idea, but I think it reflects the challenge of being in relationship with others. We want people to like what we like, think what we think, and do what we do, so we can avoid any discomfort or rejection.

I’ve decided that how much I let people be in charge of themselves is going to be one of the ways I evaluate my functioning this year. Because the more connected you are to someone, the easier it is to treat them like an extension of yourself. When we’re stressed, it’s easy to back away, or to overstep and overfunction. But to be in contact, and to treat that person like a capable individual. . .well that’s a true test of maturity.

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20 Ways You Had an Incredibly Anxious 2020

Have I been too hard on myself, or not hard enough?

This is a terribly unhelpful question I often ask myself.

After a year like 2020, it’s easy to waffle between intense self-criticism and total absolution from working on yourself. But this is the challenge of growing up—to walk the middle line by staying curious about how you function and who you could become, even in darker times.  

To muster some of that curiosity, this week I’m reaching back into the past to access a calmer, more thoughtful version of myself (the version that grabbed doorknobs with abandon and ate food in buildings that weren’t my house).

Last December I wrote an article for Thrive Global I called, “20 Ways You’re Going to Have an Incredibly Anxious 2020.” I wasn’t prescient enough to have the pandemic on the list, but I think the anxiety of COVID-19 only intensified the examples I gave.

Take a look below at the list I composed for the article. Was I correct? Do any of the behaviors remind you or yourself over the past year?

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How managing other people’s emotions can make you less capable.

Do you ever become less capable when you can sense that someone is upset with you? If I worry about an editor being disappointed with me, I’m a less productive writer. If I know that a therapy client is unhappy with our work, I tend to become a less effective counselor. Sometimes it takes me months to send a thank you card, because I imagine how disappointed a person might be with its delay.

It is nearly impossible to manage one’s self when you become over-responsible for other people’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.

We are all sensitive to the emotional reactions of others, but we vary in that sensitivity. Often our experiences in our family teach us how much disagreement, disapproval, or rejection are to be feared and avoided. When agreement, approval, and praise are valued above living out one’s own best thinking, then we need these things to stay calm and motivated.

To upset as few people as possible, you become an expert at deciphering their emotions. You dedicate an enormous amount of time and energy guessing what they’re thinking or feeling, or trying to pry that information out of others.

What does it look like to be more responsible for yourself, and less responsible for everyone else’s emotions? To embody your own definition of being your best self, instead of solely preventing upsetness in others?

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50 Questions to Help You Grow Up

People often come to therapy for answers. But answers have very little to do with growing up. Answers are often attempts to direct or control others. They’re more about relieving the anxiety of the moment than teaching one’s self how to navigate challenges.

I find that questions are more useful than answers when working on my own maturity. Questions engage the front of the brain, the part that can set goals and solve problems. Questions breed curiosity, and curiosity is an antidote to anxiety. It’s very hard to change what you’re not curious about.

But when you’re anxious, it can be hard to generate questions to guide you in relationships, work, and the larger world. So I’m giving you 50 examples of questions that I’ve asked myself and/or my clients about their functioning. These questions are not meant to be a quiz. Instead, I suggest you use them to spur your own thinking and develop your own questions for measuring maturity.

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How Anxiety Influences Politics (and keeps us from solving problems)

Perhaps the simplest definition of anxiety is fear. And when we perceive a threat, our thinking, behaviors, and relationships are transformed. A good chunk of politics is focused on telling us what we should be terrified about. It’s no secret that fear-based messages get higher ratings and are more likely to be shared on social media.  

There are plenty of real problems that people should fear. And some people have to fear problems that others have the privilege of not worrying about. But if we’re not careful, fear can distort and disconnect anyone from reality. This is exactly why I worry more about dying in plane crash than dying of heart disease.

It can be useful to think about how political anxiety impacts our functioning, and keeps us from helping with complex societal problems. And it’s no surprise that the politics of an anxious society resembles the functioning in an anxious family.

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What if every day was the first day of school?

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?

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How Changing Yourself Changes the Game

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.   

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25 Ways We Use Distance to Manage Anxiety

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…)

The Sweet Spot

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.”

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Telling a Story Without Villains

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…)