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.
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…)
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.”
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…)