This week I’ve observed anxiety wrap its tentacles around my house and around the globe. I’ve watched a great dystopian scavenger hunt for hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and homeschool resources. People have scheduled more Skype hangouts than they have energy for. They’ve overfunctioned for their neighbors, only to disappear from contact once they’ve exhausted themselves. Or they’ve lectured people aggressively online, and begged their family to behave a certain way.
In short, we try to manage everything except ourselves. We focus on what calms us down as quickly as possible, instead of what will keep us calm for the duration.
Have you done any of these things in the past week?
I don’t have an essay for you this week, because I’m working on several essays that will be featured in online publications next month. I’ll be sure to share them with you, so keep your eyes on your inbox! You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for updates, book events, book giveaways.
I have gotten so many new subscribers to this newsletter in the past few months. Thank you to those who are forwarding it to friends and coworkers and sharing the links on social media. I’m proud that I managed to write 25 free newsletters for you this year, with a new baby and a book to write. And I wanted to take some space today to make sure you didn’t miss some of my favorites in 2019.
How do you want to grow in 2020? Do you want more authentic or calmer relationships? Do you want to be guided more by your own principles than by societal narratives of success? Do you want to be a person who can thoughtfully respond to local, national, or international crises? Browse through the list below, and see if any of these 2019 newsletters can help you start that thinking.
Do you want to give your children or family the gift of calmness by increasing your ability to self-regulate your emotions? Read my newsletter about The Gift of Self-Regulation.
Do you wanted to be guided more by your own thinking than by other people’s reactions? Read my newsletter about Being an Inside-Out Person.
Do you want to build stronger one-to-one relationships that don’t revolve around superficial conversation? Read this newsletter.
Would you like to be more curious and less anxious at family gatherings? Read this newsletter.
Would you like to spend less time obsessing about what other people think of you? Read this newsletter.
A two-person human relationship is about as steady as a two-legged stool. We often look to family members, coworkers, and friends to calm us down when we’re angry, disappointed, or confused by another person. When we pull in or focus on a third person to manage our anxiety, we are activating what is called a triangle.
When you start to look for triangles in your day-to-day life, you’ll find them everywhere. How many of these examples feel familiar to you?
People often tell me things they have never told anyone. It’s quite useful to talk to someone who won’t criticize, lecture, or panic. What people don’t realize, however, is that it can also be useful to talk to the very people who might.
After people relay their challenges to me, I ask them whether these challenges have been shared with family members. Here are some common replies:
This week I’ve been thinking about how we keep score in our relationships. It’s a common complaint from therapy clients. “I always call my mother. She never calls me.” Or, “I don’t want to be in a one-sided friendship, where I’m always the one inviting him to go out.”
Keeping score is one way that we maintain distance in anxious relationships. A seemingly self-absorbed parent, an inconsiderate sibling, or a radio silent friend are convenient excuses to reduce contact. It’s easy to label one person as the problem, but often both parties are participating equally in the behaviors that maintain this distance (or sometimes conflict) that keeps them from a closer relationship.
When anxiety hits, we turn on our autopilot. We find the quickest way to calm ourselves and everyone else down. For many of us (*cough* me), the fastest strategy is to become over-responsible for family, friends, colleagues, and even strangers.
Overfunctioning for others can be effective at managing anxiety or tension, but it can prevent both you and the other person from becoming a more responsible human. Sometimes the best gift you can give someone you love is to step back and let them function for themselves. If you don’t believe me, clearly your spouse has never told you how to load the dishwasher, or your mother has never tried to drive your car from the backseat.
You are having lunch with a good friend. After you order, the conversation begins. What do you talk about? The weather? How impossible it was to find a parking space? That friend who can’t seem to get her life together? The one who won’t return your texts?
Whether we realize it or not, most of our relationships are built on a foundation of superficial chatter, mutual disdain for others, and anxious focus on those we love. It’s only human to maintain a little distance by talking about the weather, or to riff on a third person. We do this because a two-person relationship is fundamentally unstable. When you both hate or like the same person, this twosome suddenly becomes a lot less anxious.
Humans have a very special skill. In addition to sensing real danger, we can also imagine potential danger. It’s an evolutionary advantage to be able to predict how people will respond to us. I’ve never stood on a table in a restaurant and thrown my food at someone. I’ve never watched anyone else do this. But my anxiety tells me that this would be bad news for Kathleen. So I avoid embarrassing myself in public or getting arrested.
Sometimes, however, we rely too much on this adaptation. By being outside-focused, all of our actions orient towards preventing rejection, failure, or awkwardness. Have you ever stressed yourself out because the house didn’t look perfect for company? Did you not pursue a potential friendship because the other person might not be interested? Have you failed to share a belief because everyone in your friend group will disagree?