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?