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?
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the skill of self-regulation. This is because I have a baby, a wide-eyed, mini-scientist, watching me 12 hours a day. Is this new person scary? Is this medicine no big deal? Should I be concerned that I bonked my head with this toy? My body language and voice have a huge influence over my daughter’s reactions.
For a long time, it will be my job to calm her down when she’s distressed. But this comforting will be ineffective if I can’t stay calm when she’s upset. I don’t want her to have a mom with a fear-based relationship with the world. This is challenging when there’s plenty to fear. SIDS! Choking! Sodium! Climate change! Freaking measles.
Happy Thanksgiving! This week I’d like to leave you with some thoughts about how to be a calmer, more attentive presence if you’re seeing family this week.
Most of us think that our families are factories that churn out anxiety, but the truth is that our families actually are built to manage anxiety. Families are anxiety-managing machines, and they do this pretty well most of the time. If they didn’t, evolution wouldn’t have given them to us. We would just pop out fully formed and be able to survive on our own.
One of the best ways to work on being a calmer and more mature presence in your family, especially around the holidays, is to simply observe this anxiety-managing machine (or, as Dr. Bowen might have said, the emotional organism) at work. And because there are really only a few predictable ways that anxiety-management works, it’s easy to spot if you know how to look for it.
If it helps you to think of this as a scavenger hunt (or a Bingo card!), then by all means go for it. Can you spot any of these processes at work in your family this week?
- Who doesn’t show up?
- Who shows up late or leaves early?
- Who’s glued to their phone or the TV to avoid conversation?
- When are superficial topics used to avoid sharing and connection?
- Who asks you for information about another person they’d rather not ask?
- Who do you or others use as a buffer to avoid anxiety?
- When do people gossip about another person?
- When do people vent about another person?
- Who is rushing around taking on much of the responsibility?
- When do people assume that a person can’t do something without asking them?
- When do people act less capable than they actually are?
- When do people offer unsolicited advice or try to solve problems for others?
I could list several more categories, but I think this is a pretty good starter list. Distancing ourselves, pulling in another person, and taking on responsibility (or giving up responsibility) are all ways that a family will try and manage the anxiety in the room.
So what’s the point of all this observation? The idea is that the more you can be objective about your family simply doing what all families do, the less likely you are to feel attacked or to blame others. You won’t see heroes or villains—you’ll see the system at work.
I’ve used this example many times before, but one behavior I always observe when I go home to visit family is that my grandmother manages her anxiety by overfunctioning at meals. She will put extra food on my plate, even when I say no. Once I began to see this simply as her way of making sure we’re all okay, I could calm down a little. I didn’t snap at her when she put extra bread on my plate. I could simply let it sit there or kindly tell her that I didn’t need more food.
The art of not being surprised by our families is a skill that takes years to master, but what a difference it makes. The goal isn’t to teach people how to act differently. The goal is simply to see how you participate in all of these processes and to ask yourself, “Is this really how I want to act? Is there a different way I can be in relationship with these people, rather than just being another cog in the anxiety-managing machine?”
That’s the definition of differentiation—being inside of it and outside of the emotional process the same time. You can be a part of your family without being on this autopilot. You can choose how to respond with less reactivity. It’s hard work, but it starts by learning to not be so surprised when families do what they always do.
How can you start paying closer attention to how your family functions this week?
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Dr. Seeley gave a presentation about how honeybees solve the dilemma of finding a new home. Bee scouts will individually visit a potential location, and when they return, they will perform a “waggle dance” for the others which communicates the distance and direction of the prospective site. The level of enthusiasm in their dance also indicates just how sweet the spot is. Over time, in true democratic form, the bees will keep voting via waggle dancing until there is a consensus on the new home.
Connecting with others is generally a good thing when it comes to our health and well-being. But can the same be said for our virtual interactions? The answer is a qualified “maybe,” according to psychologists and other experts who have studied the issue.
There’s evidence that the ability to connect with others via Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and other social media platforms, as well as text messages, can help strengthen social ties and keep us more attuned to our mental and physical health. But there’s also evidence that such interactions stifle human connectivity, lower our self-esteem, make us feel lonely and isolated, and just plain stress us out, says Emily Weinstein, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who studies the effects of social media on young adults. “It’s both.”
Read the rest of my story at Everyday Health.
As a counselor, I have a front-row seat for watching anxiety develop in new relationships. It is truly fascinating to observe how quickly two people can become emotionally stuck together. A therapy client will leave for a week and return reporting that he or she has started dating someone new. This former stranger now has the power to make my client very happy or very anxious. Thanks to their phone, my client might spend all day analyzing a text they received — or worrying about the lack of one.
Read the rest of my essay at Counseling Today.
Morgan came to counseling because of her boyfriend. He’d been seeing a therapist for the past several months, and she was impressed with his improved focus on his mental and physical health. When I asked her what she wanted to be different, she said that she struggled with low self-esteem when it came to her career and her appearance.
One of my responsibilities as a writer is to keep up with the various books that are topping the self-help list. The past few years, they have tended to fall into two categories:
1. Get It Together! or 2. Embrace Your Imperfection!
Both of these messages can be true and important, but they reflect a tension that exists in mainstream culture. We’re supposed to be okay with being exactly where we are, but we also must be constantly moving forward. These messages also focus solely on the individual, missing an important point: to be human is to be in relationship with others.
I once had a client who, like most of us, exemplified the tension between these two competing messages. Cassandra grew up in rural Georgia and was the oldest of four children. She described her parents as blue collar workers who were often anxious about money. Like many oldest children, Cassandra was achievement-focused. She worked hard in school, got good grades, and loved to debate her peers.
When I first talk with potential therapy clients, I have two favorite questions that I like to ask:
- How would you know that things were getting better?
- How would you be functioning differently than you are right now?
Most people can do a pretty good job at listing their complaints, discomforts, and symptoms. Describing a higher level of mature functioning, however, takes some thinking. In a few weeks I’m giving a presentation about how I’ve worked on my overall functioning. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how I have measured my own progress as I work on myself. I’ve asked myself those two questions—how do I see things improving, and how have changes in my functioning contributed to this?
Denise came to counseling after her father had died of a heart attack at the age of 84. She had been on a cruise to Alaska when he died, and she felt guilty for leaving her 76-year-old mother and younger sister to plan the funeral. A few months later, Denise was flying back every other weekend to Denver to clean out her father’s belongings and check in on her mother. She complained that her sister rarely stopped by to help, even though she only lived half an hour from their childhood home.
Denise always thought her mother would be the first to go in the family. She had diabetes and had experienced a heart attack several years before. Her father had been in great shape and was a regular at the gym. He was actively involved in a local church and was president of the local American Legion. He also took on most of the household responsibilities—he loved to cook and paid all the bills. Denise was surprised to learn how little her mother knew about their finances—she couldn’t even tell them where to locate important papers in the house. “She can barely make scrambled eggs. She eats TV dinners and I can’t get her to leave the house more than once a week.”