My daughter is turning one this month, and I’ve been thinking about the role that anxiety has played in my functioning this past year. How much has my anxiety clouded my perception of her distress and her development? When have I been able to gain some degree of objectivity to determine what her real needs are and aren’t?
My ultimate goal is to strengthen my ability to switch from anxious attention to thoughtful attention in times of stress. Here are a few ways that I can tell the difference between these two modes: (more…)
When I was in kindergarten, stepping through my piano teacher’s front door felt like entering another universe. I was excited to learn a new language and show off my developing skills to others. Eight years later, I dreaded my weekly lesson. I had stopped practicing, and every week I was struck by temporary amnesia. I believed I could just show up and sight-read my way through increasingly difficult pieces. My progress stalled, and I quit before high school.
Working on being a more mature human, especially in your family, is a lot like playing an instrument. If you’re only calling your parents once a month, or making a single “duty visit” home for the holidays, you may find yourself clunking and wincing your way through relationships. (more…)
Sometimes Kathleen gets too excited and forgets that there are other children in the class.
My first grade teacher left this biting review on one of my report cards. It was a criticism repeated by many people to my parents and myself: my zeal for knowledge eclipsed my awareness of social norms. Aka, I talked too much.
I heard this message enough that I had the opposite problem by middle school. I don’t blame anyone, but I do think that this type of feedback made me more aware of how I was being perceived by others. Don’t be the girl who talks too much or raises her hand for every question. Everyone hates that girl. (more…)
Nothing can make a person less capable than getting married. Maybe you’ve heard the phrase, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” But in many relationships, the opposite is true.
Lately, I’ve been paying attention to how my abilities will weaken or even disappear when my husband is in the house. When he’s away on a work trip, I can take out the trash with ease. But when he’s around, walking the twenty steps to the alley feels like a Herculean task. When I’m driving by myself, I have no trouble navigating to a new destination. Put him in the passenger seat, and I might ask him if I’m making the correct turn. (more…)
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?
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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This weekend I had the privilege of attending the Bowen Center’s annual Symposium. The main presenter was Dr. Thomas Seeley, a biology professor at Cornell who studies the phenomenon of swarm intelligence in honey bees.
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.”
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.