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.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how difficult it is to be in the same room with a person in distress. Maybe it’s a kid who cries over confusing homework instructions. Or a friend who can’t decide whether they want to break up with their partner. Perhaps it’s a spouse who feels overworked and overlooked at their job. As a therapist, for me it’s often a person who feels anxious or depressed and wants to feel better as quickly as possible.
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…)
I have spent many years working as a writer. But I have never been as excited as I am right now to share my work with you. My book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, is dropping on December 31st. If you’ve enjoyed my weekly anxiety letter, then I absolutely believe that it will be a resource to you. The book is a helpful and humorous guide to shedding your anxious habits and building a more solid sense of self in our increasingly anxiety-inducing world. It’s a wonderful guide for what’s certain to be an anxious 2020!
But here’s the thing–I’m way too excited to make people wait until New Year’s Eve to start reading it. So if you preorder the book and submit your receipt, the folks at Hachette Books will send you one of my favorite chapters to read right now. It’s called “Your Parents,” and I tell the story of Grace, a young woman who wanted to be less reactive and more mature around her anxious mother and distant father. It’s one of my favorite chapters from the book, one I think that will resonate with pretty much everyone.
When you preorder, you’ll also get some very cool bonus materials to supplement your reading of the book. I created an anxiety flow chart you can reference on days you feel reactive or worried, and I wrote some other helpful little materials you can print out and hang on your fridge or mirror.
So how can you start reading Everything Isn’t Terrible today?
1. You can order on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, and many other retailers. You can buy it anywhere, but I especially encourage you to support your local bookstore in person or online. The book will be available in hardcover, digital, and audio form.
2. Once you’ve ordered, click here to submit your proof of purchase (before 12/30*) to receive bonus content and the sneak peek! Proof is simply a picture or scanned image of your receipt. The easiest way to do it is to take a picture with your phone.
Thank you again for subscribing to my newsletter, and following my thinking about anxiety, relationships, and my work on myself. Feel free to email me if you have any questions about the preorder materials or the book. I’ll be back next week with a new letter, but you can check out the archive and see what you’ve missed.
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…)
This week I’ve been thinking about all the strategies we use to stabilize tense relationships with other people. Often we avoid, we complain, or we try to control. But in our quest to keep things calm, we can miss out on more fulfilling relationships with family and friends.
Anxiety-managing strategies are kind of like emotional training wheels. When your bike has training wheels, your travel is stable, but limited. You can’t go off the beaten path, and you can’t go very fast or very far. This is the price of avoiding a tumble from a two-wheeler. Anxiety-managing strategies work the same way. They lower the anxiety of having to be around difficult or stressful people. But they prevent the development of a true, person to person relationship.
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…)
I once had a therapy client who couldn’t get her unemployed husband to do anything. She’d beg him to apply to jobs. She’d lecture him about going to therapy. She criticized him for leaving his dirty underwear on the bathroom floor. You can guess how effective this strategy was.
If you’ve ever participated in any communication training, you’ve been taught to use I-statements. You’re told that a feeling statement helps a person understand your point of view. “I feel X when you do Y.” My client had tried this approach. “I feel sad when you don’t take care of yourself.” “I feel hopeless when you avoid looking for jobs.” “I feel angry when you leave your underwear in the bathroom!” All this did was dial up the anxiety in the 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.