bowen therapist

How we end up managing other people’s relationships

Nina* came to therapy because her husband thought she was coddling their adult daughter. But as we talked, I noticed that Nina was less focused on her relationship with her daughter. Instead, she detailed the conflict between her family members. Nina saw herself as the peacemaker, trying her best to help her others get along. She complained of her husband’s blindness to her daughter’s needs, and she described her daughter’s talent for triggering explosive fights with her father.

It was easy to see how focusing on her husband and daughter’s relationship was a stabilizing force for Nina. She felt like the mature, rational one who had to put up with squabbling family members. She saw herself as the good parent who cared for her daughter, and the patient spouse who had to put up with her husband’s moods. She didn’t feel pressure to change her behavior, because she wasn’t doing any of the shouting. She saw herself as outside the conflict, and not a member of a very active emotional triangle.

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25 Ways We Use Distance to Manage Anxiety

Distancing is perhaps the quickest way to bind anxiety. We move across the country from our parents. We stay late at work to avoid our spouse.  Or we never share our real beliefs with friends who might disagree. It’s also why many of us, initially energized by all those Zoom calls in early COVID days, have begun to internally withdraw from other humans.

Physical and emotional distance are adaptive—we wouldn’t engage in them if they didn’t help us manage our anxiety. But distance has its price. We lose the opportunity to build real person-to-person relationships, and to work on our own maturity, when we automatically withdraw. When we let ourselves choose immediate calmness, we often forsake our best thinking about how to be in relationship with other humans.

How do you use distance to bind anxiety in your relationships? Do you see yourself in any of the these examples? (more…)

Seeing Patterns Instead of Personalities

My toddler daughter loves to press her face against translucent Tupperware lids. Suddenly the whole world becomes red or blue. Everything is the same, but different.

I think anxiety works in a similar fashion. Anxiety is a lens through which we see the world, and our families. But an anxious focus on those we love limits our ability to see reality—all the colors, complexity, and capability of others.  

As a therapist, I try to pay attention to the adjectives that people use to describe their family members. Words like critical, lazy, sensitive, emotional, toxic, or overbearing are commonly deployed.  I try to challenge people to consider what gets lost when we view people through the lens of an adjective. When we say to ourselves (and our therapist), “That’s just the way they are.” (more…)

The Sweet Spot

One of the most frustrating things about my work is that I have a thousand comical stories I can never tell. Many of them involve the theatrical lengths that people will go to get a family member into therapy. People will therapy-shop for their adult child, only to bristle when I ask why their child isn’t calling. They will send their spouse or their aging parent with printed instructions detailing what’s wrong with them. And they often disappear when I suggest that they might benefit the most from meeting with me.

I do have empathy for these people. It is only human to turn our focus towards fixing others when we are distressed. To think that additional focus from an “expert” will solve the problem. While therapy can be helpful for anyone, we forget that an entire family benefits when any person is willing to work on being more responsible for themselves. We convince ourselves that it must be person with the “problem.”

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Becoming a Responder in a Reactive World

It has been a week.

As I was thinking about how to write this newsletter, a few thoughts poked at me. Will people think it’s not my place to speak right now? Will people think I’m complicit by staying silent? Will people be more reactive in their responses than usual, or more positively engaged?

Do you see the trend in my thinking? When anxiety is high, relationship pressure (aka the reactions of other humans) tends to become our compass. We begin to mimic the actions, the emotionality, and the urgency of those around us for fear of being called out. We are keenly aware that responses that deviate outside the norm will not be tolerated. So we comply to avoid conflict, or we rebel to invite conflict. Or we do nothing, and hope no one notices.

Conforming, rebelling, and distancing are all just anxiety wrapped up in different packaging. They are signs of how little “self” a person brings to a crisis. This week I noticed how little self I was bringing in my response to national events. I was genuinely concerned and motivated to act, but many of these actions were emotional and rooted in relationship pressure. The perfect recipe for burnout.

Have you engaged in any of these behaviors in the last week? (more…)

Flexibility Will See Us Through

Anxiety is notoriously uncreative. When we feel distressed, our brain tends to hyper-focus on certain goals we have for ourselves. If you’re like me, you might find that your definition of success has become uncomfortably narrow in the last few weeks. So narrow that you finish every day feeling like it’s been an absolute waste, only to wake up the next morning thinking that THIS WILL BE THE DAY you become a robot who can plow through your to-do list without needing to sleep or stress-eat any cheese. (more…)

Do you need permission to function?

I had a lot of goals when the pandemic started. I was going to run more and organize the closets. I’d be cranking out these newsletters, doing 20,000 podcast interviews, and writing letters to friends like in olden times. Instead, I’ve been plowing through romance novels, going on long walks with my family, and getting more comfortable with dishes in the sink.

Did you feel a sense of relief when you read that first paragraph? After all, we do love to be told that we’re too hard on ourselves. We love it when people give us permission to set aside our to-do list and enjoy what we were going to do all along. Hundreds of articles have flooded the Internet lately, reassuring us that we do not have to be mega-productive employees or super parents in this difficult time.

But the problem isn’t that I’m too hard on myself. It’s that I need someone else to tell me not to be. When anxiety rises, so does the impulse to borrow calmness and direction as quickly as possible. This is how we end up with endless headlines that tell us to slow down, calm down, and scale down our expectations. As if we were incapable of coming to that conclusion ourselves. (more…)

The Anxiety of “Enough”

The problem is not what mother did not do_ the problem is her feeling that she has never done enough.”

To be human is to feel that you are not enough. I can’t think of a better word to describe my anxiety. Am I giving my daughter enough attention?  Was that email I sent nice enough, or not clear enough? Am I eating healthy enough to live long enough? Am I doing enough to help keep this country from careening further into chaos? Who the hell knows.

The anxiety of not being “enough” can emerge when you lack a solid, realistic definition about who you’re trying to be as a human on this planet. Because when you don’t have one, you tend to evaluate yourself based on how you feel at any given moment. So if you feel like a bad mother, you must be one. If you feel unqualified for the job, this must be true. This is exactly why feeling incompetent can sometimes get you into more trouble than being incompetent. (more…)

Please Calm Me Down

Gaining quick love, attention, and agreement from others can inhibit our own ability to calm ourselves down. (1)

When we feel distressed, we want to find and eliminate the cause as quickly as possible. In our search for an explanation, we often focus on the people closest to us. You may begin to think, “If that person would only do X, then I could feel better.”

Have you ever said something like this to someone close to you?

“If only you. . .

  • helped more
  • encouraged me more
  • agreed with me
  • listened better
  • reassured me
  • changed your behavior

. . . then I would feel better.”

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Let It Begin with Me

There’s a popular hymn, often sung at Christmas, that goes,

Let there be peace on Earth
And let it begin with me.

When I’m frustrated with someone, I sing a different version in my head.

Let there be maturity in this room
And let it begin with me.

Though less lyrical, these words remind me of an important principle. It’s the idea that better relationships start with changing the only variable I can manipulate—myself.

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