A two-person human relationship is about as steady as a two-legged stool. We often look to family members, coworkers, and friends to calm us down when we’re angry, disappointed, or confused by another person. When we pull in or focus on a third person to manage our anxiety, we are activating what is called a triangle.
When you start to look for triangles in your day-to-day life, you’ll find them everywhere. How many of these examples feel familiar to you?
People often tell me things they have never told anyone. It’s quite useful to talk to someone who won’t criticize, lecture, or panic. What people don’t realize, however, is that it can also be useful to talk to the very people who might.
After people relay their challenges to me, I ask them whether these challenges have been shared with family members. Here are some common replies:
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 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.
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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