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.
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?
If you’ve enjoyed reading my thoughts about dating anxiety, be sure to listen to my interview on the Bustle Huddle podcast! I talk about how I work with clients who have dating anxiety and how to stay focused on being your best, most mature self rather than making someone like you. You can download it from iTunes or Spotify.
And as always, you can subscribe to my free tiny newsletter to read my weekly thoughts about anxiety, relationships, and mental health.
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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