My toddler started school last week. A few days before, her school sent an email encouraging parents to make the drop off quick and light to minimize anxiety. One sentence in the email stood out to me:
The energy of the person dropping off, and his/her thoughts, tone, body language, and confidence will set the tone for how a child feels about being dropped off.
There’s so much wisdom in such an obvious sentence. If a parent is anxious and clingy, a kid will believe there’s something to fear. But if a parent can act like school is manageable, then that calmness is equally contagious.
After a successful drop off, I had a simple question for myself. What if I treated every day like it was the first day of school?
In other words, what could happen if brought that same level of observation and intention to all of my relationships?
My uncle was the youngest in his family. Growing up, I heard many tales of him terrorizing his sisters and getting away with it. He’d chop the arms off their dolls, or trap someone’s head in the car window. By the time I was born, he had abandoned his childish antics but was still an avid teaser. Since I had no siblings and wasn’t used to verbal sparring, I would cry and complain to my grandmother, who’d basically tell me to lighten up.
As I got older, my response to the teasing didn’t really mature. I would continue to rant to other family members, who merely brushed it off. The intensity of my response didn’t seem to help my cause or motivate my uncle to behave better.
When I began to learn about Bowen theory, I saw my relationship with my uncle as an opportunity for me to grow up a little. I began to play around with my responses to his teasing. He’d make a joke about a TV show I loved, and instead of playing the wounded child, I’d smile and chirp, “Well, I think it’s great!” I was amazed to see that this kind of response seemed to neutralize the situation. I had stopped stomping my feet, and this seemed to shut down his immaturity. He teased me less frequently, and I felt less provoked by it. I had changed the nature of the dance.
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.
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…)
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.”
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…)
When I sit down to read articles about the COVID-19 crisis, it’s interesting to see the disparity in people’s opinions about human nature. Some essays tout the belief that crises bring out the best in human communities. Others complain that hoarding, political squabbling, or blatant disregard for the safety of others highlight our baser instincts.
The truth is that humans vary in our ability to stay thoughtful in anxious times. Some people can know their own minds, while others grab as many solutions from others as they can. Some people can stay relatively calm around anxious family members, while others sink quickly into the stew of emotional reactivity.
The good news is that this ability isn’t fixed—you can show up and tinker with it every day. (more…)
In one of my favorite Seinfeld episodes, George decides to do the opposite of everything he’s ever done. He stops ordering tuna on toast at the coffee shop. He goes up to a woman and tells her he’s unemployed and lives with his parents. Hilariously, he finds that this seems to work, at least for a while. “Yes, I will do the opposite!” he declares.
When I’m anxious, I think of my automatic functioning as my tuna on toast. It’s comfortable, it’s safe, and it works fairly well most of the time. It’s what my anxiety would have me do to keep my relationships stable, and to get the most praise and approval from others. The problem is, I often don’t like the taste it leaves in my mouth. (more…)
The other day, one of my publishers posted a picture of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, on social media. I try my best not to read people’s comments, but I couldn’t help but notice one:
The planet is BURNING, DROWNING, DYING! We need to STOP looking at ourselves, like the NARCISSISTS we are AND BE PROACTIVE about why we were put on this Earth.
While I appreciate the passion and urgency of ANGRY COMMENT person, I have to disagree with them. Looking at ourselves, and harnessing our ability to act outside the bounds of a panicked, reptilian brain, is exactly what makes us human. And it’s exactly what will save us and the planet from ourselves.
It’s a common sentiment these days that if you’re not angry or anxious, then you’re not paying attention. Perhaps this is true—it’s impossible to read the news and not feel fearful or hopeless. How we choose to respond to these facts, however, is more interesting to me than the degree of our panic. Because when we feel panicked about politics or the environment, often our reactions become more about relieving the anxiety we feel in the moment than about generating thoughtful, reality-based solutions to the world’s problems. (more…)
Last month I wrote several newsletters about observing your anxious functioning around your family. So I thought it would only be fair if I shared one of my observations with you.
My grandmother does not recycle. And this behavior. . .well it drives me absolutely crazy. Recycling is not the norm in my hometown. I watch people use plastic shopping bags like water, and or drink their water from tiny plastic bottles they toss into the trash, and I feel anxious and overwhelmed.
Being hyper-focused on “fixing” a family member’s behavior is one way that we try to manage the anxiety in the room. And now that I have a kid who has to live in the world we leave her, I’ve found that my reactivity to waste has ramped up. So over Thanksgiving, I acted as though teaching my grandmother to recycle would singlehandedly save the planet from doom. It sounds silly, but anxiety often raises the stakes in our brain, obscuring reality.
So what did I do? I found myself vacillating between two reactions: