family systems theory

The Stories That Keep Us Stuck

What are the stories, spoken or unspoken, that you tell about your family? Who is the leader, the victim, the villain? Who just can’t seem to get their life together, and who runs circles around everyone else?

Humans are storytellers. It’s how we make sense of the world. But this skill isn’t always rooted in reality. It often fails to see the bigger picture. Conveniently, it also can overlook the role we play in our relationships.

As a therapist, I try to help people see how these narratives affect how they treat others. Because in relationships, we often act based on the anxiety of the past instead of the reality of the present. Or we assume we know what people need, instead of considering what they really need.

Here are some common stories we tell about family members:

  • She’s too sensitive to hear the truth.
  • Our son needs a lot of extra help.
  • Don’t bother Dad; he works hard and is tired.
  • Mom is only happy if she’s in charge.

These stories can be useful but limiting. The challenge is to zoom out and see how the entire family participates in the pattern. To shift from storytelling to systems thinking.

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Are You Responsible for Others, or Responsible to others?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the difference between being responsible for others, and being responsible to others.

Feeling and acting responsible for others often reflects our struggle to tolerate another person’s distress. When we sense anxiety in others, a quick way to calm ourselves down is to calm others. To manage emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that do not belong to us.

How do you get caught up in feeling and acting responsible for others? When you pick the restaurant, do you need everyone to enjoy their food? Do you avoid bringing up an important topic in your marriage, because it makes your spouse anxious? Do you reassure your child, “It’s going to be okay,” before you hear their thinking about a challenge?

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Please Don’t Upset Me.

We all have topics that bring out the reactivity in us.

Often they are subjects like money, sex, politics, religion, or death. Rather than learn to manage ourselves while thinking and talking about them, we often try to teach others how to not push our buttons. This is because we often rely on others to fill in the gaps of our own emotional maturity.

When I experienced deep anxiety about student loan debt in my 20s, I would become very reactive when other people would talk about their financial challenges. I would quickly change the subject or exit the conversation. I recall snapping at my dad, “I can’t talk about money with you! It stresses me out too much!”

I often have conversations with therapy clients who are trying to teach family members or friends how to avoid certain topics, or how to help make them feel better.

This can look like:

  • Trying to teach a family member not to talk about politics.
  • Trying to teach your mother not to fret about her weight, because it makes you anxious.
  • Telling your partner not to talk about work problems because it stresses you out.
  • Telling a parent not to talk about aging, their death, their will, etc. because it upsets you.
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20 Ways You Had an Incredibly Anxious 2020

Have I been too hard on myself, or not hard enough?

This is a terribly unhelpful question I often ask myself.

After a year like 2020, it’s easy to waffle between intense self-criticism and total absolution from working on yourself. But this is the challenge of growing up—to walk the middle line by staying curious about how you function and who you could become, even in darker times.  

To muster some of that curiosity, this week I’m reaching back into the past to access a calmer, more thoughtful version of myself (the version that grabbed doorknobs with abandon and ate food in buildings that weren’t my house).

Last December I wrote an article for Thrive Global I called, “20 Ways You’re Going to Have an Incredibly Anxious 2020.” I wasn’t prescient enough to have the pandemic on the list, but I think the anxiety of COVID-19 only intensified the examples I gave.

Take a look below at the list I composed for the article. Was I correct? Do any of the behaviors remind you or yourself over the past year?

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How Anxiety Influences Politics (and keeps us from solving problems)

Perhaps the simplest definition of anxiety is fear. And when we perceive a threat, our thinking, behaviors, and relationships are transformed. A good chunk of politics is focused on telling us what we should be terrified about. It’s no secret that fear-based messages get higher ratings and are more likely to be shared on social media.  

There are plenty of real problems that people should fear. And some people have to fear problems that others have the privilege of not worrying about. But if we’re not careful, fear can distort and disconnect anyone from reality. This is exactly why I worry more about dying in plane crash than dying of heart disease.

It can be useful to think about how political anxiety impacts our functioning, and keeps us from helping with complex societal problems. And it’s no surprise that the politics of an anxious society resembles the functioning in an anxious family.

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How Changing Yourself Changes the Game

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.   

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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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Got COVID-19 anxiety? It’s time to start playing the long game.

This week I’ve observed anxiety wrap its tentacles around my house and around the globe. I’ve watched a great dystopian scavenger hunt for hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and homeschool resources. People have scheduled more Skype hangouts than they have energy for. They’ve overfunctioned for their neighbors, only to disappear from contact once they’ve exhausted themselves. Or they’ve lectured people aggressively online, and begged their family to behave a certain way.

In short, we try to manage everything except ourselves. We focus on what calms us down as quickly as possible, instead of what will keep us calm for the duration.

Have you done any of these things in the past week?

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