There are two things you need to know about families:
1. Families operate in predictable patterns to keep things calm.
2. Some families can respond more flexibly to stress than others.
Sprinkle some festive holiday anxiety on top, and family patterns become even more rigid. When I spent a week with my family at Thanksgiving, I saw these truths in action. Inevitably, I participated in them as well.
Humans are masters at adaptation. We change to fit our environment, and this has helped us survive as a species. But adaptation has its costs.
How do you adjust yourself to preserve harmony in a group? When no one will make the dinner reservation, do you step up? When Mom makes a fuss about holiday plans, do you give in? Do you adopt or abandon political beliefs because you fear being called out? Whether we realize it or not, many of our decisions are influenced by relationship pressure.
I work with a lot of clients who are the adapters in their families. They feel like they always have to take over, or the ship will sink. Or they believe capitulating to others is the only way to keep everyone happy. Either way, they are adapting to preserve stability. They’re helping the family or the organization chug along while sacrificing bits of “self” in the process. Unsurprisingly, these people are often the ones who experience the most physical or emotional symptoms.
Each person believes that the other needs to change.
We see calming down as the goal, but not a part of the solution.
We act as if our functioning/mood depend on people behaving better.
Have you ever had any of these thoughts?
I’ll be happy/calmer if they’ll just. . .
Text/call me more often.
Not tell me what to do.
Help out more around the house.
Stop criticizing me.
Share more of their thinking.
Let me help.
Make more romantic gestures.
When we are distressed, our emotional tentacles tend to reach outwards. We direct others in order to manage ourselves. Unfortunately, many of our efforts to get others to change encourage the very behaviors we’re trying to eliminate. A person who checks their partner’s phone can invite more distance and secrecy from them. A boss who micromanages your work doesn’t make you more eager to do it. If a friends demands that you call them more often, it doesn’t make you want to get to know them better.
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.
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?
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.
This week I’ve been thinking about how our position in relationships can affect our ability to think clearly.
A triangle is a three-person relationship system. At any given moment in a triangle, two people are on the inside, and one person is on the outside. When things are tense between two people, you want to be on the outside position, away from the drama. But when things are calm and content between two people, it’s hard to be on the outside looking in.
You might be in the outside position of a triangle if:
Your partner is hanging out with a friend.
Your boss is praising a coworker.
Your kid wants the other parent to help them.
Your friends are hanging out without you.
Your in-laws are visiting.
Your siblings disagree with you.
One of your parents has started dating again.
Your adult children want to get together without you.
Your friends are laughing about an inside joke.
One parent seems closer to another sibling.
When you are in the outside position of a triangle, it is easier to feel abandoned, unheard, or not supported enough. It’s easy to lash out, accuse others of being unfair, or try to pull one person to your corner.
When you’re close with someone, it’s easy to treat them like they’re an extension of yourself. You might act as if your family, friend group, or workplace is one giant blob of humanity. Because if the blob is anxious, you feel anxious. If the blob thinks that Bob from accounting is a mess, then yeah, maybe you do too.
The fancy word for this stuck-togetherness is emotional fusion. When fusion is strong in relationships, more of our decisions are influenced by how other people might react (or have reacted). It becomes difficult to know your own mind, what you believe and value. Your choices quickly become about stabilizing the blob instead of following your best thinking.
The more fusion there is in relationships, the more we tend to treat people like they are ambassadors representing us. You might worry more about your boyfriend’s fashion choices, how your parents act in public, or how well your kid performs in school, because these variables have become a direct measure of your own worth.
Do you ever become less capable when you can sense that someone is upset with you? If I worry about an editor being disappointed with me, I’m a less productive writer. If I know that a therapy client is unhappy with our work, I tend to become a less effective counselor. Sometimes it takes me months to send a thank you card, because I imagine how disappointed a person might be with its delay.
It is nearly impossible to manage one’s self when you become over-responsible for other people’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
We are all sensitive to the emotional reactions of others, but we vary in that sensitivity. Often our experiences in our family teach us how much disagreement, disapproval, or rejection are to be feared and avoided. When agreement, approval, and praise are valued above living out one’s own best thinking, then we need these things to stay calm and motivated.
To upset as few people as possible, you become an expert at deciphering their emotions. You dedicate an enormous amount of time and energy guessing what they’re thinking or feeling, or trying to pry that information out of others.
What does it look like to be more responsible for yourself, and less responsible for everyone else’s emotions? To embody your own definition of being your best self, instead of solely preventing upsetness in others?
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?