family therapy dc

What if every day was the first day of school?

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?

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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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Telling a Story Without Villains

When I first meet with therapy clients, I ask them lots of questions about their families. I try to ask fact-based questions, like when someone was born, or where they live now. But a funny thing will happen as people talk about their family. A narrative emerges, as villains, heroes, and victims take the stage.

Humans are natural storytellers, so it’s not surprising that our stories about our families lean toward the question “Why?” We want to assign motive and meaning to people’s behavior. My mother called because she’s controlling. My spouse doesn’t help because they’re lazy. My child won’t cooperate because she’s impossible.

There are a few problems that emerge when we assign motive in our stories. First, it keeps us focused on others’ behavior. Second, it makes it hard to think flexibly about our own behavior. About how “leveling up” on our own maturity could make a difference in the relationship equation. (more…)

The Trouble With Fixing Your Family

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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:

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Bring Your Measuring Tape to Thanksgiving

Next week’s newsletter is a little early, because I’m heading to Tennessee tomorrow for Thanksgiving. American readers, I hope that you have a lovely Thanksgiving, however you spend it! If you’re planning to buy my book, consider stopping by your local bookstore on Small Business Saturday, and tell them you want to preorder Everything Isn’t Terrible.

Imagine you’re walking into your next family gathering. As soon as you open the door, your brain is scanning for potential threats and comfort zones. It locates those you don’t enjoy, or others whose names you can’t remember. Your veer away from the cousin who likes to stir up drama, and move towards an aunt who is sure to offer comfortable, familiar conversation. Without even thinking, your anxious autopilot has grabbed the controls and is directing your behaviors.
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