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.”
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…)
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…)