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.
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.
Thank God I don’t get a report on this, like my daily screen time usage. It would be pretty embarrassing.
The more you require positive reactions to regulate yourself, the more time you will spend focusing on others’ reactions.
I think pandemic life has increased this anxious focus on others. It’s easier to assume that people don’t like you over a Zoom call, or that a friend resents you for not keeping in touch. The less you connect with your partner, the more you will personalize their bad moods.
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.
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’m thinking about all the ways we abandon ourselves to keep our relationships predictable and steady.
In her book Alone Together, psychologist Sherry Turkle wrote, “As we distribute ourselves, we may abandon ourselves.”
Turkle is referring to the danger of our online personas, but I’d argue that self-abandonment is hardly a modern phenomenon. People have been changing themselves to please the group since the dawn of time. Most of us can say we’ve changed beliefs to please our families, changed our fashion to match our friends’, or changed a conversation topic to avoid potential conflict.
When our goal is to please others or to avoid upsetting others, our relationships become watered-down versions of themselves.
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?
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.”