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?

When our actions are more about alleviating anxiety than relating to one another, we don’t give people the space to express their thinking or show us their capabilities. It’s also easy to get locked into relationship patterns that can drain the fun out of a friendship, snuff out the creativity in a work partnership, or eliminate intimacy in a marriage.   

Being responsible to others is about expressing your own maturity. It’s about knowing your own thinking, embodying that thinking, and sometimes sharing that thinking with others. It is about directing self, rather than directing others. But here’s the tricky part— it also requires you to alleviate anxiety (or simply sit with it) in a different way than overfunctioning.

What does this distinction look like in real time? Let me give you some examples.

Responsible for: Calling your mother so she won’t get upset.

Responsible to: Calling your mother because you’ve decided regular contact is useful.

—————————

Responsible for: Doing your kid’s homework so their grade won’t drop.

Responsible to: Letting your child know how you’re willing to help with homework, and what you’re not willing to do.

—————————

Responsible for: Lying to a friend so you won’t hurt their feelings.  

Responsible to: Following your best thinking about when honesty is necessary.   

—————————

Responsible for: Always replying “no worries!” when people apologize in an email.

Responsible to: Really thinking about whether you need to reassure them or not.

—————————

Responsible for: Forcing people to share their feelings and thoughts about a situation.

Responsible to: Expressing curiosity about the thinking of others. 

If you observed yourself for one hour of interacting with other humans, how would you catch yourself acting responsible for others’ thoughts, emotions, and behaviors?  It’s only human to direct each other—we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work quite well at calming things down. But what gets lost when this becomes our way automatic way of functioning?

Is there perhaps a different way to operate in a relationship that doesn’t require you to function for others? I suspect there is.

News from Kathleen

For Medium, I wrote about the cost of always being an anxious helper.

Check out the Russian translation of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, which came out in March. The Portuguese version is coming this July!

Want to support my free newsletter? Buy me a coffee to keep the thoughts flowing.

Want to read more of my writing? You can read my essays for Medium’s Forge Magazine, read old newsletters at my website, or buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or your local bookstore (best option).

Want a free anxiety journalCalming Down & Growing Up: A 30 Day Anxiety Journal includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors. To receive a copy, just email me your receipt.

Follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about my therapy practice in Washington, DC, virtual Bowen theory coaching, or having me speak to your group. 

Want to learn more about Bowen theory? Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about their conferences and training programs (which are accepting applications now).

Please Don't Upset Me.

Learning to define yourself instead of directing others.

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.

I’m not saying that you can’t ask people to talk about something else. Or that there aren’t moments when you need to tell people that you will not engage in conversation if it’s inappropriate or harmful. But I do think there are other moments that are opportunities for managing ourselves instead of teaching others to be more sensitive to our own anxieties. To make space for hearing about people’s challenges while we regulate our own anxious reactions.

The trouble is, it’s difficult to manage anxiety when you don’t know what you actually think about a stressful topic. Working on one’s own emotional maturity requires you to:

  • Get clearer about your own thinking.

  • Hold onto that thinking while in relationship with others.

How does this look in real time? Let’s say, that you absolutely can’t stand it when your mother shames herself for eating french fries. First, it’s useful to go and do your own thinking about food/diet culture. Then, you have to access that thinking when you’re out to dinner with her. No easy task.

When she inevitably fry-shames herself, what do you do?

You could:

A) Scold her for shaming herself.

B) Direct her to be kinder to herself.

C) Teach her why this topic is upsetting to you.

Or . . .

D) Pop a french fry in your mouth and say something like, “I think these are delicious, Mom, and I’m happy to be here with you.”

I’m not saying that A, B, and C are bad choices. I just think we forget that D is also an option because the first three reactions are so automatic. We forget that we can take a position ourselves, and not get caught up in functioning for others. That we actually can calm down a little with or without the cooperation of others. This is fantastic news.

Think about the topics that bring up anxiety for you. Are there opportunities to get clearer about your own thinking instead of teaching others to not upset you? Opportunities to decide what you actually believe instead of automatically borrowing the thinking of others?

When we practice managing ourselves and knowing our own minds in our close relationships, we become less sensitive over time to anxious conversation topics. We can enjoy our relationships more, not having to stick to the superficial. And we can put our energy where it’s most effective—directing ourselves instead of managing others.

News from Kathleen

For Forge Mag, I wrote about dealing with anxiety in relationships in this pandemic transition time.

For the Bowen Center, I interviewed faculty member Kathleen Cotter Cauley, MFT about stepping back into post-pandemic life.

Want to support my free newsletter? Buy me a coffee to keep the thoughts flowing.

Want to read more of my writing? You can read my weekly essay for Medium’s Forge Magazine, read old newsletters at my website, or buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or your local bookstore (best option).

Want a free anxiety journalCalming Down & Growing Up: A 30 Day Anxiety Journal includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors. To receive a copy, just email me your receipt.

Follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about my therapy practice in Washington, DC, virtual Bowen theory coaching, or having me speak to your group. 

Want to learn more about Bowen theory? Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about their conferences and training programs.

Shifting from Anxiety to Curiosity

When I’m catching up with a therapy client, I often ask them, “Where has it been hard to be curious?”

Where there is a lack of curiosity, you may find a great deal of anxiety. Because it’s hard to be curious about a kid who’s struggling in school. Or your marriage when you’re aggravated with your spouse. Or your parents when they always push your buttons.

It’s easy to see the anxiety in our intense worry or charged conflict, but anxiety can also disguise itself as boredom, disinterest, or a surface-level connection.

Curiosity is striving to know what someone thinks and to observe how they function, because you recognize that they are a separate person. When we assume we know what people think, or what they’re going to do, or what they should do, we do not give ourselves the opportunity to be curious. Nor do we give people the opportunity to surprise us.

And a lack of curiosity can look like:

It’s often easier to be curious about our friends than our family. Perhaps because it’s easier to treat our friends like autonomous humans who can navigate life’s challenges. We are a little less sensitive to their distress, so we can hang in the conversation without feeling the need to run away or completely take over. This can be much harder to do with a family member.

Think about your relationships with people in your family. Where is it hardest to be curious? What would it look like to attempt a shift from an anxious response to a more curious one?

Here are some examples.

Anxious position: Worrying about what to do with your parents as they age.

Curious position: Asking your parents how they want to spend their later years.  

—————————————————-

Anxious position: Telling your spouse how to solve all their work problems.

Curious position: Asking your spouse about their challenges and successes at work.

—————————————————-

Anxious position: Worrying about when your kid will reach a developmental milestone.  

Curious position: Observing how your child is growing or sharing with others how they’ve surprised you.

—————————————————-

Anxious position: Wondering if your grandmother doesn’t like your boyfriend.

Curious position: Asking your grandmother about her romantic life when she was younger.

—————————————————-

Anxious position: Complaining about out-of-control gossip at work.

Curious position: Observing communication patterns and considering how you want to operate.

—————————————————-

Anxious position: Avoiding a friend/family member because they are highly anxious.

Curious position: Playing around with regulating your own anxiety while talking to them.

When you try to move towards curiosity, you create opportunities to open up relationships that are reactive, predictable, or even boring. You create space to let people surprise you and let them be responsible for themselves. And you may also find that you are able to share more of your real self without worrying so much about the reaction.  

So this week, I encourage you to listen to the great Ted Lasso, and be curious. Ask questions, and pay attention. When anxiety wants you to jump to conclusions, or turn on your autopilot, strive to know your own mind and the thinking of others.  

News from Kathleen

For Forge Mag, I wrote about dealing with anxiety in relationships in this pandemic transition time.

For the Bowen Center, I interviewed faculty member Kathleen Cotter Cauley, MFT about stepping back into post-pandemic life.

Want to support my free newsletter? Buy me a coffee to keep the thoughts flowing.

Want to read more of my writing? You can read my weekly essay for Medium’s Forge Magazine, read old newsletters at my website, or buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or your local bookstore (best option).

Want a free anxiety journalCalming Down & Growing Up: A 30 Day Anxiety Journal includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors. To receive a copy, just email me your receipt.

Follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about my therapy practice in Washington, DC, virtual Bowen theory coaching, or having me speak to your group. 

Want to learn more about Bowen theory? Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about their conferences and training programs.

Feeling rejected? Look for the triangles.

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 a person can rise about their initial reactivity, and see that they are simply in the outside corner of triangle, they have a better chance of staying calm and responding with greater maturity. They can say, “My spouse isn’t rejecting me.” Or think, “My kids will probably have a better relationship with me if they have a strong relationship with each other.”

Families, friend groups, and work places function better the more everyone has a solid one-to-one relationship with everyone else. You’re not losing because your kid wants their dad to help with homework, or because two co-workers excelled at a project. But if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to feel and react as if that is the reality.

Have you been in the outside position of a triangle lately? As many people become vaccinated and begin to spend more time with others, you might find yourself in the outside position from time to time. Can you see the triangle and slow down before you pick a fight? Can you observe when other people are reactive because they’re in the outside position?

It’s no secret that when you try to drive two people apart, it often encourages them to cling more intensely to each other. So instead of butting into the happy twosome, think about how you can work on your one-to-one relationship with each person.

So get to know your dad’s girlfriend. Spend time with your kids individually. Call your in-laws. Be curious about your impressive coworker, instead of competing for the boss’s attention. Thinking one-to-one calms down a relationship system, and it slows down your tendency to see other people’s interactions as a rejection.

Some questions for you:

  • When have I been on the outside position of a triangle?

  • How did I react, and what was the result?

  • Is there a more thoughtful way of responding when I am on the outside?  

News from Kathleen

My book, Everything Isn’t Terribleis on sale on Amazon for $2.99 (Kindle version). Grab it and/or tell your friends.

Want to support my free newsletter? Buy me a coffee to keep the thoughts flowing.

Want to read more of my writing? You can read my weekly essay for Medium’s Forge Magazine, read old newsletters at my website, or buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books!

Want a free anxiety journalCalming Down & Growing Up: A 30 Day Anxiety Journal includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors. To receive a copy, submit a copy of your receipt for my book at the Hachette page. Or you can email me.

Follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about my therapy practice in Washington, DC, virtual Bowen theory coaching, or having me speak to your group. 

Want to learn more about Bowen theory? Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about their conferences and training programs.

Are You Directing or Reflecting?

How to be an ambassador for yourself.

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.  

I’ve always admired those people who can let others operate like individuals. People who let their parents give terrible, rambling wedding toasts. They don’t automatically jump in to overhaul a sibling’s resume. They let friends with different political persuasions encounter each other. They allow a coworker to do a task less efficiently than they would.  

It’s only human to try to adjust others to calm things down and maintain our image. But how successful is this strategy? It often makes couples more allergic to each other. Or it makes relationships deeply uneven, with one person taking on more of the responsibility and eventually resenting it.

When you feel the impulse to manage others, it can be useful to ask, am I directing or reflecting?

Directing could look like:

  • Asking others to change so you’ll feel calm.

  • Being over-responsible for people’s behaviors.

  • Teaching others how to behave better.

  • Needing others to think or feel what you think or feel.

Reflecting could look like:

  • Calming yourself down.

  • Letting people be responsible for themselves.

  • Thinking about how to respond to people’s immaturity.

  • Communicating your thinking without managing the reaction.

Let me give you some examples.

Directing: Teaching your partner how to dress.

Reflecting: Learning to feel comfortable with your own appearance.

—————————

Directing: Telling your mother how to be a better listener.

Reflecting: Thinking about how you’d like to respond when your mother interrupts you or someone else.

—————————

Directing: Quickly fixing your child’s distress by any means necessary.

Reflecting: Practicing staying calm and present when your child is upset.

—————————

Directing: Making sure all your friends are having a good time.

Reflecting: Calming down so people have a better chance of enjoying themselves.

—————————

Directing: Telling your sister to dump her love interest.

Reflecting: Being curious about how she will navigate a challenging relationship decision.

These changes can sound simple, but they are so difficult to activate in real time. We put so much effort into herding others towards our thinking, rather than reflecting that thinking in how we conduct ourselves. Often because it’s easier and more automatic.

It’s true that you are a representative of larger systems, like your family, an organization, or even your country. But what would it look to begin to be an ambassador for yourself? A representative of your own best thinking about how to live a good life and how to treat others?  

De-blobbing yourself, or what Dr. Bowen called working on differentiation, doesn’t mean you have to distance yourself from important relationships. In fact, it often makes those relationships more enjoyable. When we give ourselves the opportunity to live from the inside out, we allow others do the same. We can be on the same journey together, even if each person takes their own path.  And what a relief that is.

News from Kathleen

Want to support my free newsletter? Buy me a coffee to keep the thoughts flowing.

Want to read more of my writing? You can read my weekly essay for Medium’s Forge Magazine, read old newsletters at my website, or buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books!

Want a free anxiety journal? Calming Down & Growing Up: A 30 Day Anxiety Journal includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors. To receive a copy, submit a copy of your receipt for my book at the Hachette page. Or you can email me.

Follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about my therapy practice in Washington, DC, virtual Bowen theory coaching, or having me speak to your group. 

Want to learn more about Bowen theory? Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about their conferences and training programs.

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