Please Behave Better, So I Can Calm Down

Untangling Ourselves from Conflict

Conflict happens when:

  1. Each person believes that the other needs to change.

  2. We see calming down as the goal, but not a part of the solution.

  3. 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.

  • Apologize.

  • Calm Down

  • Grow up.

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.

This is because no one thrives under an anxious focus.

We are not responsible for people’s behaviors. We do not cause them. But the level of anxiety we bring to the relationship certainly affects how people function. We all know that kids don’t do well when we’re anxiously scrutinizing them. But we often fail to see this reality in our adult relationships.

In her book Extraordinary Relationships, Dr. Roberta Gilbert writes, “Differentiation of self has everything to do with one’s own emotional functioning. It has nothing to do with changing the other.”

Put that one on your mirror, right?

Working on your emotional functioning can look like:

  • Focusing on how you want to respond to other people’s undesirable behaviors.

  • Managing your own reactivity/immaturity in challenging relationships.

  • Fostering your own curiosity about the dilemma.

When you plug away at this, two things can happen:

  1. You may become less allergic to others’ behaviors.

  2. You may find that your own curiosity and calmness are contagious.

There is no magic in this. You cannot force people to grow up by behaving better. But when you begin to untangle yourself from the predictable relationship patterns we use to manage anxiety, every else’s position becomes a little more flexible as well. You make it a little easier for others to use the front part of their brain, the part that solves problems, sets goal, and strives for objectivity.

The beautiful thing about conflict is that it only takes one person to shift the focus back on themselves. Often no one wants to be the person who volunteers, because it often feels like admitting defeat. But if living a calmer and more thoughtful life is losing, then sign me up.

Some questions for you:

  • When have I been trying to force others to behave better?

  • When have others been trying to get me to behave better?

  • How can I keep working on my own maturity in these situations?

  • How can I keep working on lowering my reactivity in these situations?

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 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 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.

I Need You, So Please Go Away

How Chronic Anxiety Makes Us Allergic to Each Other

How much time do you spend every day doing these things?

  • Wondering whether someone likes you (or doesn’t).

  • Anticipating negative reactions from others.

  • Worrying about an email or text you sent (or haven’t sent).

  • Thinking about what you “should” be doing.

  • Scolding yourself for not doing enough.

  • Imagining worst case scenarios.

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.

Dial up the anxiety, and two things happen. We need each other more, but we’re also more allergic to each other. This why many people crave closer relationships, but find the processes of dating, making new friends, or reconnecting with family unbearable.  

Paradoxically, the people who don’t rely as much on positive reactions seem to have closer, more satisfying relationships with others. They can handle intense situations by applying their best thinking about who they’re trying to be.

To decrease your anxious focus on others, you have to be willing to hit pause on the behaviors that usually calm you down.

These might look like:  

  • Avoiding the people that you think dislike you.

  • Apologizing when you don’t need to.

  • Asking for reassurance from friends/family.

  • Going along with something you don’t like to keep things calm.

  • Engaging in downward comparison (at least I’m doing more than him).

  • Using substances or other obsessions to calm down.  

  • Seeking out praise from peers and colleagues.

  • Chasing after cultural definitions of success.

It is uncomfortable to interrupt these familiar behaviors. To move toward people who may not like you or set a boundary when you might get pushback.  To divert from the world’s (or your family’s) definitions of success, or to evaluate yourself instead of seeking out praise. But this is the good kind of anxiety, a marker of progress rather than regression.

There are plenty of helpful techniques to manage acute anxiety. But we only learn to grow up in relationship to each other. When we learn to act in a way that is in sync with what we believe. Even when people don’t like it. Especially when people don’t like it.

So what do you believe is best way to be a human in a very anxious world? How do you conduct yourself when people disapprove, disagree, or even reject you? How do you define good work or a good life? How do you want to be responsible for yourself and to your neighbor?

Meditating on these answers provides a road map for anxious times, a slower journey than chasing after approval or attention. Because the better you can define yourself, the more you free up your relationships to be something more than just a way to calm yourself down.    

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 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.

The Flavors of Anxiety

Getting a taste of new functioning in your relationships.

When I present on anxiety*, I often show a picture of Neapolitan ice cream. Vanilla. Strawberry. Chocolate. Predictable, universal flavors that leave much to be desired.

Your anxious functioning is like this. When you dial up the tension, we really only do a few things. It’s hard to be creative, flexible, or curious when you’re anxious, so you turn on your autopilot, struggling to shift out of the same old maneuvers. This is how individuals, families, and organizations end up feeling stuck.

What are the flavors of anxious functioning? Sometimes I think of them as the Fs:

  • Fleeing (distancing physically or emotionally)

  • Fighting (insisting others are the problem)

  • Freezing (acting helpless)

  • Fixing (trying to control others)

  • Fretting to others (venting, gossiping)

These are adaptive and predictable responses to stress, but they can also be incredibly limiting.

What can it look like to exist beyond the Fs? To see an alternative to our original programming?

For me it can look like:  

  • Being curious about a friend’s challenge instead of telling them what to do.

  • Talking about my beliefs and interests (and asking about others’) instead of always sticking to the superficial.

  • Practicing self-regulation when I’d rather have someone else calm me down.

  • Striving to know the thinking of family members instead of mindreading.

  • Working on my own maturity instead of trying to make people behave better.

  • Observing the larger system when I’m tempted to label one person as the problem.

  • Getting clearer about my own beliefs instead of borrowing them from others.

I won’t lie—these moments can be rare. Most of the time I am swimming in a sea of vanilla. But when you get a taste of relating to people in a different way, one that is less about controlling others and more about managing yourself, you want more.

This week I challenge you to think about the flavors of your own anxious functioning. Are you quick to overfunction for others? Do you avoid conflict at all costs? Do you always rely on others for reassurance? None of these behaviors are inherently bad. But they can only take you so far in life and in your relationships.

Some questions:

  • What are my predictable responses to anxiety?

  • What has been the cost of relying on these responses?

  • When have I managed to respond to anxious situations with more flexibility or creativity?

*Using the Bowen theory definition of anxiety, which the reaction to a real or perceived threat. A threat could be as minor as someone not liking you.

News from Kathleen

The Kindle version of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible, is on sale for $4.99.

For Medium’s Forge Mag last month, I wrote about how no amount of success will ever calm you down, and how you can just let people be anxious. I also gave some advice on how to build fast friendships as an adult.

I had a great conversation on Instagram live with another therapist about my book, anxiety, and Bowen theory.

August 5th – The mass market paperback version of Everything Isn’t Terrible drops in the UK and Commonwealth countries.

September 24th - I’m presenting all day at the Bowen Theory Education Center’s Annual Symposium in Chattanooga about Staying Curious in an Anxious World. The event will also be on zoom, so check it out.

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).

The Stories That Keep Us Stuck

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.

Here’s what it can look like:

The Story: She’s too sensitive to hear the truth.

The System: We hide facts from her to keep things calm.

————————

The Story: Our son needs a lot of extra help.

The System: Anxiously focusing on him has helped stabilize our marriage.  

————————

The Story: Don’t bother Dad; he works hard and is tired.

The System: Dad is emotionally distant to avoid being caught up in our conflict.  

————————

The Story: Mom is only happy if she’s in charge

The System: We act less capable and she always volunteers to do it for us.  

It’s not that these stories can’t be true. Kids need help. People are sensitive. Many of us like to being in charge. But you miss seeing the reciprocity in our relationships when you focus on the individual. When you see personality instead of pattern.

Thinking systems opens up the possibility that others are not fixed creatures, destined to be stuck in the same stories. And seeing your part is not about blaming yourself—it’s about creating space for greater flexibility, creativity, and intimacy in your relationships.

This week, consider what stories you tell about others in your family. Here are some additional questions.

  • What are the common narratives in my family about others? About myself?

  • How have these stories been used to keep things calm?

  • How have these stories kept people stuck in their functioning?

  • How do my actions reinforce these stories?

The truth is that people are more capable and interesting than the narratives we give them.  By adjusting ourselves within the large system, we give everyone the space to exist outside the same old stories.

News from Kathleen

For Medium this week, I wrote about how there’s more to maturity than finishing your to-do list.

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).

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).

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