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.

How We Water Down Our Relationships

And how we can get the flavor back.

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.  

We water down our relationships by:  

  • Relying on superficial topics to carry a conversation.

  • Only communicating with them in a group (group texts, gatherings, etc.).

  • Gossiping about others.

  • Complaining about others.

  • Only relaying info about others (i.e. your kid).

  • Talking about other people’s beliefs and not your own.

  • Talking about other’s experiences and not your own.

  • Asking them questions without talking about yourself.

  • Agreeing with them even if you disagree.

  • Disagreeing with them just to play devil’s advocate.

  • Only talking when you’ve been drinking.

  • Only doing what the other person wants to do.

It’s sobering to think about how many relationships are built on a foundation of superficial chatter, disdain for a third person, or let’s be honest, alcohol. Marriages slog along by having a kid to worry about or a cocktail in the evening. Coworkers unite by hating their boss. Families maintain détente by never talking about anything significant.

But what gets lost when we do this?

Try picking one relationship in your life, and start paying attention to how you avoid bringing your actual self to the table. Do you always ask about the weather? Do you always put your kid on the phone, or ask to talk to your other parent? Do you turn on the TV, scroll through your phone, or focus on what adorable thing the dog is doing?

What would it look like to add some flavor to these relationships? To begin to share thinking that’s important to you, or a challenge you’ve had over the past year? An experience that was bewildering or exciting?

In order to do this, you have to let other people be in charge of themselves. Because when you try to manage their reaction or read their mind, you’re likely to shift back to what’s safe and superficial.

There is perhaps no greater gift than to be treated like you’re capable of hearing a person’s beliefs, experiences, and hopes for the future.

News from Kathleen

Recently I had a wonderful chat on the podcast, This Might Get Uncomfortable, about people-pleasing, overfunctioning, and anxiety. Give it a listen.

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.

The Quick and Convenient Ways We Abandon Ourselves

Lately I’ve been thinking about how we use quick social comparisons to temporarily boost our mood and functioning. Because in the absence of our own measures, we grasp for the most convenient ones.

I caught myself doing this just last night. Minutes after we had put our daughter to bed, I remembered a story I’d heard about another child’s bizarre sleep schedule. I started to tell husband this story, but then I stopped and thought.

What am I trying to accomplish here? I was trying to boost my mood by comparing my parenting choices to another’s.

Psychologists have studied how upward social comparison can motivate you to achieve more, and downward social comparison can help you feel better about yourself. This is how many people end up mommy-shaming, Internet bullying, and worshipping celebrities. But what gets lost when these strategies become our automatic way of managing our distress or uncertainty?  

Convenient measures we use to evaluate ourselves:

·      Anyone’s emotional reactions to you

·      How much you are praised or criticized

·      The current societal definitions of success

·      Trending expert advice

·      Your social media feed

·      Your siblings’ performance

·      Your friends’ achievements

·      Your parents’ expectations

·      Your boss’s mood

·      Degree of acceptance or rejection by a group

These measures are like the fast food of self-esteem. They’re quick and convenient, but they don’t really nourish us, or help us grow up.  

The less work you have done to define your own principles for parenting, work, friendship, dating, etc., the more likely you are to look at your friend group or scroll through your social media, and ask, How am I doing? You might feel overwhelmed or reassured. You’ll scramble to accomplish something you actually don’t value. Or you’ll subscribe to something you don’t really believe.

This is because it’s easier to buy another damn parenting book than sit down and think about how you’d like to parent your child. It’s easier to see an unreturned text as a sign of dating failure than it is to focus on the person you’re trying to be while dating.

Can you catch yourself mid-comparison, and direct back to your internal compass? Can you ask questions that are about defining yourself, instead of focusing on others? These are questions that focus on what you believe and who you’re trying to be in tough situations.

Here are some examples.  

Focus on others: Can my kid do things other kids can do?  

Focus on self: Am I relating to my child the way I’d like to?


Focus on others: Who should I be mad at on the Internet today?

Focus on self: Are there things I’d like to share or learn about today on the Internet?


Focus on others: How many of my friends are married already?

Focus on self: Is finding a partner important to me right now?


Focus on others: Does my boss praise me as much as she praises others?

Focus on self: How can I evaluate my work performance more objectively?  


Focus on others: Does my spouse do more for me than I do for them?

Focus on self: Am I functioning the way I’d like to in this relationship?

To be human is to engage in social comparison. There’s nothing wrong with letting people inspire you to be better or do better. But the more anxious you are, the more quickly you may find that you’ve abandoned yourself to satisfy the group.

This week, consider thinking about how you use quick comparisons to manage distress. Do you share a story with a friend about another’s failure? Do you let someone’s accomplishment be proof of your own laziness? Do you let the Internet decide what’s worth your attention and energy?

Perhaps there are better ways to calm down than grabbing the closest definition of good. And other ways to gather the energy you need to achieve what’s important to you.

More from Kathleen

Want to read more of my writing? I’ve started writing a weekly essay for Medium’s Forge Magazine.

Want to support my free newsletter? Consider making a donation via Ko-Fi.

Buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books! Please consider supporting your local bookstore.

Get 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.

Check out my website for past newsletters about anxiety and relationships.

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.

What if your love language. . . is your anxiety language?

Gary Chapman’s book The 5 Love Languages has been a constant bestseller for years. People seem to like the idea that the root of marriage problems is a disconnect in how we express love (i.e. one person speaks “words of affirmation” while the other speaks “acts of service”).

Perhaps this is true, but when people come to therapy, I tell them that I’m very interested in learning about their anxiety language. In other words, the automatic ways that relationship systems manage anxiety.

How do you keep things calm in your relationships? How do you expect others to keep you calm? Because you might find there isn’t a disconnect at all—both parties are actively participating in a predictable pattern.

These patterns could look like:

  • One person does too much, and the other lets them.  

  • One person withdraws, and the other anxiously pursues them.

  • Both people insist that it’s the other one who needs to change.

  • Both people worry about/complain about another person (often a child).

If one person in a relationship is willing to interrupt these patterns, then the whole relationship has to change. This means the work can start with you.

So what are your predictable responses when times are tense?

You might. . .

  • Need to be in charge to calm down.

  • Act more helpless than you really are.

  • Focus on how the other person needs to change.

  • Team up to worry about a third person.

  • Team up to complain about a third person.

  • Need constant reassurance to manage anxiety.

  • View compromise as “giving up” or losing.

  • Use another’s immaturity as an excuse to behave poorly.

  • Become allergic to another’s bad mood.

  • Need praise to believe you are successful.

  • Insist everyone do as you do.

  • Automatically view differences in thinking as threats.

  • Shift to more superficial conversation topics.

  • Hide your thinking so that you don’t upset others.

  • Need a third person to be a buffer.

  • Run to someone else to complain.

It is fascinating to observe how people in relationships will shift from one pattern to another. A conflictual couple may fight less when they’re both angry at the same person. A person who overfunctions at their job might abruptly quit, finding that distancing works just as well.

Here’s the good news. There are ways of being in a relationship that exist outside of these patterns. There are ways to be in a marriage without needing a kid to worry about. There are ways to be a leader at work without micromanaging everyone. There are ways to be in your family without needing a scapegoat.

Here’s the bad news. Abandoning your anxiety language is uncomfortable. We wouldn’t do what we do if it didn’t work pretty damn well most of the time.  So are you willing to put up with some discomfort when you turn off the autopilot in tense situations?

Taking yourself off autopilot could look like:

  • Not immediately filling awkward silences with conversation.

  • Letting your spouse do the laundry a different way.

  • Letting your kid fail a test.  

  • Compromising even if it feels like losing.

  • Not hurling insults back when insulted.

  • Talking about your own challenges instead of gossiping.

  • Fixing a problem even if others could do it for you.

  • Being honest even when criticized.

  • Calming yourself down even if your spouse will reassure you.

  • Letting other people be anxious.

Notice that I used the word “could.” People get frustrated with Bowen theory because the theory doesn’t tell you what to do. Differentiation isn’t about the response--it’s about how a response is activated. Is it a response rooted purely in emotion and not in reality? It is a response chosen to calm down the group or to piss them off? Or is it your best attempt to activate your own thinking when emotions are high.  

When you begin to glide without your autopilot every now and then, a funny thing happens. You free yourself up to give and receive love with less pressure and more intimacy. Disconnects in “love languages” don’t really matter, because differences aren’t seen as threats. People are allowed to be themselves.

So this week, consider thinking about the automatic ways you manage anxiety, and how others participate in these patterns.

How do these rigid patterns keep people from being more responsible for themselves? From enjoying each other more?

How would shaking things up on your end make a relationship more anxious in the short-term, but more open, honest, and equal for the long haul?

News from Kathleen

Want to read more of my writing? I’ve started writing a weekly essay for Medium’s Forge Magazine.

I found out this week that Everything Isn’t Terrible will be translated into a 6th language! The Chinese and Polish editions are already out in the world, with more translations coming soon.

Buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books! Please consider supporting your local bookstore.

Get 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.

Check out my website for past newsletters about anxiety and relationships.

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

Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about Bowen theory, as well their conferences and training programs.

Let People Be in Charge of Themselves

Energy is a precious resource in pandemic life. Most people are worn down, worried, and struggling to do the bare minimum. Yet somehow I still find myself using this scant energy to try and manage the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors of others. This is not surprising, considering it’s what humans do when we get stirred up.    

Recently I was having a conversation with a therapy client who poked fun at his very human desire to have everyone like him. “If I pick a restaurant,” he admitted (referring to pre-pandemic times), “Then I will ask people five times whether they like the food.”

“What a wonderful life goal that would be,” I said. “To be able to enjoy a meal even if other people weren’t completely happy with it. And to let people be in charge of telling you if they didn’t like something.”

We both laughed at this idea, but I think it reflects the challenge of being in relationship with others. We want people to like what we like, think what we think, and do what we do, so we can avoid any discomfort or rejection.

I’ve decided that how much I let people be in charge of themselves is going to be one of the ways I evaluate my functioning this year. Because the more connected you are to someone, the easier it is to treat them like an extension of yourself. When we’re stressed, it’s easy to back away, or to overstep and overfunction. But to be in contact, and to treat that person like a capable individual. . .well that’s a true test of maturity.

This year I want to let people be in charge of:

  • Letting me know if I’m being annoying.

  • Asking me if they want advice.

  • Saying “yes” or “no” to an idea I have.

  • Communicating their thinking.

  • Telling me they need to leave/get off the phone.

  • Figuring out how to be “healthy.”

  • Changing the subject if I’m boring them.

  • Knowing when to take a break.

  • Saying “no” if they can’t take on a task.

  • Choosing their own goals.

  • Telling me if they’re upset with me.

  • Completing a task, even if I can do it more efficiently.

  • Remembering appointments, birthdays, etc.

  • Deciding how to structure their day.

  • Deciding what’s “safe” for them in a pandemic.

  • Deciding what books they read or TV shows they watch. (so hard!)

  • Navigating to a new location.

  • Staying in touch with other family members.  

  • Managing their anxiety.

This doesn’t mean that I can’t help people in rough times. It simply means that I’m trying not to shift into automatic overfunctioning as a way of managing my own distress.

My husband is so much better at this than I am. A few years ago I began to notice that he never told me if he thought I was staying up too late. He’d simply go upstairs to bed and let me decide when I needed to sleep. But if I felt I was staying up too late, I’d say, “We need to go to sleep earlier. We’re going to regret this.”

It’s so useful to observe when that “We-ing” creeps into your language and behavior. When you think that others need to exercise the way you do or take the same route to the grocery store. Or that everybody needs to be happy with the restaurant in order for you to have a good time, or remember that Dad’s birthday is on Sunday.

People might calm down when we take over, but they never become more capable. So this week, consider thinking about how functioning for others has kept you from learning how to manage your anxiety in other ways, and kept others from learning to be in charge of themselves.

There is no better gift than having a friend or family member who thinks that you’re absolutely going to figure it out and is willing to walk with you while you do it.

Some additional questions:

  • When do I direct others in order to calm myself down?

  • When do I treat others as an extension of myself?

  • What are upcoming opportunities for me to sit with the discomfort of letting people direct themselves?

News from Kathleen

Want to read more of my writing? I’ve started writing a weekly essay for Medium’s Forge Magazine. Last week I wrote about how we assume everyone’s mad at us when we’re anxious.

Watch my December interview about anxiety, my book, and pandemic stress with the ALSO festival in the UK.

Buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books! Please consider supporting your local bookstore.

Get 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.

Check out my website for past newsletters about anxiety and relationships. Follow me on TwitterFacebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about my therapy practice in Washington, DC or want me to speak to your group. Visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about Bowen theory, as well their conferences and training programs.

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