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.

20 Ways You Had an Incredibly Anxious 2020

And how this can help you think about 2021.

Have I been too hard on myself, or not hard enough?

This is a terribly unhelpful question I often ask myself.

After a year like 2020, it’s easy to waffle between intense self-criticism and total absolution from working on yourself. But this is the challenge of growing up—to walk the middle line by staying curious about how you function and who you could become, even in darker times.  

To muster some of that curiosity, this week I’m reaching back into the past to access a calmer, more thoughtful version of myself (the version that grabbed doorknobs with abandon and ate food in buildings that weren’t my house).

Last December I wrote an article for Thrive Global I called, “20 Ways You’re Going to Have an Incredibly Anxious 2020.” I wasn’t prescient enough to have the pandemic on the list, but I think the anxiety of COVID-19 only intensified the examples I gave.

Take a look below at the list I composed for the article. Was I correct? Do any of the behaviors remind you or yourself over the past year?

20 Ways You Had an Incredibly Anxious 2020  

  • You borrowed standards of success from the world around you. 

  • You tried to force people to agree with you politically.  

  • You avoided everyone who seemed anxious or distressed.   

  • You quickly borrowed solutions from others without using your own thinking.

  • You focused more on your kid’s responses to stress than your own. 

  • You rigidly defined what a successful year would look like. 

  • You acted as if your anxious imaginings are reality. 

  • You used all your energy to seek praise and attention.

  • You assumed you knew what others were thinking. 

  • You didn’t define how you want to respond to troubling news stories.  

  • You didn’t share important information with family members.

  • You tried to make others act more mature.     

  • You vented to others without first trying to calm yourself down. 

  • You tried to teach your family how to not embarrass or annoy you. 

  • You relied on others’ reactions to evaluate yourself.

  • You overfunctioned for everyone when you felt frustrated. 

  • You avoided situations where rejection and disappointment were possible. 

  • You conformed to your friends’ opinions to not upset them.  

  • You convinced yourself that another person must change in order for you to calm down. 

  • You prioritized alleviating the anxiety of the moment, even if it compromised your own principles and beliefs. 

It’s important to remember that all of these behaviors are automatic, even adaptive reactions to stress. They’re not particularly creative, but they can be quite effective at calming you down temporarily. And the more stressed you are, the harder it is to interrupt them—even if you’d like to behave differently. Many are examples of what Dr. Murray Bowen called borrowing self, of relying on the thinking or the cooperation of others to manage distress. Even in a year of social distancing, most of us still managed to use each other to fill in the gaps of our own maturity.  

One example from that list tapped on me on the shoulder: You rigidly define what a successful year would look like. Earlier in the year I wrote about how flexibility is a sign of maturity, and the challenge of not holding one’s self to 2019 standards in a 2020 world. But I can’t say that I lived up to this definition. By setting unreachable standards for my own work, I became even less effective. I let my anxiety distort my ability to evaluate myself objectively, and it’s almost impossible to feel motivated when you’re not operating in reality. It’s also hard to be honest with yourself and others about what you can and cannot do.

Shifting from borrowing self to building self is a lifelong journey. But to give you some ideas, I’ve reversed my list of anxious behaviors for you.

20 Ideas for Growing Up in 2021

  • You take the time to define what you really value.  

  • You share your thinking without trying to manage the reaction.

  • You work on managing your own reactivity around anxious people.  

  • You take time to access your own thinking before polling others.  

  • You focus on managing your anxiety while relating to your children. 

  • You generate your own objective, flexible, and attainable definitions of success.

  • You take time to gather facts when you feel distressed. 

  • You try to evaluate yourself more objectively.

  • You ask people what they are thinking rather than guessing.

  • You define how you want to respond to big issues and events.

  • You share important information with family members.

  • You work on your own maturity rather than forcing maturity on others.

  • You try to calm yourself down before sharing challenges with others.

  • You focus on how you want to respond to challenging family members. 

  • You use your own principles to guide your actions.

  • You let others be responsible for themselves. 

  • You treat rejection and disappointment like they are manageable.

  • You share your thinking with friends, even when they may disagree.  

  • You focus on managing your own anxiety instead of managing others.

  • You accept the reality that some anxiety is the price of growing up, of living a life driven by your own thinking and beliefs.

Are there one or two examples on this list that could use your attention in 2021? Or even better, do you have your own ideas about what how to interrupt some of those anxious, automatic behaviors?

If I could give you one word to take into 2021, it would be curiosity. To look at your functioning with less disgust, and even less reverence, and acknowledge that you are just a human doing predictable, universal human things in the face of stress. Shutting off this autopilot takes a great deal of flexibility, patience, and creativity. It requires you to be curious about what could finally happen when you navigate life with own best thinking instead of your anxiety.     

News from Kathleen

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

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.

It's Your Responsibility to Be Self-ish

How managing other people's emotions can make you less capable.

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?

Being less responsible for others could look like:

  • Not trying to mind read so much. 

  • Letting people be upset without trying to fix their problems.

  • Letting people do something more slowly or less efficiently than you would.

  • Letting people navigate their own relationships with others.

  • Letting people try and fail at something.

  • Treating people like they can handle your thinking.       

  • Letting people reject your work. 

  • Not turning other people into projects when you feel bored or anxious.

Being more responsible for yourself could look like:

  • Getting clearer about your own beliefs, values, etc. 

  • Taking more responsibility for your physical and mental health. 

  • Constructing a clearer definition of how you want to function.

  • Getting interested in setting and completing goals.

  • Learning to better self-regulate your own emotional reactivity.

  • Practicing defining your thinking to others.

  • Being more present and thoughtful in important relationships.

As nice as it sounds, being more self-directed is an anxious endeavor. But over time, your brain begins to learn that negative emotions in others are survivable. And that you are only responsible for your own responses. It’s such an easy thing to know, and a hard thing to embody. 

Additional questions:

  • What are the relationships where I’d like to be less other-focused and more self-focused?

  • Are there goals or tasks in my life where other-focus has kept me stalled?

  • What would it look like to be guided by my own thinking instead of the real or perceived reactions of others?

News from Kathleen

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

Buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books!

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.

50 Ways We Fake Maturity

and how they can keep us from growing up.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how difficult it is to assess a person’s level of maturity. 2020 has been a lesson in what happens when you dial up the stress and take away all of the relationships and other variables that tend boost our functioning and self-esteem. For many of us, our capacity to think, solve problems, and direct our lives has taken a nosedive in this more anxious, more isolated pandemic world.

How people react to us affects so much of our functioning.  If you don’t believe me, how productive are you after you get a mean email or a positive one? How well do you perform when your boss praises you, or after your team wins the championship? Some people are energized by conflict, and others function better when they’re far away from the drama. Regardless, these are all external variables—they have little to do with “self.”

Our pseudo-self (a Bowen theory term for part of us that is changeable due to relationship pressure) can make us appear more mature than we really are. And the functioning of the pseudo-self can be enhanced by a number of boosters that can temporarily make us more capable, less anxious, and generally happier. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

Pseudo-Self Boosters

  1. Being very busy

  2. Living hundreds of miles from your family

  3. Living next door to your family

  4. Relying on a therapist’s approval or advice

  5. Having an impressive job title

  6. Getting good grades

  7. Being perceived as apathetic about grades

  8. Receiving attention on social media

  9. Not using social media

  10. Being perceived as a rebel

  11. Being perceived as selfless

  12. Getting constant reassurance from your partner

  13. Having a partner who will take on an undesirable task

  14. Having a partner who will let you control everything

  15. Being picked as the leader

  16. Over-focusing on a child’s successes

  17. Over-focusing on a child’s struggles

  18. Having a child depend on you

  19. Obsessing over a celebrity or other interest

  20. Avoiding family conflict

  21. Engaging in family conflict

  22. Living in a neighborhood where everyone is like you

  23. Living in a neighborhood where no one is like you

  24. Having friends who share your beliefs

  25. Having friends who disagree with your beliefs

  26. Being the most experienced person in the room

  27. Being the youngest or oldest person in the room

  28. Being the most attractive person in the room

  29. Being the first in your family to accomplish something

  30. Being the first in your family to not do something

  31. Drinking or getting high to feel more social

  32. Needing caffeine to be productive

  33. Achieving a certain weight

  34. Getting married

  35. Getting divorced

  36. Using superstition to make choices

  37. Having a buffer at a social gathering

  38. Converting to a religious group

  39. Leaving a religious group

  40. Needing a friend to worry about

  41. Needing a partner to “fix”

  42. Being seen as a mess

  43. Being seen as unflappable

  44. Playing the peacemaker in a group

  45. Playing the troublemaker in a group

  46. Being seen as a mentor

  47. Getting praise from critics

  48. Having your political candidate or sports team win/lose

  49. Hearing your name was mentioned in a conversation

  50. What else comes to mind? ____________________

The items on this list can make us temporarily stronger, calmer, and more capable. But they don’t necessarily make us more mature. None of them are good or bad. It’s only human to feel great when someone praises you, or more comfortable when people agree with you. It’s just that over-reliance on these boosters can make life feel like a rollercoaster ride of intoxicating highs and excruciating lows. Or like a video game, where we need a certain number of points of approval, attention, or agreement to begin to set goals and go after them.

So what does it look like to get off this rollercoaster, and to work on building a more solid self? I think it looks like making decisions that are guided by your values, beliefs, and principles, instead of decisions that are guided by relationship pressure (aka those pseudo-self boosters). This requires you to:

A)    Know what you believe, what you want, and who you’re trying to be.

B)    Put that thinking into action, especially in emotionally intense situations where others might disapprove.

So if you’re an overachieving student, who would you like to be when you get a C? If you and your spouse love focusing on your kid, what do you want your marriage to be like when the kid moves out? If you love to drink at social gatherings, how do you want to relate to people when there is not a drop of alcohol in sight?

These are the moments where the self can shrink back, or it can step forward and learn to dance with the anxiety of progress. This is when we are challenged to use our internal navigation system to find a way forward, instead of relying on a nod or a frown from the audience.

As long as you’re breathing, you’re going to borrow a little bit of confidence, calmness, and capability from what’s around you. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But consider what it might look like to begin the slow work of learning to define yourself, and be guided by yourself, so you can keep moving forward on the days where there’s nothing you can borrow from others.

News from Kathleen

Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with Rev. Dr. Andy Burnette on his podcast, The Long Haul. We talked about Bowen theory, navigating holiday drama with family, & not letting social media manipulate our brains.

 Read my latest essays at Medium’s Forge Magazine:

Want me to speak to your group? I’ve been doing a lot of presentations on managing anxiety during the pandemic.  Contact me for presentation options.

Buy my book Everything Isn't Terrible from AmazonBarnes and NobleIndiebound, or anywhere you buy books!

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

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