Distancing is perhaps the quickest way to bind anxiety. We move across the country from our parents. We stay late at work to avoid our spouse. Or we never share our real beliefs with friends who might disagree. It’s also why many of us, initially energized by all those Zoom calls in early COVID days, have begun to internally withdraw from other humans.
Physical and emotional distance are adaptive—we wouldn’t engage in them if they didn’t help us manage our anxiety. But distance has its price. We lose the opportunity to build real person-to-person relationships, and to work on our own maturity, when we automatically withdraw. When we let ourselves choose immediate calmness, we often forsake our best thinking about how to be in relationship with other humans.
How do you use distance to bind anxiety in your relationships? Do you see yourself in any of the these examples?
Becoming very busy at work to avoid your family.
Using alcohol or drugs to avoid sober conversations.
Moving across the country to avoid your family.
Only talking about sports or the weather.
Canceling on people at the last minute to feel instant relief.
Texting someone when you should probably call them.
Avoiding listening to an important voicemail.
Only talking about your kids when you talk with your spouse.
Lying about your beliefs to avoid a disagreement.
Only seeing your family on duty-visits.
Asking someone lots of questions to avoid sharing about your own life.
Ghosting a date instead of telling them you’re not interested.
Saying “I’m good,” “I’m fine,” “I’m ok,” etc. when you aren’t.
Changing the subject when you sense people are anxious.
Not introducing yourself to coworkers who seem intense.
Not initiating conversations with people who look different than you.
Avoiding talking to people who are sick or dying.
Not talking about past family history that is anxiety-producing.
Bringing up a difficult topic during the last two minutes of therapy.
Not engaging in conversations that are hard but important.
Turning on the television at family gatherings.
Double booking so you have an easy out at a gathering.
Planning non-stop activities to keep everyone busy.
Assuming people aren’t interested in hearing about your passions.
Minimizing your accomplishments to make others comfortable.
I don’t think all of these behaviors are bad or unhealthy. At times, fleeing the room or changing the conversation may be your best bet for navigating a sticky situation. But when there is a pattern of distancing, you have to ask yourself an important question: Is this my best thinking, or my just my anxiety at work?
The good news is that there are other ways to manage your own anxiety than creating distance. The bad news is that these actions usually require a bit more temporary discomfort. They require you to spend more time with your family as you learn how to be yourself around them. They require you to engage in hard conversations about race, politics, religion, and history. They ask you to put down your glass of wine or turn off the TV. Or put your phone away and say, “Actually, I’m not doing great. Let me tell you what’s been challenging for me lately.”
Change doesn’t happen when we always choose distance. Change happens in relationship with other humans. When we are willing to sit down and sketch out who we’re trying to be, and then look for opportunities to activate that image in real time.
This week, I encourage you to think about how distancing has led you to present a watered-down version of yourself in your relationships. And what it might look like to lead with “self,” with your best thinking, instead of your anxious autopilot.
Here are some questions you can ask yourself.
How did my family use distance to bind anxiety?
How do I use distance to bind anxiety?
What are other ways I can calm myself down as I engage with others?
What are upcoming opportunities for me to interrupt my distancing habits?
News from Kathleen
I was on the Sexy Marriage Radio podcast, talking about how to dial down the anxiety when you talk about sex throughout a marriage.
I was talking about solid self and pseudo-self on my Facebook page.
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Anxiety Journal -The folks at Hachette helped me create a free digital resource to supplement your reading of my book, Everything Isn’t Terrible. It’s called Calming Down & Growing Up: A 30-Day Anxiety Journal, and it includes thirty daily prompts to help you reflect on and respond to your anxious behaviors, using the ideas in Everything Isn’t Terrible.
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