I had a lot of goals when the pandemic started. I was going to run more and organize the closets. I’d be cranking out these newsletters, doing 20,000 podcast interviews, and writing letters to friends like in olden times. Instead, I’ve been plowing through romance novels, going on long walks with my family, and getting more comfortable with dishes in the sink.
Did you feel a sense of relief when you read that first paragraph? After all, we do love to be told that we’re too hard on ourselves. We love it when people give us permission to set aside our to-do list and enjoy what we were going to do all along. Hundreds of articles have flooded the Internet lately, reassuring us that we do not have to be mega-productive employees or super parents in this difficult time.
But the problem isn’t that I’m too hard on myself. It’s that I need someone else to tell me not to be. When anxiety rises, so does the impulse to borrow calmness and direction as quickly as possible. This is how we end up with endless headlines that tell us to slow down, calm down, and scale down our expectations. As if we were incapable of coming to that conclusion ourselves.
There is a place for these messages. I’m often asked to write about them, and I enjoy doing it. But it’s also important for people to know their own mind. To look at the facts and be able to determine the best way forward, without needing permission from a friend, their therapist, or an article on the Internet.
I’ve sought out permission from many people lately. I needed someone to tell me that it’s okay to turn on Sesame Street when I have to wipe down the groceries. That I can go ahead and schedule a future hair appointment and reassess as time passes. Last night when two friends on Zoom told me they’d also had tater tots for dinner, my tot-induced guilt was instantly relieved! But I know that I am capable of making these decisions based on evidence and my own reasoning.
So many of our relationships function as a marketplace for what Dr. Bowen called the borrowing and lending of self. Getting permission to function a certain way temporarily relieves the anxiety, but it doesn’t equip us to navigate the challenges. It doesn’t teach us to sit with the discomfort of determining our own thinking. It doesn’t help us stay calm when other people make difference choices than we do.
Need a diagram? Here you go:
When you look at this diagram, you can see it’s not about just the WHAT (your behavior). It’s about the HOW. How do you make decisions? How do you decide what’s safest for you and your family? How do you measure what a good day, or good work, or good parenting looks like? Does it look like borrowing the most convenient definition from Google or your friends, or does it look like doing the hard work of knowing the facts and defining your best thinking?
My challenge right now isn’t to function a certain way. It’s to rely less on relationship pressure to determine HOW I function. It’s not just about wearing or not wearing a mask when I go outside. It’s whether my decision has less to do with others’ approval or disapproval, and more about what I think is the best course of action (based on the facts and guidance of experts). It’s not about whether I clean the kitchen or take a nap. It’s whether my decision has less to do with the state of other people’s houses, and more to do with how I’ve decided to be responsible for myself.
So this week I’m challenging you to not just focus on the WHAT, but the HOW. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
· How am I making important decisions right now?
· How am I evaluating myself?
· When does reliance on others’ thinking prevent me from discovering my own?
News from Kathleen
Upcoming talks – Join me for an online seminar on June 17th via the Family Systems Institute in Australia. I’ll be talking about how to stay curious when everything feels terrible, and how thinking systems is useful in this anxious time. It’s the evening of the 16th for those in the US. Learn more here.
Invite me to your Zoom Happy Hour! Want me to talk about anxiety to your work group? Shoot me an email.
New Anxiety Journal! The folks at Hachette Books have helped me create a new, 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.
Buy my book! If you haven't gotten your copy of Everything Isn't Terrible yet, you can buy it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound, Target, or anywhere you buy books! But I encourage you to support your local indie bookstore. The book is also available in e-book and audio book form.
If you're new to the newsletter, you can check out my website for past newsletters about anxiety and relationships. You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, or email me if you have questions about the book, want me to speak to your group, or want to learn more about my therapy practice in Washington, DC. You can also visit the Bowen Center’s website to learn more about Bowen theory, as well their conferences and training programs.