When your life is consumed with anxiety, you can feel like you are going crazy, but I can assure you that you aren’t. And none of the other people in your life who deal with anxiety are either. All living things are anxious. At its core, anxiety is merely an expression of our instinct to survive. When you’re anxious, you’re alert. You’re ready to react. So, anxiety isn’t a dysfunction or birth defect, it’s what gives us the push to do something in response to a threat. However, issues arise when we don’t apply a helpful response to that threat, usually because we aren’t understanding it clearly or accurately. In our daily lives, we encounter many people and situations that our instincts might perceive as a threat. When that happens, we usually react with our emotions, instead of assessing the situation with rational thoughts. When we react from instinct and emotion, we tend to apply a solution that’s counterproductive; we behave in ways that distract us from the real threat or make the threat worse. Below is an example of how this might playout.
Gabrielle came to see me for therapy because she was feeling distant and disconnected from her parents. As we got to talking, Gabrielle explained that she’d found she could dodge her parents’ criticism by simply not talking to them about what was bothering her. She never told them what she really thought, and this contributed to a lack of communication between them. Gabrielle felt threatened by her parents’ disapproval of her, so she distanced herself and hid her true feelings from them. Her natural reaction to the perceived threat was to hide; however, that way of managing her anxiety around their disapproval and criticism wasn’t giving her the type of connection she truly wanted with them. Was it Gabrielle’s fault that she wasn’t connected with her parents? No, not necessarily. It’s natural to want to distance yourself from people you feel threatened by. However, if her true goal was to feel closer to her parents, she would have to try a different approach—because her approach was only containing and displacing the anxiety, rather than actually addressing and resolving it.
Without us being conscious of it, we all shape the functioning of everyone we’re in relationship with, in a continual and reciprocal process. When anxiety and stress is expressed in one person, it reflects the functioning of that person’s relationship with another person. You see, we’re constantly responding to each other at a very subtle level. If I have to stay away from you by distancing, it means you’re important to me and how I feel about myself. We’re all very tuned into each other; so much so, in fact, that we can think of our family as one nervous system. We’re so interconnected that our emotional responses get in the way of our ability to have good, solid relationships. The quality of our relationships depends on how much room is there for each person to maintain their individuality, while remaining connected to each other. We can’t fully control the stressors in our lives or our natural reactions to them, but we can improve our coping skills, by learning how to respond more effectively to these stressors.
Gabrielle wasn’t able to maintain a solid sense of herself or stay confident about her decisions in the presence of her parents. Her parents, anxious about her ability to make the right decisions in her life, were trying to offer advice based on their experiences to ease their own anxiety. This had Gabrielle feeling anxious, leading her to dodge any meaningful conversations she might be able to have with them. They were so interconnected, that their emotional responses to each other were keeping them from truly connecting. However, because of this very interconnection, any member of the family has the power to change how the family operates, by changing their responses and behaviors.
When you see that you aren’t crazy, and that your family isn’t crazy either; when you understand that there’s a larger systemic process at work; when you grasp how anxiety gets transmitted, and what makes you feel anxious, then you can decide what you’d like to do about it. In Gabrielle’s case, she decided that, if she wanted to have a better relationship with her parents, she would need to work on maintaining her authenticity by not editing herself around them. She worked on managing her anxiety around their criticism and her natural urge to be accepted by them. She worked on developing herself, by coping more effectively with the high level of emotions she experienced around her parents. She got more objective about the threat her parents actually posed to her well-being and sense of value. And all of this allowed her to connect with them more meaningfully over time.
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