Distancing from others is perhaps the quickest way to calm down. 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 people, initially energized by all those video chats in early COVID-19 days, have begun to internally withdraw from other humans.
Distancing can bind up anxiety, but this behavior has a 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 relation to other humans.
How do you use distance to bind anxiety in your relationships? Do you see yourself in any of 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.
Distancing isn't always a bad option. 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 uncomfortable conversations. 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.
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 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?
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