“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.” ~ E. O. Wilson
Society treats anxiety like a tumor. We have been trying to cut it out, burn it, and act like it’s something that needs conquering. Yet even with this, so many people still suffer from anxiety no matter how hard they try to run away. Maybe it is time to change how we deal with anxiety and instead treat it as a friend. This episode’s guest, Dr. Kathleen Smith, greatly believes in this. Bringing with her the wisdom from her book, Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down, Kathleen joins Jason Wrobel and Whitney Lauritsen to talk about how we can reframe our relationship with mental health issues so as not to be so hard on yourself when we can’t make the necessary change. They dive deep into the ways anxiety and our need for approval affect our ability to function and how we can approach these things from a perspective that is so much kinder. Perfect in this time of great anxiety caused by the pandemic, Kathleen’s insights, tips, and advice offer some light into facing our collective struggles while reminding us to be thoughtful of ourselves as much as we are to others.
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Treating Anxiety As Your Friend: Reframing Our Relationship With Mental Health Issues With Dr. Kathleen Smith
Our guest is someone that we’ve mentioned and dedicated some previous episodes in the past. You may recognized the name if you are an avid follower. Dr. Kathleen Smith is someone that Whitney and I have been chomping a bit to have on the show. We’re excited to have her. I was gifted a copy of her book, Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down. I have to admit that I have been feeling anxiety all morning for this episode. As I’ve been going through the book, reading through these chapters, and how many different subjects and areas of life that are covered from dating, family, relationships, religion, and social media, I could go on and on about how diverse and myriad the subject matter in this book is.
I started feeling anxious because I realized how resonant so many subjects in this book were. I thought, “Where do I even start?” As I was saying to you, Kathleen, I had many head nod moments of like, “That’s how I feel. This is someone who’s putting words to how I feel.” Doing it in a way that’s not overtly clinical or cold. Your book is presenting anxiety and mental health in a way that is so real and approachable. You write it in such a conversational way and it has many relatable stories.
I don’t know that I have a specific jump-off point other than I’ve been feeling anxious to start this episode because I’m not quite sure where to start. I’m thanking you for writing this in a way that has been so resonant for me and sharing these stories that are relatable. It has once made me feel seen and acknowledged without us even meeting. It has also made me be like, “I don’t know what to bring up first.” Welcome and thank you for being here and fulfilling a dream for me and Whitney of finally having you on the show.
Thank you both so much for having me. I’m excited to talk about this stuff in a nonclinical way with you.Your anxiety is always going to run the show if you don't thoughtfully engage with life. Click To Tweet
First of all, Whitney introduced me to your work, and finally getting your book was coming to terms with how I have been looking at my anxiety, clinical depression, and suicidal ideation. A lot of the things that we have mentioned often on the show, and making it out to be like an enemy. One thing that you have this position and perspective in the book that I was like, “That’s interesting,” was when you said, “Making anxiety your friend,” and how society treats anxiety like a tumor. I thought I have been doing that in my life.
I have been trying to cut it out, shrink it, burn it, obliterate it, destroy it, act like it’s this thing that I need to conquer and defeat. I’ve been using phrases in the past trying to conquer my depression or defeat anxiety, and these violent, combative terms around my mental health issues. You positioning it in this way has been interesting because I realized that I’ve been activating this alarm system in my body by treating it in that combative way. It’s been an interesting way to reframe my relationship to my mental health issues instead of feeling like I have to fight them all the time.
We tend to want to categorize things as healthy or unhealthy as humans. We want to put them in those separate boxes. That can be unhelpful because so much of what we do for what our anxiety has us do is human. Recognizing that anxiety is useful, that it fails us in some ways, that we’re too sensitive sometimes and not sensitive enough in others. I don’t think talking about a lot of mental health stuff as healthy or unhealthy is useful because it tends to lead to shaming yourself or feeling frustrated when you can’t make a change.
I talk about this in the book but I tend to think of it as what’s automatic for me as a human, which is very natural and part of our evolutionary heritage. When does that fail me? When is it not useful? When do I want to function in a different way? What ideas do I have about that? Approaching it from that perspective is so much kinder. It makes it easier to change when you recognize that you do what you do for a pretty good reason.
I want to piggyback on what Jason was saying about your approach with this, especially because in one of our episode, we talked a lot about shame, which is similar to how Jason was saying it like he feels anxious about talking about anxiety sometimes. I don’t know if I feel shame about talking about shame but it brings up a lot for me so I can completely relate. I consider your writing and phenomenal newsletter as teaching. What I find so wonderful about your teaching style is you break it down into a simple perspective. I’m looking at one of your newsletters and it was Twenty Ways You Had an Incredibly Anxious 2020.
I love these lists, Kathleen. This is what we’ve covered in previous episodes of the show because when you go through them, you can start to reflect in how you might have experienced anxiety or anxious feelings. I love how you pivot into some ideas for moving through that. It’s incredibly helpful. I’m trying to think because there was a couple in another episode we brought up. I was like, “When Kathleen comes on the show, I want to ask her about this because some weren’t fully making sense.” As we’re speaking, I’m going to go back and try to figure out what those were.
I got sucked into a part of the book, Kathleen. It’s so funny. I have to laugh at myself because I was like, “Which pages do I want to pull from next?” I started to dive into a section where you’re talking about love. I feel like there’s so much fear around speaking one’s truth in life. One thing that I struggle with still in this role of being a people pleaser that I’m trying to get myself out of because I’ve labeled it as a bad thing. Here I am again like, “That’s a bad thing. You shouldn’t be a people pleaser.” I’ve started to look at some of the components of why I feel reticent to speak my truth and how that’s affected my relationships in many ways.
What it’s come down to, which you brilliantly cover in your work is this future projection. My thoughts go to this idea of if you speak your truth, this person is not going to be able to handle it. This relationship is going to end, the contract is going to be over, or your business partner is not going to understand. I find myself observing my brain trying to protect myself from potentially horrible future outcomes that don’t exist yet. It’s like being stuck in this fight or flight thing where there’s no actual sabertooth tiger. Maybe the sabertooth tiger is in the La Brea Tar Pits here in Los Angeles, and might magically resurrect themselves, and then you’ll have to fight them off. I know that’s a bit tangential but it’s wonderful that you talk about this aspect of differentiation.To get through something, you have to go through the middle of it. Click To Tweet
It’s one of the biggest things that has sat with me of separating your thoughts from your feelings, and separating your thoughts and feelings from other peoples. This has been something that seems like it is such a tangled mess of wires in my life mentally. It goes to this idea of if I separate my thoughts from my feelings, then what thoughts do I want to choose to believe are true and what ones do I want to say, “That’s not true and I’m not going to go on that roller coaster.” That’s been a challenge for me. What thoughts do I want to believe in? What thoughts do I not want to believe in?
It’s hard to see the reality sometimes because we are very good at convincing ourselves about potential outcomes. 2020 has been difficult too because the less access you have to other people, the more you imagine their disappointment in you or their frustration with you. It becomes very easy to jump to the worst conclusion for sure. The other thing that’s become apparent with this desire to please others in the last few years is we’re such social creatures. The pandemic has proven that we will please others even if our health is at stake. In my own life, I observe people who someone they care about or someone they want to earn their respect does something.
They get too close to them, or they are visiting and they want to use their bathroom. Things a person told themselves that they weren’t going to let other people do, that they conform or they let it slide, simply because they don’t want to create upsetness in the other person. To me, that illustrates how strongly relationship pressure affects what we do and the choices that we make. As I said before, that’s not good or bad. That’s a piece of being human and recognizing that many of our anxieties and choices are about trying to manage other people and their reactions to us. That’s such an anxious game that especially in 2020, has highlighted how much we do that.
You talk about wanting to be in community. One of the things that I resonate with this moment was a quote that you shared in one of your chapters about finding community. It’s a quote from Jhumpa Lahiri that says, “The essential dilemma of my life is my deep desire to belong and my suspicion of belonging.” It hit me a ton of bricks because I’ve been discussing so much, not only with Whitney here on the show, but with close friends of mine, how I have this seemingly diametric opposition in my heart that I miss getting together with friends at parties. I miss having these tight circles of gathering at my house. I miss playing music shows or going to music shows.
I miss these aspects of community. At the same time, I’m starting to feel so much anxiety in this idea of reintegrating into the world and having these types of experiences. You mentioned something about avoidance of community. It’s your anxiety in wearing the mask of self-denial. I’m wondering how the isolation and rumination in my head, especially during quarantine and COVID, I’ve spent so much time on my own. I’m very much an extroverted person. Whitney is the introvert in our partnership and I’m definitely the extrovert, but I have felt myself pivoting into more of an introverted stance. When I’m around a semi-large group of people even at the grocery store, I start to feel anxious about it. It’s this strange thing that you hit on the head in this chapter of I want to be around people. I want belonging and community but I find myself being freaked out by it right now.
People are going to have to recognize that they’re going to have this larger degree of sensitivity that they didn’t have before. That’s to be expected. That doesn’t mean that anything is necessarily wrong. We will have to relearn how to manage ourselves in the presence of other people, and how to see the reality of what life will be 6 or 12 months from now instead of operating it as if things are the way they are now. That’s a roller coaster to go into pre-COVID times, take all these precautions, and then operate differently again. It takes a while for your brain to catch up.
What I describe in the book is this alarm system that we have. We’re going to have to tinker with it a little bit so that we can more accurately assess what’s scary and what’s completely manageable. That includes health stuff and safety stuff, but that also includes people’s reactions to us and how we operate with other people. To see that disappointing someone, disagreeing with them, having them not be happy with you in the moment, or feeling like you’re boring someone. Those are all manageable things. Being in the middle of it is the only way you learn how to be common, thoughtful, and enjoy yourself. That’s going to take some practice for a lot of people.
I’m glad that you’re bringing this up because I’ve been reflecting on my people-pleasing tendencies. When I acknowledge something about myself that isn’t serving me, my way of handling it is to try to get through it as quickly as possible. I don’t know if that’s a coping mechanism but I’m like, “I don’t like this. I need to fix this.” I’m very solution-oriented in every element of my life. My internal project is how I can be less of a people-pleaser in the ways that isn’t serving me. To your point, Kathleen, I’m somebody that if I’m offending, bothering, irritating, or not making someone happy, I feel very uncomfortable. I had a moment where I was at a grocery store and somebody called me, and I needed to speak to them.
My instinct was, “They’re not going to be able to hear me because I’m wearing a mask.” I pulled down my mask for a second to start to talk. In that moment I’m like, “I’m in a grocery store. I need to put my mask back on.” Before I put my mask back on, there was an employee there that saw me and was like, “Put your mask on.” An hour later, I’m still sitting here feeling shame or something about that like, “I got caught without my mask on. This guy probably thinks I’m a horrible person.” That’s the way my brain has been working. The more I’m aware of it, the more I realize that’s one of my forms of anxiety. It’s not only trying to prevent those things and feeling anxious that I’m going to displease somebody but then it’s dealing with those moments where I did something I wasn’t supposed to do or I did something that bothered someone. I will carry that energy around with me for much longer than it serves me.
I understand this so well. Personally, you get a mean look from somebody. You get an email that feels a little awkward or strange and it can throw off your entire day. It is fascinating how one person’s reaction can affect our mood and our functioning. I love the example you gave. As I said before, it’s not good or bad. It’s useful to recognize the power that other people have on our functioning. To me, the goal is not to be a robot or to never be affected by it. If you think of it as a rollercoaster and can you lower the steepness of the curve. Maybe I get a scary email from my boss or a relative gives me a call and we argue a little bit. It makes me feel anxious or upset a little bit but I’m still able to function that day, and be responsible for myself and do what I need to do to manage that anxiety.Nobody has ever gotten more mature because someone praised them. Click To Tweet
It’s something that everybody deals with. I had a conversation with a client. We’re not obviously going to restaurants now, but when you recommend a restaurant to some friends or you take your family to a restaurant, you need to ask them about five times whether they like the food. That’s how much we want to make sure everyone is happy with our choices. That could be a goal for you this year to have a pleasant meal with people even if they’re not enjoying the food, or to disappoint people on your path towards living the life you want to lead. That’s a great goal to have and a hard one.
That example is so relatable, Kathleen, because I’m a person that if I host a party or if I bring someone to the movies where I’m creating an experience for someone or introducing something to someone, I want to get feedback. I’m hoping that it’s good feedback. I also find myself having trouble enjoying experiences like that because if I find out somehow or they signal to me that somebody is not enjoying something, I want to be able to fix it.
Going back to what I said, that’s a coping mechanism for me. If I can get the right feedback, then I can fix it and make that person happier soon enough. That’s a relatively new realization for me. It’s taken me a long time to get to that place. That’s why conversations like this are so incredibly helpful because it seems obvious to me now but it wasn’t obvious until I had some conversations that led up to that realization about myself. Now, I have the opportunity to reflect on it and think, “Is it serving me to live that way or not?” To your point, Kathleen, it’s not about getting rid of it, never feeling anxious, and never exhibiting that behavior. Maybe it’s minimizing and reducing it, or not putting so much emotional weight on it.
That’s an excellent goal for anybody because I’ve never met a human, maybe you’d have to be a sociopath or something, but who wasn’t affected by those moments. The thing is that’s trying to manage other people. Stepping back and letting people be in charge of themselves, letting them say thank you or share what they think about the restaurant or the movie. People tend to enjoy themselves more, and they tend to not like being asked, “Are you having fun? Is the food good? What do you think?” That causes more anxiety in the short-term. I think of that as a type of over-functioning to try and manage the emotions and the thoughts of others. We waste so much time and energy doing that. Having the goal of letting other people be in charge of themselves is a hard thing to do, but it’s valuable in the long run.
Hearing you say that is helpful to me. It stems out of, “Was I feeling over-controlled?” Using that pattern for myself like, “This is how you function in the world. You try to control people and manage them.” If you look at so much of my life, it is about leadership and management. That aids me in some ways but in other ways, it doesn’t, mostly in the personal sense. I’ve definitely irritated my fair share of people by asking them like, “Are you liking this?” and wanting their feedback. Jason is probably one of them. This leads me into something else that I remembered I wanted to speak with you about, Kathleen, which is about pseudo-self-boosters. We did a whole episode about this. Thanks to your amazing newsletter. In that, we recognize that we didn’t fully understand what pseudo-self meant. In the episode, Jason asked, “Is that a euphemism for ego?” I would love to hear you talk more about what the pseudo-self is and how that plays into the work that you do.
This is related to what we’ve been talking about. For all the readers, this is Bowen Theory. This is the psychotherapy theory that I was trained in. Dr. Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist and he had this theory that you couldn’t tell how mature a person was by observing. As humans, we are masters at appearing more mature, less mature, calmer, more confident, more capable than we actually are because we use praise from other people, acceptance from the group, a fancy job title, other kinds of status, and getting a pat on the back from our boss. These are all external things that boost our functioning. That’s what he meant by pseudo-self. This is something that is changeable and malleable based on who is in the room, how people are reacting to you, and how people treat you. All of the relationship stuff.
What’s at the core, which is what he called the solid self or the basic self was your actual functioning. What you were able to do, what you believe in and value, and that wasn’t negotiable based on who’s in the room or how people are treating you. Pseudo-self isn’t a bad thing. I work in Washington, DC and what I found with my therapy clients is humans are pretty similar in a lot of ways, but there are a lot of people in DC who take a lot of pride and get a lot of pseudo-self boost from their job title or the work that they’re doing.
I work with a lot of people who lose their job, or they get a boss who’s terrible, and all of a sudden, they’re depressed. They can’t do work as well as they used to. They recognize that their functioning has been propped up by all of these external things. They need to learn how to evaluate themselves objectively or as objectively as they can without relying on that praise or that approval because they’re not always going to get it. The more that you can learn to do that, the better off you are. That goes back to making that roller coaster less steep when you have a bad day, when you have a bad boss, or somebody sends you a mean email. That’s the simplest definition of it.
What comes up for me as you’re describing the pseudo-self, Kathleen, is how many layers of conditioning that we have a chance to look at as adults. A mentor of mine once said that he believed most human beings were children in adult bodies with technical educations. I said, “What do you mean by that?” He said, “There are a lot of conditioning, coping mechanisms, and behavioral patterns that we co-opt as children for survival, that we bring into adulthood that doesn’t necessarily serve us anymore as trying to be functioning mature self-assertive adults.” When you talk about these, it makes me reflect on when Whitney brought up people-pleasing and I think about tendencies or ways of being that I adopted in childhood for some sense of survival. I had different aspects of trauma in my childhood.
Now that I reflect on some of my behavioral patterns as an adult, I remember, look back, and think, “That’s why you adopted that behavior because you think you needed to do that to survive.” “As long as I’m the funniest person in the room and the most entertaining, mommy and daddy are loving me then I’ll never be abandoned.” There are a lot of different personal examples I could bring up. This is maybe a sweeping generalization but a lot of these coping mechanisms or need for validation, attention, or approval significance are motivated by certain childhood traumas or situations that people are not yet fully aware of, or that they are trying to unravel that no longer serve them in adulthood.
Bowen Theory in particular as a family theory. Our position in our families, the role that we play, how our parents interacted with us, and how anxious they were about us, all of these things affect how we function as adults. Often, families vary in their sensitivity to stress and dealing with challenges. Some families seem to do better than others. We learn from our families and from other people we interact with as kids, for sure, how important is approval. How bad is it if you disagree with us or you believe something different than we do? If it’s very bad to be different, if it’s very important to please people, or it could be the opposite, it can be very good to be a rebel. We adopt these different values and different thinking about relationships. It absolutely has an influence. Whitney, when you were talking, I was going to ask you if you were the oldest in your family or if you were an only child.
I am the oldest.
That’s not atypical for an oldest to feel over-responsible for others and to be more keyed into other people’s reactions. That’s a natural position that a lot of people fall into. It’s not just family but understanding how our families react to upsetness or anxiety in other humans plays a pretty big role.
First of all, I’m an only child. One thing that I’ve observed in adulthood that in the midst of this conversation was a connection piece that I’m not sure I fully ever put together was this tendency that I’ve observed as an adult to want to be a peacekeeper, whereas I realized at one point as an adult that not all of my friends were going to like each other or get along. I have these compartments of friend groups that are because of different interests, hobbies, professional career, or family. For a long time, I had this belief system that everyone had to get along or moreover, everyone had to like each other. That was important to me.It's such a relief to know that you have your whole life to work on yourself. Be a curious researcher of yourself. Click To Tweet
I want everyone to like each other but as I’ve got older, I realized that people sometimes don’t like each other. I can love all of these people in my life and care for them deeply but I’ve realized that I have taken on a role of trying to be the peacekeeper and make sure that everyone likes each other. If I go back to my childhood and the disillusion of my parents’ relationship, I remember in that context being very young and thinking I need to be the peacekeeper. I need to be the one keeping peace in the household. How can I dissolve the anger, tension, violence? I’m trying to do that as a child. Realizing as an adult to try and do that, it’s crazy-making for me because it’s way too much to take on energetically to try and say like, “Is Mary getting along with Susie? Is Susie getting along with Amy? Does Amy like Todd?” “No, they don’t like each other.” “Shit, how can I fix this?” Realizing I don’t have to fix it. That’s very much a carry-over from childhood when thinking I have to keep the peace, I have to fix this, I have to make everything okay. It’s so tiring to try and do that now.
That goes back to what we said about it’s not a good or bad behavior. It’s a way that you learn to manage the tension for better or worse. Sometimes, it works well. Sometimes, it doesn’t but what is the cost of always assuming that position in your relationships. It’s exhausting. I’d imagine it’s anxiety-producing and you divert a lot of energy towards managing things you can’t manage. Being able to claim back some of that energy, and also sit with the uncomfortableness of people not liking each other is a great skill to have.
This comes up too when I have started dating a new person in my life, then family and friends want to weigh in on their assessment of that person, and the energetics of the romantic relationship. How often I’ve noticed certain people in life being like, “I don’t think they’re right for you. I don’t think this is going to work,” and giving me all these reasons. You alluded to it Kathleen having this mentality of the basic self. It seems to me that there’s this responsibility of, “I’m the one in the relationship. I’m the one making this decision. The people in my life are not responsible for this decision, nor is it their job to take it on.”
For some reason, that’s one thing that I’ve noticed over and over again in my romantic relationships. A lot of people want to comment, weigh in, and give their perspective. It’s one of those things where we’re ultimately the ones responsible for the decisions in our lives. One thing Whitney and I have discussed is when people provide unsolicited advice, or weigh in on their opinion when I don’t ask for it, that’s a massive trigger for me. I’m still getting better at learning how to respond to those moments rather than react with some defensiveness. In a romantic context, it seems to be something that comes up a lot for me. It’s interesting to observe that.
What has helped me at least is recognizing that is an anxious response that other people have as well. When you share news with them and share something going on in your life, that people will try to fix it, manage it or give advice. It makes them all annoying but it doesn’t make them a villain or someone who thinks you’re not capable. It makes an anxious person who worries and tries to manage others to keep things calm. Recognizing that is a response a lot of people have can help you solidify that boundary and say, “I hear what you’re saying but I think about it differently. I want to see if this works out or not. This is worth pursuing. I’m interested in being with this person right now. I’ll let you know if I need some advice, but I’m doing okay.” That’s easy to think of when you’re not in the moment because you do become defensive. Having phrases like that in your arsenal that are not snippy or defensive. They’re saying, “I’ve got this.” People might not be happy about that, but people who are able to respond calmly have a better chance of the other person hearing them.
One thing that comes up a lot in our conversations in our work is the role of social media and having access to the thoughts, opinions, comments, remarks, emails, and DMs of millions of people around the world. I suppose one part of our brains might still be wired for this more intimate tribal situation where not so long ago in human history, we had this container of a very small group of people that we cohabitated with. Maybe we didn’t know anyone more than 20, 30 miles away from the village, town, or the city where we grew up and lived in, and generations of our families did now.
It’s interesting to see what social media and social media relationships are doing to mental health and our sense of self. I’m curious in your line of work as a clinician, author, and someone who is on social media and has a public presence, what’s that’s been like for you to manage especially when you get critical comments? In general, how do you think it would be beneficial for human beings to navigate this brave new world?
I don’t think we’re quite used to it yet. It still feels to me very much the Wild West, and that our brains haven’t necessarily caught up to the deluge of information, comments, and relationships that we are bombarded with, and feel we need to manage every day. It’s a long-winded question but I’m curious what your opinion is on how you interact with social media in your personal and professional life. I suppose what you’ve seen in your clinical work of how other people are struggling with handling this in their day-to-day lives.
There are many ways I could go with this. One thing I was talking about with my therapy clients is, have you thought about what it looks like to thoughtfully engage with the internet, social media, your phone, etc.? If you don’t have a working definition of what you’re striving for, your anxiety will always run the show. I don’t know if any person who’s ever signed up for Instagram or Facebook asked themselves, “How do I thoughtfully engage with this platform? What’s the right amount of time? Why am I using this? How would I know if I were getting something positive out of it?” Those are all useful questions to check in with yourself about from time to time.
For me personally, the barometer I use is what we talked about with that bounce back time of how quickly I can recover after I get a mean tweet or a mean email. I have a long way to go but I have noticed progress. I’m thinking of one example. This isn’t social media. It was right at the beginning of the pandemic. I send out a newsletter every now and then, and it’s free. At the end, I always say, “If you’re interested and more, here’s my book, you can buy it.” I got an email from this guy who was saying, “You’re a terrible person. How dare you try and profit off of people’s suffering?” It was wild.The pandemic has proven that we will please others even if our health is at stake. Click To Tweet
I was able to read that. Of course, it made me feel not great at first but then I thought, “People are anxious right now.” I could see this guy’s reactivity as a sign of what was going on. I was able to take it less personally. That objectivity is not always easy to access but recognizing and seeing people’s behaviors as anxious responses, and then asking myself, “What do I think is my best way to respond?” It goes back to that reacting versus responding. Sometimes, that means not replying. Sometimes, it means I need to share my thinking a little bit more with this person.
It never usually means a snappy comeback or hurling insults at somebody but focusing on my end of it and not trying to manage the other person or make them like me is the only response. That goes back to, “I’m never going to be a robot.” I’m always going to feel that anxious reaction because someone doesn’t like me or doesn’t approve of me, but it’s great practice. If I can think of that, “Here’s another opportunity for me to manage my anxiety and to get back and focused on what I think is going to be a good day or what I need to do in this situation.” It sounds terrible but I don’t know any other way to get better at it than to be in the middle of it.
That’s such a great line. I don’t know any other way to get out of it than be in the middle of it. That might be one of our quotables for this episode. This topic hits close to home for me and Jason. We actually did at least 1 or 2 episodes discussing our responses to intense emails or messages we’ve received and a third came to mind. This has come up a lot in our show. It’s so true because you have to take each of them one at a time. Sometimes, they catch me off guard with how they affect me. I love that perspective of recognizing that this is an anxious time for us collectively but trying to do our best to understand where this person may be coming from.
In many cases, they may be struggling or suffering and lashing out for whatever reason. They are triggered by something we said. It’s fascinating for me because I don’t tend to react that way publicly or directly to somebody. That’s not how I behave. It’s hard for me to understand and relate to other people who write cruel comments online, send emails that are harsh, or leave a bad review. We’ve talked about it a number of times on the show. I don’t understand that way of living. That’s part of what makes it challenging. We talked about when we don’t understand someone, we have the tendency to judge them a lot and be like, “How could this person do this?” We start to get into this self-righteous place of like, “I would never behave that way. I must be in the right and they must be in the wrong.”
That’s always an interesting place to catch myself in. It’s like, “Just because I don’t do the thing that they’re doing, it doesn’t mean that makes me better than them, and that means that this person is a bad person.” It’s an interesting knee-jerk reaction to have that. We’ve also talked about how people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The truth is we might not remember that we’ve behaved that way but perhaps we have in the past. It’s a very human reaction to respond to somebody and in a harsh way without realizing that maybe it’s a little uncalled for and misdirected.
It’s corny but nobody has ever got more mature because someone praised them. We get mature and we grow up in those moments where somebody is coming at us with their immaturity, we choose to go to that level and respond in that same way, or we choose to behave the way we’d like to behave. That’s that differentiation piece. When people are immature, reactive and mean, it’s a pretty good excuse to behave the same way. People who are able to take on the mindset of, “Another person is upset with me,” instead of saying, “Here’s another opportunity for me to work my way through this, stay above it, and be thoughtful. Maybe the next time, I can laugh at it,” or I can say, “Next email. Next comment. Next review,” or I can ask myself, “Is there anything useful in this feedback or not?” If you say no, then I’ll move on here. Those are the growth edges and moments. Even small progress makes such a huge difference.
Another thing that came up while Jason brought up this question around anxiety and social media is something I started to experience. I’m curious, Kathleen, if you’ve noticed this with other clients or if I’m on the extreme end of a spectrum here. I’ve struggled with sleepwalking and sleep talking for much of my life. It comes out in interesting times and people often ask me like, “Do you think you’re feeling extra anxious? Is that why that happened this evening?” I can never predict it. Sometimes, I’ll do some crazy behavior in the middle of the night. It seems obvious that it would be related to anxiety. I must be stressed, feel anxious, or processing something but it’s not super clear to me.
I’ve noticed it’s tied to social media. In fact, specifically, I’ve been having sleepwalking episodes of me thinking that I didn’t turn off a live video or something. I’m sleeping live on whatever platform. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night panicked like, “I’m live right now. Everyone saw me sleep,” or I need to be doing something. I’m supposed to be in a live meeting or something on social media and I’m late. It’s weird and it’s even hard to say out loud. It’s all related to social media. It’s been intense for me. I’ve been trying to figure out how to manage it. I’m also simultaneously wondering, how many people are carrying their feelings about social media, the pressure, stress, and anxiety of social media into their sleep with them because so many people struggle with sleep issues? People have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Maybe other people exhibit sleepwalking or talking like I do. Maybe it’s a collective anxiousness that’s happening from this go-go hustling side of social media.
That would be a fascinating thing to track, Whitney, to see if over time you felt less pressured or less sensitive to how you engage with it, whether that made a difference in your sleep habits. It would not surprise me if it did.
It’s getting to the point where I have to track it. I haven’t even told you this, Jason, but for anyone who is interested in sleepwalking, people tend to want to hear these stories. I woke up somewhere between 2:00 and 4:00 AM and I grabbed my phone because I thought that I was supposed to be on a live Clubhouse specifically. It’s an app that we’ve been using which has a live audio. I was like, “I’m supposed to be on Clubhouse right now.” I grabbed my phone, jumped out of bed, and because I was asleep or at least partially asleep, I slipped and hurt myself. It was a minor injury but I was like, “This is not good.”
Clearly, there’s some level of disturbance happening that’s causing my body to react in this way. I could injure myself. This isn’t the first time I’ve injured myself through sleepwalking. That’s usually my cue that I need to shift something. I have to change up my routine and become more thoughtful. What I’ve noticed is like anything else, it’s not like I can flip a switch and turn off anxiety. It’s a process. It’s something I have to be very intentional about. I have to experiment with it. I have to track it to your point. I’m almost grateful for that though because within my personal experiences through this, I can also learn more about how to support others that might be feeling a lot of anxiety through social media too.Many of our anxieties and choices are about trying to manage other people and their reactions to us. Click To Tweet
Part of the challenge is that with technology, I talk about this a little bit in the book, that back in the day if somebody wanted to make you anxious, they had to come over to your house. Now, I can text someone or post something on my social media and I have this immense power of affecting other people’s emotions. When that’s a part of your day 24/7, there’s no real respite from that. Part of the challenge is how do I thoughtfully engage with it, but how do I also recognize that I am influenced by other people, and that relationship pressure is still there even if I’m in my house by myself. I don’t think that people have given a lot of thought to that. There’s this famous quote by a biologist, EO Wilson, I’m going to butcher it. He said something like, “The ancient emotions or primordial emotions, and God liked technology. The combination of the two can be quite dangerous.”
That hit so hard. It feels like we have these things at our behest now, and yet we are still reacting in such primitive ways. It’s fascinating to think about what technology is going to do to us. As a tangent, there are certain theories. Yuval Harari talks about homo deus, this merging of technology and humanity. Some people refer to it as the singularity where humanity and technology becomes one. I get anxious sometimes thinking about AI. It’s interesting you hit that, Kathleen, because I find myself having reactivity to technology.
It’s almost like a love-hate relationship whereas in this pandemic, I have felt a lot of gratitude for things like FaceTime and Zoom, and the ability to keep in touch with my family whose 2,500 miles away. I’ve only had a lot of contact with people through these digital mediums but at the same time, I’m teetering on a line of addiction to it. My lifeline to stay in connection with the people I love has sometimes given way to seeking out these dopamine hits through social media, being on Zoom calls, taking FaceTime calls all the day. I’m still working out how to responsibly manage the possibility of being addicted to these devices while acknowledging I have a deep desire to stay connected with the people that I love. It’s a conflict for me because I don’t want to be addicted to devices but I do want to stay connected to the people I care about. It’s tough. It’s a daily challenge, to be honest.
It’s a challenge, especially they are designed to have you be addicted. Is there a thoughtful way to beat the algorithm or do you throw your hands up and say, “I can’t do this?” That’s something that has yet to be determined. I think of people in my own life. There are people I know who engage with technology, their phones, and social media thoughtfully. There are examples of it and whether that’s having conversations with those people, observing their behaviors, and how they use them, and seeing if you can glean some wisdom from that. I’m hopeful it can be done. It becomes more challenging every year as the technology gets more complex.
That reminds me of something I saw in TikTok that I thought was fascinating. This girl went and made a video about how she’s going to stop using social media for the next three months so that she can focus on working on herself. That’s the only video she has in her account. It has received six million views. She now has a million followers because everybody is waiting to see what happens when she comes back from social media, and what her life is like after taking that break. I thought that’s fascinating. It seems like she means it.
She said, “After I post this video, I’m deleting TikTok,” not meaning deleting her account but keeping her account up so that she can come back to it, but deleting it from her phone so that she’s not going to use it. It was neat because she looks like she’s in her twenties or maybe even in her teens. She’s setting this example for people that you can engage thoughtfully with social media, and/or you can not use it at all, and go focus on your life offline. It’s important to see more messages like that because social media has dominated so much of our lives personally and professionally. It feels like we can’t disconnect from it sometimes.
The way I think of it is whatever you choose to do, can you ask yourself, is it a reactive position or a thoughtful one? There’s a thoughtful way to disconnect and say, “I’m going to take a break. I want to see what I can do with myself.” It sounds like that’s what this young woman is doing. The opposite of that is a reactive one and say, “Forget this. I’m deleting all my apps.” I talked to a lot of young people about dating. The same issues come up, “Do I use dating apps? Do I not?” I talk about this in the book. I call that attacking the problem. It’s saying, “It feels good in the moment to get rid of all this stuff.” That doesn’t necessarily change the way you behave and the way you interact with other people. That’s a way to calm you down temporarily. Sometimes, it means you need to go back, engage, and think a little bit differently. If you want it to be a part of your life where you have this goal for yourself whether it’s professionally or personally. To me, it’s not necessarily what you’re doing but how you come at the decision.Whatever you choose to do, ask yourself, is it a reactive position or a thoughtful one? Click To Tweet
One thing that I want to talk about, Kathleen, is your encouragement to play the long game with all of this. That’s so refreshing. That was another eye-opener in your book. As we begin to practice being more self-responsible, our anxiety may increase. I thought, “That’s relatable.” In the sense of I’m in therapy. I have a great therapist and I’m working on myself right now. There are things coming up where I’m like, “I’m going to practice certain things to be more responsible.” Some of it fits the framework in what your book is talking about of being a more mature person. I have had so much anxiety around speaking up, asserting myself, and being more self-responsible.
It was a moment in your book where I’m like, “It doesn’t mean that I’m going to practice this for a week or two weeks and then my anxiety is magically going to go away.” This idea of playing the long game, I want to crack that nut open a little bit because we’re in a society that encourages such quick fixes. I’m not throwing pharmaceutical drugs under the bus but as an example, “Take this pill. Go to this weekend course. Work with this guru. Read this one book and this thing that you have been trying to avoid, you hate about yourself, or you’re not going to deal with is going to vanish.” In your position, we need to look at the long arc of working on oneself and being more self-responsible. First of all, it’s wonderful and I’d love for you to speak on it for a moment or two.
The entire system is rigged against it. Insurance companies don’t like it. They want people in and out in eight sessions and be “cured.” When you’re upset, distressed, or have a crisis, of course, you want to solve it as quickly as possible. To me, it’s such a relief to know that you’ve got your whole life to work on this stuff. That small changes make a huge difference. I think of myself personally. I’m an only child and I was raised to be over responsible for people and to direct others. I definitely did that work with family members and others for a long time. As I began to learn about Bowen Theory, I began to see that, I began to step back very slowly and failed a lot of times at it.
Fifteen years after the fact, being able to look back and say, “How did I ever live that way?” I don’t think I’m a particularly mature or naive person. It’s quite the opposite, but I am able to see how paying attention to it, observing it, being curious about it, and trying to do something differently, maybe 10% of the time, it all adds up. Also being able to talk to other people who’ve been working on themselves and their relationships, and are not so hard on themselves and can find some humor in it. It’s a huge relief. That doesn’t mean you need to pay for expensive therapy for 30 years.
It means you need to keep being curious about yourself and use the part of your brain that solves problems and asks questions instead of the part that’s freaking out all the time or assuming the worst. For a lot of people, that does mean going to therapy, but for a lot of people it’s the practice of being a researcher of yourself and observe how you interact especially with other people in those relationships. That curiosity is contagious and it can make a big difference in the long run. To me, that’s what it means to play the long game.
One comment you made, Kathleen, that brought me some ease when you said I’m not a particularly mature person. One thing that Whitney and I have talked about is both of us have this dream that we’ve had of maybe we both want to become therapists. We have a couple of close friends that are wonderful therapists and you’re here with us. It’s something that I have thought about holding myself back from the idea of pursuing that because I have all this psychosis I’m working through. I’m this anxious person, depressed person, I’m working through all of my bullshit, trauma, and belief systems. In some ways, I’ve used that as an excuse to not even investigate the idea of going and getting my Master’s or doctorate and becoming a therapist because it does interest me as well as it does Whitney.
I’m curious if that ever comes up for you, Whitney. Sometimes, I feel like, how am I going to help anyone when I’m so screwed up? It’s a judgmental thing to say about myself but I feel like that innocuous little comment you shared, Kathleen, was like, “Kathleen doesn’t have it fully together too. That’s a good reminder. She’s a human too. She’s doing great work, helping people, and supporting people.” I felt the need to thank you for that comment and for being so real with that because it made me reflect on how I’ve held myself back from potentially pursuing this new career field because I’m like, “You can’t do that. You’re too screwed up.”
Therapists have a natural curiosity. If you’re curious about yourself and other people, that’s the mindset that counts. You guys mentioned all the lists in my newsletter you think that are great because they’re so relatable. Those are easy for me to make because I asked myself, “What did I do that I wasn’t proud of?” I’m using myself as an example most of the time. I’m able to be objective about it and not be hard on myself about it. That’s what makes the difference. It’s not so much my behavior as it is my reaction or response to it. A lot of people are drawn to the helping professions or to the mental health field because they feel like they’ve had some challenges in the past, but they want to keep talking about it. They don’t like small talk very much. They want to get right to the heart of things because they have that curiosity.
Who knows? Maybe it will be something that Whitney and I decided to dig in a little bit more. As I mentioned, we have some great close friends that specialized in different forms of psychotherapy. It’s something that whether we decide to pursue it career-wise or not, it’s always going to be such a fundamental part of this show. Kathleen, it’s been a fantastic and wonderful exploration with you. For the readers, if you want to take a deeper dive into Kathleen’s wonderful work, we have mentioned her phenomenal book, Everything Isn’t Terrible. It’s something that I am so joyful with because you have many great references to the Star Wars prequels.
You mentioned Point Break and Keanu Reeves. It’s written with such a lighthearted approach that I feel like I’m sitting down with a friend who speaks my language. For you, dear reader, if you enjoy someone who goes deep into the psychology of anxiety, securities, calming down, and also has some killer pop culture references, you’re going to dig this book. Kathleen, we appreciate you getting deep with us and sharing more of your story and your work. It’s been such a pleasure having you. It’s been months and months in the making. I feel a deep sense of satisfaction having you here. Thank you so much for being with us.
Thank you both. It’s been great.
*We use affiliate links in our show notes. This means we receive a small sales commission if you purchase an item based on our recommendation.
- Everything Isn’t Terrible
- Dr. Kathleen Smith
- Twenty Ways You Had an Incredibly Anxious 2020 – Article
- The Anxious Overachiever
- Fan Girl Therapy – Twitter
- Kathleen Smith – Instagram
- Pseudo Self-Boosters: Overcoming Temporary Cures for Self-Confidence and Self-worth – Previous episode
About Kathleen Smith
Dr. Kathleen Smith is a licensed therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.
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