EIL: Everything I've Learned

Dr. Kathleen Smith on Bowen Theory and Understanding Anxiety

December 22, 2021 Mark Armstrong Season 1 Episode 6
Dr. Kathleen Smith on Bowen Theory and Understanding Anxiety
EIL: Everything I've Learned
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EIL: Everything I've Learned
Dr. Kathleen Smith on Bowen Theory and Understanding Anxiety
Dec 22, 2021 Season 1 Episode 6
Mark Armstrong

Dr. Kathleen Smith is the author of Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

I first discovered Dr. Smith's work through her must-read newsletter—she's an expert in Bowen Family Systems Theory, which looks at anxiety through the lens of our relationships. We don’t exist in isolation—we're constantly reacting to others around us, in our families and relationships, at work, and on social media.

This was a fun conversation, so thanks again to Dr. Smith. You can learn more about her work at kathleensmith.net.

Special thanks to Ashley Smith for additional production support. 

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

Dr. Kathleen Smith is the author of Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

I first discovered Dr. Smith's work through her must-read newsletter—she's an expert in Bowen Family Systems Theory, which looks at anxiety through the lens of our relationships. We don’t exist in isolation—we're constantly reacting to others around us, in our families and relationships, at work, and on social media.

This was a fun conversation, so thanks again to Dr. Smith. You can learn more about her work at kathleensmith.net.

Special thanks to Ashley Smith for additional production support. 

Support the Show.

Kathleen Smith: If sitcoms taught us anything, is that you could be highly allergic to your family and still be close to them. So…

Mark Armstrong: Hi, everybody, this is Everything I’ve Learned, a podcast about lessons, mistakes, and other turning points. I’m Mark Armstrong. As always, you can support the show by going to eil.show/join. You can also leave a review and a comment at Apple Podcasts. 

During the holidays, a couple of years ago, I stumbled on a newsletter from a therapist, Dr. Kathleen Smith. The subject line was, “The Trouble with Fixing Your Family.” Rather than outlining a bunch of unrealistic tips about how you should act when you get together with family over the holidays, she suggested: “Putting on your researcher hat and merely observing your behavior and observing the behavior of others.” It’s this ability to step back and see how anxiety manifests itself in all of our behaviors.

And it serves as a great starting point for Dr. Smith’s book, which I recommend. It’s called, Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down. Dr. Smith is an expert in Bowen Family Systems Theory, which looks at anxiety through the lens of our relationships. We don’t exist in isolation. We’re constantly reacting to other people or projecting our anxieties onto others to manage it. 

Dr. Smith and I chatted right before Thanksgiving. And the conversation is especially relevant during the holidays when families are getting together. But it’s relevant anytime, really. We discussed everything from parenting to social media. So there’s a lot to learn from stepping back and observing ourselves. So, here’s Dr. Kathleen Smith. You can learn more about her book and newsletter by going to Kathleensmith.net. 

So, how’s everything going in a DC right now?

Kathleen Smith: Lots of Thanksgiving conversations, talking with people about how they want to be calm and mature for at least 24 hours when they see their families in a couple of weeks. So, it’s like the Super Bowl for me. I love it. I love thinking about it.

Mark Armstrong: Is that actually technically possible to sort of put everything that you teach into one focus 24-hour period? 

Kathleen Smith: Well, my goal when I see my family is always, can I last a little bit longer before I regress into my teenage self? And even an extra half hour every year, I consider that progress.

Mark Armstrong: Yes. Is there any way to not do that? Should we accept that it’s going to happen? Or do we need to fight it? How do we handle that? 

Kathleen Smith: I think a little bit of both, to not be surprised when you revert to what’s automatic for you. It stabilizes things to a degree—to be able to laugh at it and not take it so seriously, I think could be useful for folks, certainly. But I think having a plan, bringing your best thinking into it, can make a difference.

And perhaps people who live five minutes from their families and have contact all the time are able to get more practice and are able to be a little bit more mature than the rest of us who’ve got some distance.

Mark Armstrong: That’s a good point, just in terms of proximity and the frequency of connecting with family like that. So you see that as a benefit, if you’re around them a lot, you’ve got some practice versus if you’re only reserving it for these major events, then you’re piling anxiety on top of anxiety. 

Kathleen Smith: Sure. I mean, you can have access to your family all the time and not be thoughtful about it, right? If sitcom’s taught us anything, is that you could be highly allergic to your family and still be close to them, so…

Mark Armstrong: Well, thank you again for being here. 

Kathleen Smith: Yeah, it’s great. I mean, I never get tired talking about thinking systems, so…

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. And it’s funny because I was looking back at when your book came out, and it was—was it December, 2019? So it was just like a couple months before everything shut down. 

Kathleen Smith: It was New Year’s Eve 2019. But I was doing all the promo stuff in January, February, and then kind of got cut off in March and, you know? Well, suddenly lots of people wanted to interview me about anxiety. It was something people were thinking about, but I wish it hadn’t happened that way. I wish I had gotten some attention without a pandemic having to happen.

Mark Armstrong: Yes. So, now that we’ve been at this for a while, what you wrote in that book, are there amendments that you would make, given what we’ve been through over the last couple of years? Or do you feel like, oh, this holds up to everything that you wrote about. 

Kathleen Smith: Well, it holds up to everything I’ve been, as a student of Bowen Theory. I certainly didn’t come up with these ideas myself. We do fairly well as humans with challenges. It’s the relationship disturbances caused by the challenges that really trip us up.

It’s not so much the problem, it’s how everyone is anxiously reacting to it. And not to discount the challenge of the pandemic itself, it’s just sort of everybody else’s kind of chronic anxiety getting in the way, of coming up with thoughtful solutions to something as big as this. That has confirmed to me that humans, you dial up the anxiety. We only really do a couple of predictable things. 

And the ways we have stabilized our families, our relationships, society, at some point you introduce a certain amount of stress and the wheels fall off the wagon, so to speak. The things we could sort of get by doing for better or worse, all of a sudden, don’t work anymore when times are really tough. And I think that, you know, America in general in the last few years have certainly kind of proven that in a number of ways. And it’s not been fun to see, but it’s been interesting to kind of see how some of these ideas operate on a societal level as well.

Mark Armstrong: So, on a societal level, people behaved as you had predicted essentially. And what about coming out of it now, are there things that you’re learning and that we’re learning about…?

Kathleen Smith: Well, I mean, I’ve always considered myself a semi-awkward person, which is an interesting trait to have as a therapist, but I do think that when you add distance into the equation, it’s so much easier to imagine people are upset with you and annoyed with you.

And that is the beauty of the one-to-one or the face-to-face contact. Some of those hypotheses get disproven. People perhaps are less scarier than you imagined to be. And so that would be my hope, that as people were able to sort of have more one-to-one contact, maybe less virtual contact, that they might calm down a little bit—maybe not in the short-term, it might be awkward at first, but in the long term, I think it’s incredibly useful.

Mark Armstrong: Did you hear that from your clients and people you work with in terms of imagining relationships spiraling, whether it’s like a delayed reply to a text or even the language of a text or the use of punctuation, like…well, a lot of spiraling based on perceptions of what’s happening versus being able to just get in a room. 

Kathleen Smith: Yes. And I’ve experienced it myself, you know, a colleague that I haven’t seen for a while, they’ll send me some critical feedback and it’ll just upset my whole day, right? Whereas if we had just been in the office together and they had pointed this out to me, I would have said, “Oh yeah, you’re right.” and I wouldn’t have seen it as such a threat. But you add in that distance, and I think it’s so much easier to react strongly, too soon you’re about to be fired or that somebody really has it out for you or is being unfair to you. With a lack of data, our imaginations tend to run wild.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. Well, I wonder if we get step all the way back here. Your book, which is wonderful, really opened my eyes about all of the different ways relationship sort of intertwine with anxiety. And this is all based on something called Bowen Theory. So maybe you can tell me a little bit about, anxiety itself and Bowen Theory, and how you got into the study of that in the first place. 

Kathleen Smith: So, Bowen Theory comes from a guy named Murray Bowen. He was a psychiatrist in the 20th Century and sort of the father of family psychotherapy. And he was a brilliant man and also quite ambitious. He wanted to develop a theory for human behavior that described what happened sort of in the natural world, but also what happens in how humans interact and relate to each other.

Up until then, psychotherapy and the mental health world—and it’s still very much so today—is very individually focused. But he sort of had this idea that the individual’s not really the smallest unit when you’re thinking about emotions. He saw the family as sort of the smallest unit and that because we’re social creatures, we do things in relationship to each other to manage anxiety, to manage stress or threats, and that there are patterns in a family, in a group, in an organization, in society that get activated as a way of managing stress, for better or worse, and that if you introduce enough stress or enough anxiety, we kind of get locked into these ways of managing it. 

And so his definition of anxiety was very simple. When I say anxiety, I’m not talking about, this is a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder, I’m talking about reactions we all have, and that every organism has when we sense a threat. Whether it’s real or whether it’s imaginary, we need to be able to act quickly to manage the threat, to escape the threat to survive, right?

And so this built-in response can be very useful, but if we aren’t able to really accurately assess a threat, it really gets thrown out of whack and we end up causing more trouble than the trouble itself, so to speak. 

And so he worked with people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia for a while, and he observed how the state of the family and how well the family fared. The family doesn’t cause the mental, but a person’s outcome has a lot to do with the family’s response to it. And he was curious about sort of, what are the variables? What makes the difference? How are some groups of humans or some families able to do fairly well and then others, when you introduce a certain amount of stress, they have a lot of symptoms, things tend to fall apart? And was that a variable that you could tinker, that you could work on, that you could improve and would that make a difference in your life, but also in the future generations of the family. And he called that a differentiation of self or just differentiation, for short.

So that’s what I do as the Bowen coach, as the therapist, is helped people think about what it looks like to be more differentiated in an anxious family, to be able to think and act for yourself, even when other people aren’t happy with it, even when you get pushed back. Even when people are very eager to tell you what to do or to function for you, what does it look like to kind of work on that muscle?

Mark Armstrong: So, to clarify, so this is the ability to focus on yourself, but realizing that all of the different interconnected relationships are going to have an impact on how you behave and how you react and respond, is that right? 

Kathleen Smith: Right, because he saw that there were these two great forces at work, and in our relationships, there’s individuality, but there’s also togetherness. You know, the group needs to act as a whole to respond to certain things that’s helped us survived as a species, but people also need to move in their own direction to set their own goals, to know their own minds.

And so often what will happen in families or in groups is there’s just too much together. People’s capacity to think for themselves, to not just sort of automatically go along with things, gets hampered. And a person’s ability to be able to do that, to be able to sort of be in a way that’s consistent with one’s own thinking and reasoning—not that that can’t change over time—is useful because it’s not just sort of the group taking over an acting. There’s more flexibility, there’s more creativity in how you relate to other people, if you’re not just sort of doomed to sort of forever repeat these patterns.

Mark Armstrong: And so this sort of goal of differentiation is the ability to separate thoughts and feelings. And then the ability to then separate those thoughts and feelings from the thoughts and feelings of the people around you, right? 

Kathleen Smith: Yeah, I’m not a basketball fan, but I do use a sports metaphor for this when I work with clients. I talk to them about, it’s sort of like being able to hit a three-point shot. You can learn the mechanics of that and you can do it very well individually. But then all of a sudden, you’ve got other humans coming at you, who are very invested in you not making that shot, right? Can you still manage to do that? 

And I think of, you know, maybe going home for Thanksgiving is the same idea, you know, can I move in the way that I think is best, the way that I think is right when mom’s not going to be very pleased with me? Or maybe people are very pleased with me, and then all of a sudden, my focus shifts to that and what’s going to keep people happy versus what’s the right response. How do I not sink into sort of the immaturity of that?

Mark Armstrong: And you had a good comparison for anxiety in your book as something like a smoke alarm.

Kathleen Smith: So, I think of my anxiety as a smoke alarm, you know, it’s designed to protect me, to alert me to danger. but just because the alarm goes off doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a threat, right? I give the example. I’m not maybe the greatest cook in the world. My smoke arm in my kitchen goes off all the time, I don’t run screaming out of the house when that happens. I calmly stand up on a chair and take the battery out and then ask my husband to put it back up later, cause I’m too lazy to do it. 

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. 

Kathleen Smith: I try and remember that when I get a mean email from somebody, or somebody gives me a strange look, or I anticipate that maybe someone won’t agree with me on something, right, is my response doesn’t match sort of the reality of what’s presented or am I sort of blowing things out of proportion. This is the variation you get in families, is the ability to sort of tolerate difference or temporary upsetness. Some families are able to do that better than others. And that sort of has to do with the overall level of differentiation of the people involved.

Mark Armstrong: Was this sort of— in terms of your own career and your own pursuit of this, was this something that was based on your personal interest or personal experience that led you into studying this and then also becoming a therapist? 

Kathleen Smith: Absolutely. And I found it so helpful in so many ways in my life. At first glance, you’d think I wouldn’t be that interested in family therapy because I’m an only child. So there are just fewer players involved. My mom died when I was in college. So right now, in my family of origin, it’s just me and my dad.

But you know, all of these patterns are present in any family of any size. It’s very useful for me to think about sort of across time, what were the patterns that my family used to stabilize things when they got very stressful? Based on my position in my family, what am I likely to do when you dial up the stress? Only children are a lot … like, oldest children, we tend to be overfunctioners, we tend to be helpers. We tend to be very comfortable when we’re in charge and very anxious when other people are. 

And so if I’m not careful, for example, as a therapist, if someone comes to me and they’re very distressed, if Im’ not thinking about my own work on differentiation, what am I going to do? I’m going to jump in and tell them what to do, overly reassure them, function for them, which is ultimately not helpful for them in the long run. And that applies to other relationships in my life. And so it’s useful for me to think about, well, how do I manage my sensitivity to other people’s distress in a different way than just taking over or being over responsible for them?

It’s uncomfortable for me, but it’s very useful for me to practice that and it helps me get better at it over time. It also helps me blame my family member less for things. When I see the system operating as a whole, it’s harder to label one person as the problem you’re able to say, oh, yeah, it makes sense that they would do that because this is their peace and sort of the bigger equation.

And so I think that helps me have better relationships with people because I’m not labeling certain people as the villain or the victim, and I’m not trying to tell them what to do. I’m just thinking about how do I want to relate to them and how is that useful for them for me to be a little bit more thoughtful.

Mark Armstrong: It feels like the ultimate practice to have this line of clients coming in every day and you having to a sort of like, step out of that and be party to it, but not necessarily fix it. Did that take a lot of work? 

Kathleen Smith: It still takes a lot of work every day. I can so easily lapse into it. I mean, anxiety is a powerful drug. I can so quickly take on another person’s distress. It’s a lot easier to do with people I’m related to, but even with a stranger or someone I don’t know very well, it’s just so contagious. Your way of responding to it just becomes so automatic.

Mark Armstrong: One big piece of Bowen Theory, as you explained in the book are triangles, essentially. Tell me a little bit about triangle. 

Kathleen Smith: Yeah. So this is one of the concepts that Dr. Bowen came up with. He had this idea that at some point in time, it doesn’t take very long for a two-person relationship to become tense or unstable. And so what we tend to do is to pull in a third person to help manage the tension, and that’s what he sort of called a triangle.

And the more anxiety there is in a group or a family and an organization, the more automatic and the greater number of triangles you’ll see. I mean, I think most of us who’ve worked in any kind of organization can see how triangles were just exploding everywhere when times were tense.

And so it can take on different flavors. So one example would be, you know, if I’m not getting along with someone, I call a friend or I talk to my spouse at the end of the day and vent about it and say, “You know, you won’t believe what so-and-so did,” or I might pull in someone to fix it and say, “Well, you go after them and fix them.’ 

But another type of triangle is sort of two people whose relationships get stabilized by focusing on a third person. So say that there’s some anxiety or tension in a marriage and all of a sudden, a kid starts having a hard time and both parents are very invested in helping the kid, that can stabilize the marriage to a degree by both parents putting anxious focus on the child. 

Now that is to the detriment of the child, because all of a sudden, all the anxiety is going in their direction, but that’s another way. So another flavor of that would be if you both hate the same person, you’re both gossiping about the same person and that’s how you get along, right?

Basically, a triangle is sort of a pulling in a third person or focusing on the third person to stabilize a relationship. And it’s useful to think about, you know, what triangles exist in my day-to-day life? And when is that an opportunity for me to go back to the original relationship and work on building a stronger one-to-one with this person, so we’re not always pulling in other people into the drama or into the tension? And it’s not easy to do, but it’s useful to sort of pay attention to them in your day-to-day life.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. I was thinking a lot about your chapters on social media, and maybe it’s too broad a stroke, but is social media, one of the pieces of a potential triangle there in terms of the relationships that are on the screen versus the ones in real life, would you see that as one in the same? 

Kathleen Smith: Yeah. I mean, there’s always been this debate in the Bowen Theory world about whether technology or something that’s not a person can be one end of the—or even like animals, you know, people say, can somebody’s dog be in the triangle? I know there’s all these great debates about who could be in a triangle.

And I would think of it as, you know, if you’re reaching out to, for example, say random people on Twitter to agree with you when you’ve been wronged, I mean, those are other humans on the end of that, right? So in a way, that is a triangle. 

I mean, another way of thinking about it is, you know, we tend to sort of, what Dr. Bowen called “borrow self” from other people when we are distressed. And so if we can’t quite trust our own thinking about something, or if we treat other people’s thinking as more powerful than our own, right? We are very quick to borrow sort of calmness, reassurance, expertise from others when we are sort of worked up. 

And so, yes, I guess that is a triangle, but I would think of it more in terms of borrowing self from others. And how much of ourself is propped up by people’s reactions on social media, to us. How much of that do you use to regulate your own anxiety, but also to evaluate yourself, and how unsteady a measure that can be.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah, this gets to the idea of pseudo self, right? What does that mean exactly? 

Kathleen Smith: Yeah. So, pseudo self is the piece of ourself that is negotiable based on who we’re interacting with, or who’s in the room. It’s not really based on our own thinking and reasoning and our experiences and evidence we’ve acquired or things we’ve read about and learned. It’s sort of this way of anxiously quickly adopting beliefs or positions on things to deal with a challenge. And I think that it’s useful to a degree, right. But it’s much more susceptible to anxiety in the long run, because it’s very changeable. It’s not really rooted in much. 

And I thought about this when I got married and I had people from all different time periods and different physical spaces where I had lived. And all of these people were coming together in the same room. And it made me a little anxious because I had realized that I had been sort of different things to different people. People who knew me in church growing up as a kid, thought of me very differently than people I went to grad school with, you know, or people who are my friends now. And I realized I had no choice, but to just be myself, right. Because trying to just sort of anxiously change when there are different people present is impossible. 

But I mean, another way of thinking about this, and this is a little bit different than pseudo self is Dr. Bowen kind of had this idea that you can’t really judge how mature a person is just by looking at them or observing them because we are propped up by all these different things, that help our functioning. And social media is another piece of that, whether it’s beliefs we’ve anxiously borrowed because everyone else is signing up for them. They make us feel confident or like a moral crusader or whatever, but also just people’s positive responses to us, people treating us like we’re important. That can boost your functioning temporarily, but it doesn’t really say a lot about how mature you actually are.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah, the things like seeking approval, waiting around for likes and retweets and things like that, right, that feeds in it? 

Kathleen Smith: Yeah, absolutely. And it exists outside of social media as well. Obviously, people who have a boss, who’s giving them positive feedback all the time are going to function a little bit better than a boss, perhaps who’s more indifferent or less likely to do that. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing, but it’s useful to think about: Well, how do I build up my actual functioning, so on a day where I’m not getting good feedback, or when people aren’t noticing me, I can still kind of chug along.

Mark Armstrong: Is that the goal, which is to really free ourselves from that feeling of seeking approval to be able to function versus simply being confident and mature in ourselves and our daily life and our habits? 

Kathleen Smith: I think it’s one of the goals. I think of it as sort of the steepness of the rollercoaster. The reactions or anticipated reactions of other people don’t cause my functioning or my mood to climb or drop as steeply, if that makes sense, if you think of sort of a rollercoaster where they’re really high highs and really low lows, and then one that’s more of a kiddie coaster, right?

That’s sort of what I’m striving for is, yeah, it’s going to affect me if I assume somebody is not going to be happy with me, but how much? Can I get out of bed that day and keep doing things, or to just completely reroute my ability to think and to function.

Mark Armstrong: Does that affect you? I mean, you’ve created a lot of amazing content. You’ve written a book, you’ve got a great Instagram feed and newsletter and all of these things like, do you fall into that? 

Kathleen Smith: It absolutely affects me and always will. I think most people who learn about Bowen theory consider themselves pretty low on the scale of differentiation. I think it’s very humbling, you know, because I’m thinking about this all the time. And I set very low goals. It’s like, “Oh, this person sent me an email and it only fried my brain for five hours instead of eight today. That’s a victory, right? But I think about—I’ve written two books now and I think comparing the state of my mental health after each one, because the first one really messed me up.

And the second one, it wasn’t so much about the success or lack thereof of the book, it was, I had sort of come up with a better way of evaluating myself outside of other people’s reactions. And I think having those metrics is useful for me. 

I think my newsletter has been one way to do that because I don’t really take much feedback. I don’t ask people, what do I need to write about this week? What did you like? What did you not? I just write about what’s interesting to me and what’s been challenging with me in my work and I try and sort of just keep chucking along with that versus, you know, every time you send an email with a newsletter, you get a bunch of unsubscribes, right?

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. 

Kathleen Smith: So not necessarily using that as the metric has been helpful, but yeah, of course, it affects me, but it’s useful to think about it and play around with how do I get a little bit more objective about myself? It’ll be a lifelong process. Hopefully, I’ll be a lot better at it when I’m 70.

Mark Armstrong: Well, you mentioned the first book messed you up. What was it that you kind of [inaudible 26:56]

Kathleen Smith: I don’t know. I mean, I can’t pinpoint anything. I just think I was just really anxious all the time. I was very focused on how people were responding to it, responding to me and more sensitive to those reactions and that’s not been something I’ve been kind of reaching for as a metric this time around. I’ve tried my best to just focus on what I’m curious about. I mean, I am very lucky because I’m writing about something that I find incredibly useful. It’s an attempt to describe what humans do. 

Mark: So, in your book, you use the word “maturity” as kind of the ideal. How do you think about that definition?

Kathleen Smith: Yeah. I mean, some people get worked up, they say, “Why do you say anxiety versus maturity? Isn’t that shaming people who are anxious?” But I think of it as automatic versus thoughtful functioning, is another way of putting it, to be able to sort of do a little bit better, to present a little bit more of what Dr. Bowen called “self” and how to other people, to focus on the one variable you can control to a degree, which is how you respond to really challenging things or really challenging people. And I think that’s where you get the most bang for your buck, that’s what makes the difference, right? But as humans, we’re tempted to be focused on everything else and what’s wrong with everyone else. And it’s hard to flip the switch back and focus on yourself.

Mark Armstrong: And you make a joke about tools in your book. As we come up to the holidays, and as we think about, working on ourselves in relationship to others, what are some basic things that we can start with? 

Kathleen Smith: Well, if a person is thinking about this for the very first time, I would say set the bar super low—not to focus so much on change, but on the capacity to observe what’s happening. So, Dr. Bowen described this as sort of being able to kind of hover above the football field and see the plays, you know, from above versus what’s happening on, you know, if you’re on the field as a player, I call it sort of taking the press box view, or the astronauts view. You know, go home as an anthropologist and just see what are the patterns, you know, and if people are interested, they can read about this. I write about what the patterns are—what patterns get activated when people get pissed off at each other? What does the family do to keep things calm?

And can you appreciate that it works to a degree? Maybe you don’t want to participate in it. Maybe you want to do something differently, but have an appreciation for these patterns, they’re adaptive. I don’t think of them necessarily as maladaptive. We’re trying our best in how we relate to each other. And then ask yourself, what’s my part in all this? Can I respond a different way? Can I respond with a little bit more flexibility? Can I move towards people and be interested in them and share what’s interesting about me and not worry so much about the reaction or what people are thinking? But that’s hard to do. 

In the book, I call it the high-altitude training, like athletes go to higher elevations to get that sort of competitive advantage. Doing this work and observing yourself and your family, you can do it anywhere, but it really makes the biggest difference with the people you’re the most allergic to, and the people where that force of togetherness is the highest. 

So, if nothing else, just go home and collect some data. And then, does that give you an appreciation for people and help you be less hard on them and less hard on yourself? It’s certainly been useful for me. 

I mean, I give this example in my writing all the time. I sound like a broken record, but I think it’s a great one. I have a grandmother who’s still living and she manages her anxiety by piling food on people’s plates. And it really used to annoy me, because you wouldn’t want anything more to eat and you’re trying to do your best, right, and then make good choice, and she’d fly by and drop a roll or a piece of pie on your plate and just food bomb you. 

And I get really upset with her, I’d snap at her, I’d try to teach her how to not do that, and eventually, I just focused on managing my own anxiety to it and, you know, letting her do what she needed to do to calm herself down with the tension of everybody, or the excitement also of everybody being there. And that’s such a benign example, but we’re just so allergic to each other. Those small things can really get us worked up. And so to me, that was a big victory.

Mark Armstrong: It also makes me think of things like, there was this great anecdote, I think from Steve Martin at one point, he was talking with the actor, Charles Grodin, about a fight that had broken out on the set of one of their movies and he had wanted to rush in and break up the fight. And Charles Grodin said, “Oh, no, I like to watch, just watch.” And I’m like, that’s just so against everything that I know, in terms of trying to mediate or prevent conflict versus like really just dive in there and watch it. And I’m curious where that comes in, which is the ability to even handle conflict in the first place and be party to it and take it in. 

Kathleen Smith: Sure, you can interrupt what you don’t understand, right? So I think most of us could say that trying to swoop in and teach people how to behave better is rarely effective. I mean, I’ve certainly tried. And so seeing what everyone else does and then really kind of being honest with yourself and say, well, what am I doing?

But certainly, I think, you know, we often try and interrupt…That’s the other piece of the triangle, right? We were very focused on the relationships we’re not a part of and how they need to be different. It’s much harder to think about oneself and one’s own relationships.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. I feel that that’s where Twitter is very addictive, which is you…

Kathleen Smith: Oh, man, Twitter is the textbook definition of that, right? Focusing on others to manage self, you know, how much of a boost in functioning do I get, seeing somebody piled on? I mean, it’s sad, but it’s true.

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. Are there tips to dealing with that? Is it just about noticing it and then trying to manage your own intake of it? I mean, I feel like that my takeaway from your book is that it’s about moderation, not just completely cutting yourself off from the world, right? 

Kathleen Smith: Yeah, what I’ve tried to do... And I think I’ve done this fairly well over time is to remind myself how perhaps a self-righteous subtweet or trying to direct other people is about temporarily boosting my own functioning. Again, it’s that sort of pseudo self piece of—or that focus on others to bring up one’s own functioning. Is it really helping or is it more about managing my own anxiety? And often, it’s the latter. When the anxiety is sort of free floating—and it certainly is on social media, the tendency for a lot of us to direct or teach others is pretty strong. And we all know how effective that is on the internet and also in our families, but it’s easy to get sucked into.

I think just going back to oneself and say, well, what am I trying to do here? Why am I using this? What are my principles for engaging with this? You know, and it’s easier to just kind of sit back and let humans do what humans do.

Mark Armstrong: What else are you seeing sort of coming out of the pandemic from your own clients and things that we should be looking out for? 

Kathleen Smith: You know, in one way, people’s problems are the same. People are complaining about their marriages, their kids, their boss, but, you know, it goes back to this idea that the more you dial up the anxiety and a pandemic certainly does that. The more you isolate people as well. I think that adds to it. The more locked in the patterns are the more we—there’s this myth that when people face adversity or hardship, they somehow rise above it or become more mature. And that is not what happens. We doubled down on what we already do.

But then it doesn’t work anymore, right? You start to see symptoms, challenges pop up that make things even more complicated. And so if anything, it’s just sort of given me an appreciation for some of these patterns and to try and not be so hard on myself, but also on other people and just helping them have an appreciation for the family doing what it does when things are really stressful.

And that is helpful to a degree. Maybe you don’t want to interrupt that, maybe that conflict serves a purpose, maybe that triangle is keeping everything chugging along. I try not to think of things in terms of good or bad. It’s just, do you want to keep doing this or do you want to do something different?

Mark Armstrong: Yeah. This is wonderful. And thank you again for taking the time to chat about.

Kathleen Smith: Thank you so much for letting me nerd out about Bowen Theory. I will never pass up an opportunity again to talk about the sexiness of mature and family anxiety – some great topics.

Mark Armstrong: So that’s our show. Thank you again to Dr. Kathleen Smith. Go check out her book and her newsletter at kathleensmith.net. And if you liked the show, maybe share it with a family member and at the next holiday gathering, you can both observe each other and report back on what’s happening there. You can also leave a review and a comment at Apple Podcasts, and you can support this show directly by going to eil.show/join. 

Thanks again, and I’ll see you soon.