I had a session yesterday with one of my people. (I hate calling them patients. The other option is client. I hate that too. I don’t think either work to capture the relationship.) He was feeling especially anxious, so we started to unpack what was going on for him.
He had reached out a few days earlier to the partners at his company to talk with them about stake in the company. He was waiting for their response and imagining scenarios over and over in his mind, most of which were negative.
He also had a recreation flag football playoff game coming up with a team that plays dirty. He really wanted to win and play well, especially because he was going to be going away for the weekend with some of his teammates. He was feeling more anxious than usual about the game.
One thing I noticed that he was doing was conflating the two events, so we worked on breaking them down separately.
The next thing we did was reviewed his thoughts and feelings about both the job and the game. On my end, I normalized the fact that he was anxiously anticipating the big game and wanting to play well. When he spoke about it, he described it as “stupid” that he was feeling anxious about a recreational football game. I disagreed and told him I didn’t think it was stupid at all and that the act of dismissing his feelings about it only served to complicate the anxiety he was feeling.
In terms of the job, I asked him how he was feeling about taking the big step to approach the partners. I read the letter that he wrote to them and it was eloquent and positive and reasonable. He was advocating for himself and realized if he didn’t do that that it would lead to resentment and regret. I asked him if there is anything else that he can do that he’s not doing to help his cause and he said no. It was out of his hands at that point.
Same goes for the game. He was prepared and was going to try his best, but he couldn’t control how the other team played or how his teammates played. So, for both situations, we talked about what was in his control versus what wasn’t. Focusing on what we cannot control feeds anxiety.
I encouraged him to meditate and visualize the response he hoped for from the partners and visualize how he wanted to play because our thoughts influence our actions and our overall mindset.
The other thing that feeds anxiety is trying to get rid of it. No one likes to feel anxious, but when we try to push it away it makes it worse. Also, when we judge or dismiss our feelings, it just makes them worse. We need to work on acknowledging, understanding and making space for what he feels. That process alone will reduce the anxiety as opposed to trying to get rid of it, which creates the opposite effect.
I emphasized that all these things are easier to say and understand than to put into practice. The process of putting it into practice is messy and will have ups and downs. I warned him against creating unfair expectations that he should be able to press a button and execute now that he has read the program. It doesn’t work that way.
Ultimately, it’s what we don’t get, or what doesn’t go our way that forces and challenges us to grow, learn and adapt in more meaningful ways. Of course, it’s nice to get the win and for things to work out the way we want it. Either way it’s winning. It depends in large part on how we approach it.
So if you have something that is causing you anxiety try to identify what it is and why. Try to separate out what you can do to advocate for yourself versus what is outside of your control. Work on recognizing when the anxiety is there and telling yourself that it’s ok to feel what you’re feeling. Rinse and repeat.
This is part of what will be covered in more depth with a focus on relationship issues in the Love After Kids Relationship Toolkit that will be released in the first quarter of 2017.
I’ll leave you for now with one of my favorites, the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.
P.S. Feel free to substitute whatever works for you for “God” if that feels better for you.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, helping couples with their relationships since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couple’s therapist with a web-based private practice and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post and Thrive Global. David lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, two kids and toy poodle.
*This post was originally published on 1/11/17 on the Love After Kids blog.