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Don't Trust Your Instincts, or, "Well-Meaning People Can Exacerbate Big Problems"

My evangelical friends talk about being "convicted." That moment when you hear or read a message and like an arrow, it dives into your heart, and you know that you have been guilty, and you have some growing to do.

At the very beginning of my learning about Bowen systems theory, the professor was laying out the basic idea: that we all feel anxiety, and when we do, we act (often in unhealthy ways) in order to lessen our anxiety. And in an unhealthy system with emotionally immature people -- a family, a business, a church -- one person's anxiety can trigger the anxiety of others.

Here's a great primer on that. Really great. Like, watch it 20 times in a row. Or every morning as you drink your coffee. (I'm not kidding. I think your life would be better. Consider it a spiritual practice.)

So back to my conviction moment. The professor went on to talk about how when we see someone who is "vibrating" with anxiety, our instinct is often to rush over, and help them manage their anxiety. Maybe we try to soothe them, "I know you're worried about this change, but I really think it's going to be okay." Maybe we commiserate: "I know, this is really awful that Person B told you that thing."

Those aren't good, but most damaging is when we over-function. Here's how it plays out: The Vibrating Person tells us all about This Thing that is making them anxious and so then we begin to feel anxious. It is not a good feeling, so we try to calm our anxiety by calming their anxiety.  "You know, let me go talk to Person B, I'll FIX IT!"

And this was the statement that stopped me cold:

The only way a person can become more emotionally mature is by learning to manage their own anxiety. 

Wait, wait, wait! You mean when I was trying to be nice, trying to soothe their anxiety, it was EXACTLY THE WRONG THING to do???

I was a Well-Meaning Person.

I just wanted everyone to get along.

I didn't want anyone to feel anxious.

And then I had to admit to myself: I didn't want anyone to feel anxious, because when they were anxious, I got anxious. (This was my own emotional immaturity.)

Well-meaning or not, I usually made the problem worse. And the big picture was so unhealthy: I was keeping someone from growing. If I managed their anxiety, then they wouldn't have to. And so they would never mature emotionally.



Here's what I mean when I say "don't trust your instincts." I don't mean that you should always mistrust them. Some people have highly honed instincts that serve them well. An example would be a doctor, who just feels like something is "off" in a diagnosis.

What I mean is to look closer. Examine what your instinct is telling you. Be open to new information. Don't assume that because something feels normal that it actually is.

And don't assume that because your motivations feel right -- that you're a well-meaning person trying to help someone else -- that your actions are right.

So, what do you do when someone is vibrating with anxiety?

Stay connected, but still clear about where they end and you begin. They may offer you their anxiety. Decline politely. If you can sit with them in their anxiety while they navigate how they're going to manage it, it is a gift.

* Don't overfunction for them.
* Don't take their anxiety into you.
* If they trigger something in you, do your own work (away from them).

And if you're a leader and your organization has made a controversial decision based on the guiding principles of the group?

Stay Calm. Stay Connected. Stay the Course. 


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