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Last month I wrote several newsletters about observing your anxious functioning around your family. So I thought it would only be fair if I shared one of my observations with you.

My grandmother does not recycle. And this behavior. . .well it drives me absolutely crazy. Recycling is not the norm in my hometown. I watch people use plastic shopping bags like water, and or drink their water from tiny plastic bottles they toss into the trash, and I feel anxious and overwhelmed.

Being hyper-focused on “fixing” a family member’s behavior is one way that we try to manage the anxiety in the room. And now that I have a kid who has to live in the world we leave her, I’ve found that my reactivity to waste has ramped up. So over Thanksgiving, I acted as though teaching my grandmother to recycle would singlehandedly save the planet from doom. It sounds silly, but anxiety often raises the stakes in our brain, obscuring reality.

So what did I do? I found myself vacillating between two reactions:

Response A) Complain, lecture, beg her to change the behavior
Response B) Give in, follow her behavior, and feel guilty

This is the trouble with taking a WE-FOCUS. It only offers two options:

  • You must give in and do as I do.
  • I must give in and do as you do.

As I began to observe my anxious behaviors, I realized that I needed to take what Bowen theory calls an I-POSITION. I needed to decide what I was going to do, and stick with it, whatever the reaction. Trying to “fix” my grandmother’s behavior was getting nowhere, but conforming to her habits didn’t feel right either. I stopped to ask myself what my best self would do in this situation.

Without any announcement, I began to quietly collect any plastic bottles, cans, or cardboard that I had used. This collection grew quite large, until my grandmother noticed. I commented that I was going to recycle while I stayed at her house, because it was important to me. And of course, this didn’t bother her one bit, because she is a perfectly kind and reasonable human.

I know that this solution sounds very obvious and simple. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it took me over a decade to take this position with my family. But I share this story because I think it’s a good example of how incredibly difficult it is to think for oneself amidst the togetherness of family. If I had been in a public space, or a friend’s house, I could have accessed this thinking with less effort.

But with family, the urge to all be on the same page is so very strong. We quickly turn each other into projects, because we’re so allergic to each other’s flaws or differences. Or we simply conform, and go along with the group, because doing your own thing feels exhausting or intimidating.

It’s human nature to want those you love to share your beliefs, values, and behaviors. Parents try to shield their children from seeing them disagree. Spouses try to teach other to manage money the same way. Friends try to persuade each other to like the same politicians, or love the same television shows. But these are the myths of togetherness. We can be in the same room, the same conversation, and the same family, but also be individuals. The path towards one’s best self may take us in many directions.

I don’t know if my grandmother will start recycling. But I do know that a decade of criticizing wasn’t effective, and I’m willing to try something different that doesn’t compromise who I’m trying to be.

One of my favorite Anne Lamott quotes sums up the value of the I-Position: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Taking an I-Position can help you calm down a little and clarify your thinking. It also frees up your family to think about what they want to do.

As more holidays approach this month, here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • How have I tried to “fix” family members when I’m distressed?
  • How effective have these efforts been?
  • When do I conform to the group to keep things calm?
  • How can I stay focused on expressing my own maturity, instead of fixing the perceived maturity deficits in others?

News from Kathleen

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