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Licensed therapist and mental health writer Dr. Kathleen Smith offers a smart, practical antidote to our anxiety-ridden times. Everything Isn't Terrible is an informative and practical guide — featuring a healthy dose of humor—for people who want to become beacons of calmness in their families, at work, and in our anxious world. Everything Isn't Terrible will inspire you to confront your anxious self, take charge of your anxiety, and increase your own capacity to choose how you respond to it. Comprised of short chapters containing anecdotal examples from Smith's work with her clients, in addition to engaging, actionable exercises for readers, Everything Isn't Terrible will give anyone suffering from anxiety all the tools they need to finally…calm…down.
Ultimately, living a calmer, less anxious life—one that isn't terrible—is possible, and with this book you'll learn how to do it.
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We truly live in anxious times. In a recent public opinion poll, the American Psychiatric Association reported that a majority of Americans are anxious about their safety, their health, their finances, their relationships, and, of course, politics. We fight on Facebook, we flee the Thanksgiving table, or we freeze up and hope someone calmer will solve the world’s problems. Stuck on high alert, we’ve stopped looking at the facts and started assessing situations based on our feelings. We’re reacting instead of acting, leading, and calming the hell down.
I live and work as a therapist in perhaps the most anxious city in America: Washington, DC. Many of my clients want to be beacons of calmness and wisdom in our anxious world. Others just want to get through the day without snapping at their mother or stalking their ex’s Instagram. They rely heavily on encouragement from others. Some of them fear vulnerability in their relationships or avoid their anxious coworkers. Others simply feel overwhelmed by the dumpster fire that is our country right now. Sound familiar?
At the end of the day, we all just want long-term, life-altering change. We all want to live a life guided by principle rather than fear or worry. And deep down, we do have the capacity to calm ourselves. We are capable of shutting off our autopilot and grabbing the controls. And by choosing how we handle our anxiety, we choose our fate. So let me tell you about a theory that changed my life.
What’s Bowen Theory?
Every therapist has a theory that guides them in their work with clients. Mine is a theory of human behavior known as Bowen theory. Murray Bowen was a psychiatrist and the father of family psychotherapy. He was from Tennessee, just like me, and I liked his brilliant yet folksy way of describing relationships. Traditional therapists focused on individual people, but Dr. Bowen believed that we could only learn to calm down when we looked at our relationship systems. Because when we feel anxious, we often try to make other people change. We try to calm everyone else down so we can finally relax. But if you can work on managing yourself in these relationships, it’s likely that your family, your workplace, and even the greater world will calm down a little too.
Dr. Bowen taught that if anxiety is generated in our relationships, then it can also be fixed in relationships. Therefore, long-term change doesn’t happen in isolation, or even on a therapist’s couch. It happens when we’re willing to work on being our best selves in our most difficult relationships. I realize this sounds gross and hard, but boy, does it make a difference. If a person can learn to think and act for herself in her anxious family, her anxious community, and her anxious world, then her sense of self won’t be so dependent on the cooperation of others.
I’d love for you to think that I’m a genius, but many of the ideas in the book come straight from Bowen theory. You don’t need to be an expert in theory to read this book. But if you’re interested in learning more, I’ve included some basic definitions and resources at the back to help you get started.
Okay, But How Do I Calm Down?
Each chapter in this book will examine a particular arena of life where anxiety can get you into trouble. We’ll take a look at your anxious self, your relationships, your career, and the broader world. I’ll use examples from my therapy work to help you get a better picture of what it looks like to build a stronger self and reduce overall anxiety. To protect the confidentiality of my clients, names and identifying information have been changed. Each example is a composite of many people with similar challenges. You may find that you see yourself in a number of these people. I certainly do.
Building a solid, principled self is a complex and lifelong process. To keep you from feeling too overwhelmed, I’ll rely on three verbs throughout the book: observing, evaluating, and interrupting your anxious functioning.
First, you have to start observing. Before you can change your anxious behaviors, you need to know what they are. By observing yourself, you’re already using the part of your brain that helps calm you down. Much of the book will illustrate the common behaviors that accompany anxiety, so you can become an expert at recognizing them.
Second, you have to evaluate your behavior. You have to take a hard look at what you do to manage your anxiety, and ask yourself, “Is this who I really want to be?” I’ll talk about how to live a life that is guided by thinking and by principle, and not by freaking the hell out.
Third, you have to interrupt what’s automatic. Once you’ve observed your automatic behaviors, and decided how you really want to live, you have to start looking for opportunities to interrupt your autopilot. This implies a certain level of discomfort. Because any time you do something you wouldn’t normally do, it’s a little uncomfortable. Or a lot.
After working on building a more solid self, people often comment that their previous life is totally unrecognizable from their current one. They spend less energy seeking approval and have more energy to work on their goals. They have fewer emotional and physical symptoms. Their relationships are more vulnerable and less anxious.
Some may argue that focusing on yourself while our world is on fire is selfish. But I think the real problem is that there’s not enough “self” in how we respond to the challenges we face. The calmest people will emerge as the change makers, because they understand that in the anxious equation of today’s world, you are the only variable you can manipulate.
By changing yourself, you change the equation. By building a more solid self, you might help calm down your family, your community, and the entire planet. That’s pretty damn powerful.
YOUR ANXIOUS SELF
Focusing on Yourself
All his life has he looked away, to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was, hmm? What he was doing.
—Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
Jordan spent most of her first appointment telling me about Kyle, her ex-boyfriend. Kyle had a history of freaking out when things got serious. He feared intimacy because he didn’t have a stable relationship with his parents. He had used Jordan to find a job and fight his depression, and then promptly dropped her. Jordan and Kyle were no longer a couple, but they still hung out in the same friend group and occasionally had sex. She told me that she followed Kyle on Venmo to see what “dumb” things he was buying for other women. She knew his email password and logged in to see his dating app notifications. Jordan had blocked Kyle on Instagram during a moment of rage, but her friends texted her the pictures he posted while partying with twenty-two-year-olds. “Honestly, I’m embarrassed for him,” she said.
You might want to laugh, but I’m not going to throw the first stone here. We have all been Jordan in one way or another. To be human is to be focused on another human, especially when it’s a romantic relationship. While Jordan gave me her dissertation on Kyle, I realized I knew nothing about this woman that didn’t relate to her ex. Her mind was completely fixed on Kyle, and I could feel the anxiety radiating off of her.
This is the first and most daunting challenge for any therapist: to help a person begin to focus on herself. It’s ironic, considering that many people label therapy as a selfish practice. The reality is that there’s rarely enough self in it. So many people come through the door ready to complain about their partner, their parents, or their boss. They know that they’re anxious, but they don’t see how focusing their attention outward, what I call “other-focus,” contributes to their anxiety. Therefore, the first step in calming down is simply to begin to think about yourself. To see how your anxiety is at work. It sounds easy, but it isn’t.
What Is Anxiety?
It’s not surprising that Jordan was uber-focused on Kyle. The habit of focusing on others has biological origins. When we feel threatened, we must respond to the threat. This is the simplest and best definition of anxiety: anxiety is your response to a real or imagined threat.
Our anxiety serves a very important purpose, because the central goal of being a human is simple: to not die for as long as you can. One might call this, oh I don’t know… living. But in your quest to live, there are a lot of things in the world that threaten you. Bears. Earthquakes. Chipotle. Kyle. Fortunately, evolution has given humans a way of surviving scary things.
(a) fight scary thing
(b) flee from scary thing
(c) freeze to hide from scary thing
(d) fret to others about scary thing
Most organisms have some or all of these built-in responses to danger, but we humans are special. Not only can we sense danger, but we can imagine potential danger. Your dog doesn’t worry about whether you’ll feed him tomorrow. He only wants to know if you’re going to finish that piece of cheese. Our ability to perceive danger has helped us survive and thrive. But like any superpower, it can cause problems. We end up worrying too much about hypothetical threats and not the reality-based problems of today.
Because humans have different genes, families, and experiences, we vary in how sensitive we are to imagined threats. Think of it as a built-in alarm system. Some of us have alarms that trigger very easily, and others do not. Maybe your alarm only goes off when there’s a real fire, but mine will sound when I’ve only slightly burned the chicken nuggets.
Our alarms also can evolve based on our encounters with real threats. You’re going to be more anxious after you’ve seen a bear than on a regular Tuesday with no bears. (In case you can’t tell, I’m very concerned about bears.) When your alarm sounds, you don’t exactly have time to self-reflect. If you stop to self-reflect when you’re being chased by a bear, then you’re toast. You know that the bear is the cause of your distress, so you need to escape it as quickly as possible. Most human relationships, however, are more complex. But the more we feel threatened, the more we apply the same cause-and-effect thinking to our relationships. Our brain shifts to the tunnel vision that plagued Jordan. We want one person to be the bear, so we make them one. To protect ourselves, we invest a great deal of energy into becoming experts on someone we can’t control, that is, the Kyles of the world.
Much of the world today is caught in a state of other-focus. We feel frightened by many things, so we see many bears. Republicans. Democrats. Family members. People who don’t agree with us. People who don’t look like us. No wonder everything feels terrible.
The Trouble with “Why”
When someone tells you to focus on yourself, it can feel like the other person is getting off the hook. You might think, “Aren’t some people just terrible? Doesn’t Kyle play a role in the dysfunction of this relationship?” You bet he does, simply by being a human. But when Jordan became anxious about the state of their relationship, she could only see Kyle’s part. Jordan knew that Kyle’s behaviors were a part of the problem, so she labeled him as the cause of the problem. She saw Kyle as the person who must change to free her from her anxious email snooping. By focusing on Kyle, she had given up her own agency.
There are many ways we get caught in the trap of focusing on others. When we really want someone to like us, or we worry about someone we love, we lose sight of ourselves. When someone disagrees with us or hurts us, we try to calm down by changing or blaming the other person.
Focusing on another person can also look like:
• giving them excessive advice
• trying to motivate them
• worrying about them
• complaining about them
• stalking them on social media
• guessing what they’re thinking
• going out of your way to avoid them
• doing things for them they can do themselves
Humans end up in this cause-and-effect thinking because we’re programmed to ask the question “Why?” when we’re anxious. Asking why implies fault. It conveniently gives us someone or something to blame. Jordan was asking herself, “Why am I so unhappy?” And she had an obvious answer to this question: “Because Kyle is a tool.” The problem was that Kyle was not sitting in therapy. Jordan was there, and Jordan was the only variable she could alter in this grand equation of dysfunction. To help her focus on herself, I simply asked Jordan a bunch of questions that didn’t start with “why.”
Me: When does Kyle make you anxious?
Jordan: When he doesn’t return my texts.
Me: What do you do when he doesn’t return them?
Jordan: I blow up his phone or call a friend to check his Instagram.
Me: How effective has that been?
Jordan: It feels good in the moment to attack him. But then I feel terrible when I don’t get what I want. I feel more anxious.
Me: What could be more effective at calming you down? What ideas do you have?
Jordan: I could probably not check my phone as much. Or maybe try and take some deep breaths instead.
Weeks passed, and I tried to keep Jordan focused on how she wanted to respond to this situation with Kyle. There were glimmers of self-focus, but her attention always shifted back to her ex. She tried to teach Kyle how to not talk about other women when they were together. She tried to convince Kyle that they needed couples counseling to work on their relationship. She hypothesized why Kyle was too immature and would never change. Jordan put so much of her energy into trying to manage Kyle’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. The only thing that calmed her down after a fight was getting an apology text from him. No wonder she was so tired and so anxious. She had forgotten that someone else besides Kyle could calm her down—herself!
Over time, Jordan’s focus began to shift back to herself. Jordan started to notice how her relationships were a two-way street and that her own stress level affected her functioning and level of maturity. She observed how she arrived late to work when her boss was in a bad mood. She saw that she was more likely to fight with her mother on the phone when she had been drinking. By noticing the part she played in every important relationship, she was ready to take responsibility for her functioning. Because that’s what responsibility is—the ability to respond. Jordan could see that if she learned to focus on being her best self in her relationships, a lot of the drama would simply fizzle out.
How quickly a person can get to this place of self-focus depends on a few things. One variable is how strong their sense of self is. We’ll talk more about this concept in the following chapters, but the idea is that we all have varying levels of how other-focused we tend to be. A second variable is how much stress is present. Maybe you can stay self-focused during a mildly challenging event. But if the stress keeps getting cranked up, it can become difficult even for the most mature person to not shift into blame-focused thinking that asks, “Why?”
One way of strengthening your ability to focus on yourself is to practice flipping other-focused questions into self-focused ones. Think of it as hitting the reverse camera button on your phone in order to take a selfie. Here are a few examples:
Other-focused: Why am I so anxious?
Self-focused: How do I manage my anxiety, and how effective is it?
Other-focused: Why doesn’t my family understand me?
Self-focused: What part do I play in the immature functioning of my family?
Other-focused: Why do people pile too much on my plate?
Self-focused: What do I do for others that they can do for themselves?
Other-focused: Is my spouse really right for me?
Self-focused: How can I be the person I want to be in my marriage?
Other-focused: Why is America such a dumpster fire?
Self-focused: What is my responsibility as a citizen in this dumpster fire?
When you begin to focus on your part in a relationship or a problem, a funny thing will happen—you’ll start to calm down! This is because you’ll be focused on the one thing you can control: yourself.
My office became a place where Jordan could calm down a little bit and begin to think more about her anxious functioning. Over time, she got a good sense of how her intense focus on Kyle reinforced his desire to stay away from her. They were caught in the classic relationship dance of anxious pursuit and anxious flight. Jordan took the focus off Kyle and started working on her friendships, her health, and her career goals. She began to see that her happiness maybe wasn’t dependent on Kyle’s behavior. In other words, she calmed down. And can you guess what happened? Yep. They got back together. But now Jordan saw that her new challenge was to continue to take responsibility for herself and her anxiety while in a relationship with Kyle.
I don’t know what happened to those two. People will often stop coming to therapy when things have calmed down. But I hope that Jordan found a way to keep thinking about herself when she was tempted to focus on Kyle. People can grow up and calm down within relationships or without them. But I’m still rooting for Jordan, because I know what it’s like to get a small taste of your own capacity in life. I hope that she has continued to see how staying focused on herself will make her relationships a little less anxious.
• In what relationships do I tend to be focused on blaming others?
• When do I try to change others in order to manage my own anxiety?
• What emotions and physical symptoms do I experience when I’m other-focused?
• How does my focus on others conflict with the person I want to be?
• What might my best self be doing in situations in which I have tended to blame others?
• Is there any wisdom I’d like to remember in these situations?
• What are upcoming opportunities for me to practice being self-focused?
• How can I refrain from focusing on others as a way of managing my anxiety?
• What people and resources could help me be more self-focused?
Over the next twenty-four hours, make a note every time you find yourself focusing anxiously on another person. Examples could be when your significant other loads the dishwasher the wrong way or when someone says something on social media that infuriates you. You are other-focused anytime you want to manage the thoughts, emotions, or behaviors of another person, even if it’s a stranger or a celebrity. At the end of the day, give yourself one kind pat on the back for every name on the list, and don’t beat yourself up for how long it is. Paying attention is the most important part of change! The more you pay attention, the more likely you are to remember to stay focused on yourself.
Thinking and Feeling
Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.
Monica’s last therapist had abandoned her. At least, that’s what it felt like to Monica. In reality, she had moved. But that’s the thing about feelings. They’re allergic to facts. When Monica came to meet with me, she quickly learned that I was more interested in hearing about the facts than her feelings. Because the facts of Monica’s family were quite interesting. When Monica was in college, her father developed a gambling addiction. Fed up with his addiction, her mother went looking for support and ended up having multiple affairs. When the affairs came to light, her family exploded apart in an emotional shockwave. Monica’s brother took her mother’s side, and she took her father’s.
Cut off from the rest of his family, Monica’s father clung to her for emotional support. He accused her of betrayal if she talked to anyone on her mother’s side of the family. He refused to address his gambling problem, and his debt grew by the hour. Things were pretty intense, because there wasn’t a lot of emotional separation in Monica’s family. They may have stopped talking to each other, but if you can’t bear to be in the same room with someone, then you’re not exactly emotionally separate from them.
Dr. Bowen proposed the idea that people will vary in the amount of emotional separation they have from their families. He had a word for this separation: differentiation. People who were more differentiated could be in close contact with an anxious group of people and retain their ability to think and act for themselves. No one can do this perfectly, but some people are more differentiated than others. People with low levels of differentiation struggle to separate their thoughts and emotions. They also have trouble telling the difference between their thoughts and feelings and someone else’s thoughts and feelings.
No one in Monica’s family could think like an individual. No one could treat anyone else like an individual. They related to each other based on what side they took in the divorce, and everyone had someone else to blame for their unhappiness. Monica struggled to think about her family history objectively. She was so connected to her father’s thoughts and feelings about her mother’s infidelity that she had adopted them as her own. If her father didn’t like someone, then she assumed that they were toxic. Her mother became the main villain in the story of her family. She was the answer to that dangerous question, “Why?”
Differentiation Is the Goal
This ability to distinguish your thoughts and feelings from other people’s thoughts and feelings is essential to calming down and getting stuff done. Think about it—if you called 911 and the operator also panicked, then they’re not going to be very helpful. If people accepted everyone else’s thinking, then we’d still assume you could sail right off the edge of the Earth. People’s ability to think for themselves has literally changed the world.
Differentiation is the ability to:
1. separate thoughts from feelings
2. separate your thoughts and feelings from other people’s
Monica had trouble distinguishing between thinking and feeling, between reality and the tunnel vision of anxiety. She thought she had escaped her family by cutting off contact, but her lack of emotional separation from her family was mirrored in how she operated with her coworkers and friends. When she sensed someone was upset, her emotions would spill over into her thinking. This made it difficult for Monica to stay in contact with reality and the facts. If her boss was upset, then it was her fault. If a friend was distraught, then they were definitely going to end their friendship with her. The stakes felt super high, even in benign situations.
- Great news, high-functioning anxious people: relief has arrived! In these pages, Kathleen Smith offers as much wisdom, candor, and helpful homework as you'd get in several therapy sessions -- making this book not only a joy but a great deal. I'll be buying copies for friends.—Mary Laura Philpott, nationally bestselling author of IMiss You When I Blink
- "The perfect blend of hard science and warm wit that helps you understand where your anxiety comes from and then manage the fallout."—Sarah Knight, NewYork Times bestsellingauthor of Calm the F*ck Down
- On Sale
- Dec 31, 2019
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Hachette Books