People Need Less Than You Think They Do
A therapist explains how to feel less overwhelmed by your relationships
Anxiety distorts how we see the world and our relationships. Turn up the stress, and we become more allergic to each other. It’s harder to tolerate a partner’s quirks or a friend’s lengthy texts. Answering a simple email from a colleague feels like an impossible task.
This increased sensitivity is why many feel overwhelmed by relationships during the pandemic, even though we have less contact with others. Because when we’re anxious, we tend to think people need more help than they really do.
When you assume people need lots of attention, you begin to feel overwhelmed by their perceived needs. One of two things will happen:
- You’ll overfunction for them.
- You’ll avoid them.
Intuitively, a parent knows that their child does not thrive when we’re anxiously focused on their homework. We know that a partner doesn’t need us to fix a problem at their work. But when anxiety is high, we are extra sensitive to the distress of others. Directing them or distancing from them become our only means of calming down.
Half of my work as a therapist is helping people see that others are more capable than we think they are. And that we can be in contact with one another without having to function for one other.
When people feel allergic to loved ones, I encourage them to work towards more thoughtful contact. Thoughtful contact is about trying to stay curious and calm in a relationship. It’s about managing yourself rather than managing others. It looks like treating people like they can manage their challenges in life and only helping when it’s needed.
Thoughtful contact looks like:
- Listening without directing someone.
- Calming yourself rather than trying to calm others.
- Sharing advice only when asked.
- Sharing about your own challenges and interests.
- Not relying too much on gossip or superficial chatter.
If anxiety is high, this kind of contact can feel uncomfortable at first. But over time, you teach your brain to be more objective about what people need. You learn that there is no better way to be a resource to someone than to be present and interested in how they’re navigating life. And you become less allergic to the other’s anxiety.
So if you feel exhausted by your relationships right now, consider how you’ve perhaps overestimated people’s needs. Do they need you to answer every text right away? Do they need you to reassure them, manage their emotions, or solve their problems? Or do they simply need you to be present and interested when you’re together?
Relationships certainly require our energy, but when we’re doing it right, they can also restore our energy. Don’t hesitate to make space for people to surprise you with their capabilities.