The Hottest Winter Accessory Is ‘Emotional Space’

A therapist’s advice for how to create some distance from other people’s problems — even when you’re stuck with them 24/7

Photo: 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

As the coming pandemic winter forces us all to live even more fully at home, you may find yourself struggling more than ever to carve out your own emotional space. One person’s stress becomes contagious. An unending stream of other people broadcasting their inner monologues makes it impossible to spend time with your own thoughts. One person’s slacking off or shutting down pushes you to take over their responsibilities.

So, how do you hold onto the ability to act — and feel — like your own person?

As a therapist, I often help my clients think about how to become less responsible for other people’s thoughts and behaviors and more responsible for their own. And the more you can practice doing this now, the better shape you’ll be in for all that quarantine togetherness in the months to come.

Let people be responsible for themselves

Humans do a few predictable things when we become anxious, and one of them is to assume responsibility for those around us, a behavior called overfunctioning.

When overfunctioners sense a person’s distress, they might tell them what to do or take over a task completely. This is how people end up doing their kid’s homework or getting way too involved in a roommate’s relationship drama.

In the short term, it may seem like you’re solving problems. But overfunctioning isn’t about solutions — it’s about relieving the anxiety you feel in the moment. You might calm down by calling the shots, but no one around you will learn how to be a more capable human.

How have become entangled with the responsibilities of others over the past few months? I’ve heard from clients who picked apart their spouse’s “work voice” or listened too closely to their kid’s Zoom class. They’ve admitted to lecturing their parents too much about Covid-19 safety or picking up chores a roommate has abandoned. They know their overfunctioning isn’t helpful, they tell me, but they aren’t sure how to step back and let people be more responsible for themselves.

Stepping back could look like:

  • Asking questions instead of giving advice.
  • Calming yourself instead of calming others.
  • Refocusing your attention on your responsibilities and goals.
  • Sitting with your discomfort as people solve their problems.

Letting people be more responsible for themselves won’t feel good, at least not right away. It will stress you out before it calms you down. But if you can keep up the habit, you’ll begin to find that it’s easier to tune out other people’s anxiety. You’ll have more time and emotional energy to begin to focus on taking care of yourself and your own responsibilities.

Make space to know your own mind

Another sneaky thing that can happen after a long period of quarantine togetherness: You lose the ability to think for yourself.

When humans are huddled together in a crisis, they tend to take on each other’s thoughts and behaviors. This response to togetherness serves an evolutionary purpose — it stabilizes tension in a group, which helps us survive and achieve common goals. But too much togetherness and too much anxiety can make you abandon principles and habits you once found important.

Since the pandemic began, I’ve heard from many clients who have borrowed a family member’s thoughts or behaviors without realizing it. One person’s sweet tooth quickly becomes the entire family’s way of coping with stress. Roommates become night owls together, doomscrolling in the living room for hours. One half of a couple abandons their safety protocols once the other person breaks the rules.

It is incredibly difficult to know your own mind when stress is high and space is limited. But functioning like an individual allows you to manage anxiety more effectively and live a more thoughtful life. I encourage my clients to make regular space — even if it’s just once a week — to think about how they’d like to take care of themselves and respond to challenges. Because if you don’t take that time, it’s almost impossible not to cave to the pressures of the group.

Making space for your thinking could look like:

  • Participating in regular therapy or coaching.
  • Writing down your observations about your recent habits.
  • Journaling regularly about your beliefs and values.
  • Defining and keeping track of goals.
  • Developing guiding principles for yourself.

When you practice teasing apart your own mind from everyone else’s, it becomes easier to hold onto your values and beliefs when you need them most. The best place to start is simple observation: Where do the lines between responsibilities start to blur in your household? In what relationships are you quick to abandon your thinking and just follow the other person? Observation disrupts these dynamics, because it provides you with opportunities to try a different strategy for calming yourself down—a strategy that requires only your cooperation and no one else’s.

You are only responsible for your own anxiety. So instead of trying to teach everyone how to survive the rest of the year, put the focus back on yourself. When can you untangle yourself a little from the anxiety at home, everyone feels a bit freer and calmer. And everyone can face the unknown with more creativity, flexibility, and individuality.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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