What should we do if we experience anxiety in relationships? As a general rule, people are better off if they do not sweat the hurtful criticisms of others. This is not to say that a robotic lack of emotion is required. However, there is a happy medium between the two sides that does not default to making a small offense into a life-altering dagger to the heart. Dr. David Schnarch, who serves as the director of the Marriage and Family Health Center in Colorado, has a name for this happy medium. He calls it “differentiation.”Something familiar to all of us is the idea that relationships come with a degree of one party’s control over the other, and vice-versa. It is best explained as a striving to please the other person as you would want to be pleased by them. Schnarch identifies this as “emotional fusion.” People in relationships with emotional fusion have a weakness for allowing the other person’s demeanor to define their own. Instead of recognizing an underlying, non-personal cause for the other person’s negative demeanor, as the differentiated person would do, the emotionally fused person on the receiving end of the ugly demeanor will worry that it is their fault.
Learning to Cope with Anxiety
Emotional fusion is perfect ground soil for the weeds of anxiety. Differentiation acts as the pesticides to those weeds.
One should learn to replace anxiety with inner-healing. You see, those around us have the potential to penetrate through our skin. That is why it is so important to take the time to heal and nurture yourself from the inside out so that the simple words or gestures throughout the day do not send us on soaring highs or crashing lows.
“Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.” (Eph. 4:14 NIV) In this passage, Paul is not speaking specifically to anxiety or emotions. However, the message still applies. Keeping a level head is the first step to taking control of your own emotions and not giving up that control to anyone else.
How is this accomplished? A good start is identifying when you allow people control over your emotions. When someone responds in a way contrary to what you expected or wished, stop and think about why their response bothers you. Yes, their response may not be what you had wished or envisioned; but that is fine. Furthermore, a minor response of disdain or dislike hardly implies a major dislike for something greater, like your personhood. Differentiation breeds awareness of your own hypersensitivity and replaces it with the courage to overcome those drowning emotions.
Anxiety in Relationships
When people are so dependent on others to take care of their emotions for them, any sort of relational strain becomes problematic. Emotionally fused people take mild gestures of indifference, or even disinterest, personally. In fact, many emotionally fused personalities will demand that their partner or friend take back the mild gesture altogether. Alternatively, a differentiated individual might take a small offense to the gesture, and move past it as many people are able to do, realizing that this small gesture plays a minor role in the course of the relationship. Perhaps they could even learn something about the other person through the situation!
As Schnarch explains, “When your spouse is your support system, you have to keep an eye on him or her at all times. If he or she ‘moves’ emotionally or physically, you immediately feel off-balance, even threatened. That’s when you become preoccupied with issues of ‘trust’ because any unilateral shift is a violation of sorts. In contrast, partners whose sense of stability comes from themselves are aware of, but relatively unaffected by, one another’s shifts.”
Anxiety in Personal Life
There are other types of anxiety that are not relational at all. Perhaps the anxiety is situational. For example, stage fright can be the cause of situational anxiety for many. Differentiation allows us to keep our own inner voice at bay during these times, so when the negative feelings arise, we know how to control them.
Developing the ability to self-soothe is important in these circumstances. “Self-soothing involves turning inward and accessing your own resources to regain your emotional balance and feeling comfortable in your body… Self-soothing is your ability to comfort yourself, lick your own wounds, and care for yourself without excessive indulgence or deprivation… Self-soothing involves meeting two core challenges of selfhood: (a) not losing yourself to the pressures and demands of others, and (b) developing your capacity for self-centering (stabilizing your own emotions and fears).”
What Differentiation is Not Promoting
Do not be fooled. Differentiation will never look like numb-indifference or inhuman behavior. Instead, it is learning how to appreciate the emotions of others, but rejecting their external control over your own. It is being quick to accept the additions that others have to make, but being careful to not let them adversely influence your own. Call it “emotional intelligence.”
Schnarch does not give us a “DIY to learning differentiation.” We can still learn from our own experiences, though. Next time, settle your thoughts before jumping up in front of a crowd. Give your partner the benefit of the doubt when they lash out in your direction. Differentiation manifests itself as making the most of even the difficult hands you are dealt.
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV) This verse is power in your weakest moments. Christians who walk in grace are constantly bombarded by assaults to their faith. That is where the Holy Spirit does His best work; He empowers even the feeblest of minds to stand up against the anxious thoughts or traps of the daily life. Find strength in Him.
Finding common ground and pure chemistry with others is a natural desire. Becoming addicted to a constant stream of those feelings is a thirst that cannot be quenched by this world. Criticism will come. People will mess up, and that is why that thirst is not sustainable. If you are seeking to find lasting solutions to your situation, let a professional Christian counselor in Spokane come alongside you in your journey to new beginnings in Christ. A trained counselor can help you discover that turning off the faucet of your inner-voice is fully attainable.
“Brave,” courtesy of Jonathan Pendleton, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Bridge,” courtesy of Tord Sollie, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Facing Fears,” courtesy of Maher El Aridi, unsplash.com, CC0 Public Domain License