A therapist explains how solving other people’s problems can become an unhealthy form of stress relief

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Pretty much everyone’s heard that famous Mr. Rogers quote: “Look for the helpers.” But when you’re a therapist, you quickly learn that the helpers are not always what they appear to be.

In our relationships, as I tell my therapy clients, there are two kinds of helping: anxious helping and thoughtful helping. Anxious helping is more about our own inability to tolerate stress than it is about serving or leading others. This is because being over-responsible for others, sometimes called over-functioning, is one of the quickest ways to calm yourself down.

Over-functioning can look like:

The relationship pattern that’s causing you stress

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I’ve been thinking about how our position in relationships can affect our ability to think clearly.

A triangle is a three-person relationship system. At any given moment in a triangle, two people are on the inside, and one person is on the outside. When things are tense between two people, you want to be in the outside position, away from the drama. But when things are calm and content between two people, it’s hard to be on the outside looking in.

You might be in the outside position of a triangle if:

How to get back into the world even if you’re feeling anxious

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If you’ve been vaccinated for Covid-19, you may have noticed that your pandemic anxiety isn’t going anywhere. A crowded grocery store, or even a hug from another vaccinated friend, can feel like too much too fast.

Some of this anxiety may be about the disease itself, but often it has to do with new relationship challenges. As many people step back into their social life, they’ll inevitably encounter conflict with others: Maybe you have friends who are not ready to hang out in person yet. Your spouse isn’t thrilled that you’re spending less time with them. …

A therapist explains why it’s not just about finding confidence

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One thing I can say with confidence about remote work: It does absolutely nothing to ease impostor syndrome. Over the past year, even as the world turned upside down, many of my therapy clients have continued to battle work-related worries: They don’t deserve a recent promotion; they aren’t qualified to give that upcoming Zoom presentation; they find it hard to feel professional and accomplished when the sink is full of dishes and they haven’t worn real pants in weeks.

People who struggle with imposter syndrome often think the solution is to build up more confidence — psyching themselves up in…

A therapist’s advice for getting back to a calmer default state

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After a January defined by a constant barrage of major news events, from insurrection to inauguration — which came after a year of chaos, or wait, four years of chaos — this past month has felt, well… quiet. Uncomfortably quiet. Like we’ve spent so long on edge that we’ve forgotten how to be any other way. My therapy clients seem to be finding that all the anxiety they’ve stored up all the past four years is still with them, stubbornly hanging on like the worst type of relic.

So what do you with all that anxiety when your brain and…

A therapist’s advice on how to stop equating silence with strength

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When Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently shared her traumatic experience of the Capitol riot, the flurry of criticism that followed struck me as an utterly familiar dynamic. As a therapist who works with families, I often see the pushback people will get, even from those closest to them, for talking about their trauma. In this case, the country seemed to be functioning just like an anxious family.

Our personal level of comfort talking about emotional events has a lot to do with how we grew up. Some families are more comfortable having hard conversations, while others can be allergic to one…

A therapist explains how to stop trying to be a mind reader and focus on being a ‘mind knower’

Woman talking to her friend.
Woman talking to her friend.
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One thing I’ve observed with my therapy clients over the course of the pandemic is that many of us have become anxious mind readers, constantly certain that our friends think we’re terrible or our co-workers think we’re lazy. A tiff between siblings suddenly feels irreparable. A Zoom session with a grumpy boss feels like a guarantee that a firing is on the horizon. In isolation, we read every sign as pointing to the same conclusion: Someone is probably upset with us.

Being able to predict how other people are feeling is a useful skill to have. But when we’re cut…

To lesson your anxiety, ground your emotions in reality

A person wearing a face mask, using their phone. They seem to have an optimistic expression.
A person wearing a face mask, using their phone. They seem to have an optimistic expression.
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As a therapist, I can’t tell you how much I dislike the platitude, “Your emotions are valid.” Sometimes, they aren’t. When rioters stormed the Capitol this month, they demonstrated how dangerous emotions can be when they aren’t rooted in reality.

The relationship between conspiracy-fueled narratives and emotions is a two-way street. As I tell my clients, when you feel anxious or angry, you’re more likely to believe statements that confirm those feelings. And the greater your exposure to emotion-filled propaganda, the more likely you are to absorb those emotions.

So what do you do when it feels like a significant…

A therapist shares three approaches to riding out overwhelming times

Woman getting out of bed ready to face the day.
Woman getting out of bed ready to face the day.
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How can I make myself productive again? It’s a question that has come up again and again in my sessions with therapy clients, especially in the first few weeks of the new year: Amid all the crises of 2020 and a brand-new 2021, many of us are grasping for a way to stop feeling paralyzed and unfocused — to get back some amount of motivation as a way of holding on to a semblance of normalcy.

But what does that mean, anyway? When humans are anxious, we are quick to latch on to a definition of productivity that says humans…

A therapist’s advice on how to strengthen a relationship

Young woman smiling while on the phone.
Young woman smiling while on the phone.
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Worrying about relationships is a common topic of conversation with my therapy clients at the end of any year, as people take stock of what’s working in their lives and what isn’t — but this year, those conversations feel especially urgent. Friend networks are crumbling without the cement of regular gatherings and adventures. Long Zoom calls with family have turned into terse check-ins about the weather and Covid stats. Spouses, now stuck inside together for months on end, are finding they retreat to opposite ends of the house at the end of a stressful day.

But how do you even…

Kathleen Smith

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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