Helping Anxious People: Your Calmness Doesn’t Help
Sometimes in a couple – let’s call them Sam and Lee – you might find one of them seems quite calm and the other might seem quite anxious. It would be natural to think that the calm one – let’s say Sam – would eventually, over the course of the relationship, help Lee become less anxious. However, there’s a lot more to it than that.
It’s interesting that we just assume that Sam’s influence will help Lee become less anxious over time. Why don’t we assume that Lee’s influence will cause Sam to become more anxious? I think one of the things at play here is people’s instinctive feeling that calmness is better than anxiety, and that they feel calmness is also a more realistic assessment of the world. Following on from that, I believe that most people are essentially optimistic and see things as tending to improve – this is why they see it in terms of Sam helping Lee ‘get better’ and ‘see the world more realistically’.
The role of empathy
However, it doesn’t always work like this. Over the years Lee might get more anxious, and Sam might just get calmer. What’s happening here? This demonstrates an important feature of the way people are empathic – or fail to be empathic – towards one another. For calm Sam, Lee’s continuing anxiousness is just Lee not seeing the world properly; there’s no reason to worry, things will work out and we’ll deal with the problems as they arise. Sam wishes Lee would ‘relax’ a bit more but being an essentially calm person, doesn’t worry about Lee’s anxiousness too much; even this will work out in time.
For anxious Lee it’s quite different. Sam’s calmness is infuriating and even frightening. Lee can see dangers ahead that Sam can’t seem to grasp; why can’t Sam see that we have a problem here? Why isn’t Sam as worried about this as I am? This just makes Lee feel isolated and alone; Lee feels that Sam is slacking off, and this means that Lee needs to stay twice as alert and vigilant to head off the problems that Sam just can’t seem to see. In this way, Lee becomes more anxious in the face of Sam’s calmness.
A bit more empathy, please
The way out of this – as it is for many other problems relating to people – is a bit more empathy. It calls for Sam to be more empathic to the dangers that Lee perceives; to take time to talk about what he/she sees as the dangers and try to understand why Lee sees them this way. This is the path to calmness for Lee; to feel that they aren’t alone, that someone else is on watch with them. It’s only then that Lee can start to relax. Sam doesn’t need to change Lee; this will happen when Sam takes the effort to actively understand Lee’s point of view.
This is a brief example of the power of empathy, and why it is crucial in relationships. In a similar way is also one of the most powerful resources available to the experienced psychotherapist helping his/her client to understand themselves and make changes.
– Tim Hill
A reader commented: “Can I add.. That sometimes an anxious person can project their perceived threats and paranoia on to their partner by creating anxiety in situations that don't merit them. Enough of this kind of behavior can actually leave the calm and easygoing person fraught due to the unpredictable anxieties that may or may not eventuate. Your article was great. Just some food for thought” – E.O.
Thanks for your comment. I agree that this happens quite frequently. I think that this is an attempt by the anxious person to try to feel less alone in his/her feelings. If they can make the calm person feel anxious too – even if only for a while – they will not feel as isolated as they were. When this happens, it paradoxically soothes the anxious person; there is someone else who is now watching out for the perceived threats and feeling a little paranoid. To an anxious person, there can be something very frustrating about a calm person – to them, a calm person is someone who isn't perceiving the threats correctly and just doesn't ‘get it'.