We all wrestle with fear and anxiety but not all of us realize the devastating effect chronic anxiety has on us. My family of origin is a highly anxious system. But I didn’t realize that until I was in my forties. I thought I came from a family who was angry and irritable! My lack of awareness in this area was a big problem for me and the family Pete and I built. This is the opposite of resilient because it indicates that I was (and can be) emotionally unaware. This decreases problem solving, interferes with relationships, increases conflict and confusion, on and on the list goes of the ways I misidentified a problem in my family that resulted in me making poor attempts to resolve the issue.
One summer I was in Atlanta visiting my folks while my kids and husband were on a mission trip in the inner city of Atlanta. Part of the trip included a concert put on by our youth group at a large baptist church in the area of their ministry site. All were invited and I was so excited that my folks could come to an event where they could see my kids sing, meet people I cared about, and have exposure to the awesome work my church was doing through the youth group.
In case you are unaware, Atlanta has a lot of traffic and we chose to leave early to head across town. As the natives can attest to, this is a long and arduous trek. KInd of like a safari without decent guides. My folks sat in the front of the Suburban and I sat in the back in a way that was eerily reminiscent of my childhood. Both of my parents began to talk about the traffic and express the likelihood that we were going to be a statistic on the mean streets of Atlanta before nightfall. And in that moment I got it.
My folks weren’t angry they were anxious. They weren’t a little anxious they were a LOT anxious. Was traffic bad? Yes. Did my dad navigate it every single day without losing life or limb? Yes. Did this chatter seem like an over-reaction? Yes. In the past, I would have gone to my mind palace and thought they were fussing at me or each other. In that particular moment I realized that this is how they sound but not how they felt. Instead of getting irritated myself, I realized I was asking too much of them. No one should be put in this position. I suggested that maybe it would be a better idea if they didn’t go. They could stay home (we were still in the driveway) and I would take my car. I admitted that I didn’t realize how much this drive would make them feel so anxious and told them that I wasn’t feeling anxious about driving, so I could go and they could stay home. Dead silence.
We all went and lived to tell about it. My mom thoroughly enjoyed the program and my dad enjoyed meeting all the people and charming them with his witty repartee. Rarely did anxious moments like this go well between us even after this revelation on my part. I struggled to manage my own anxiety in situations like this and they did too. But here’s the thing I took away from that encounter: as we increase our ability to identify and handle our strong emotions, sometimes conversations can be more meaningful than mean.