Have you spent a sleepless night worrying about a loved one? Perhaps it was your teenager who was out past curfew or your spouse who didn’t manage her diabetes. Feeling anxious in such a situation is understandable. It’s scary to feel like things are out of your control and possibly heading for disaster.
When you have a loved one who is making “bad” decisions, worry can take over your life if you don’t know how to keep it in check. My colleague, Elizabeth Cush, an expert in treating anxiety, wrote this week’s blog post to support those of you who are experiencing worry and anxiety about a loved one.
It’s really hard to watch someone make bad or harmful choices or to see a loved one make decisions you wouldn’t have made given the same circumstances. Maybe you worry because:
- They drink or smoke too much
- They can’t control their anger
- They quit their job
- They hang out with “the wrong” people
- They gamble
- They don’t pay their bills
I know that as a mother, wife, and friend, I have had times when one or more of the people in my life did things that made me feel worried, angry, or hurt (and sometimes all three). It was hard not to get consumed by the worry. So, how do you stop worrying and quiet your mind when you’re concerned about a loved one but powerless to get him or her to change or make better decisions?
Anxiety shows up when we can’t control things
Relationships can create the perfect storm of emotional ups and downs, bringing with them waves of anxiety. We want the people in our lives to be happy. We don’t want them to struggle, to feel pain, or to cause pain and suffering, but we really can’t control a lot of what others do. That can bring on a lot of anxious feelings.
If you experience anxiety, this lack of control can make your anxiety worse. You might believe that if you could just control this thing — whether it’s someone else’s behaviors, life events, or future outcomes — then you would feel better. You stay awake worrying about what needs to be different, what needs to change, and how to make that happen. You get stuck in the “what ifs,” or “if onlys.” But the reality is that you can’t control many of the things going on around you. I might even venture to say you can’t control MOST things!
The need for control increases anxiety
My clients sometimes say, “if only my loved one wouldn’t __________ (you fill in the blanks). It’s ruining everything. I’ve told them time and again that they need to stop. I can’t sleep at night because I worry about what will happen.”
Worrying increases stress and it doesn’t create change or stop bad things from happening; it only makes you more stressed. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t worry about the people you love. I am saying is that the worry won’t make it better, and sometimes it makes you so stressed that it becomes hard to do anything else.
How to ease your anxiety when worries take over
So how do you ease the anxiety that arises when the people in your life aren’t cooperating? Here are seven steps to get you started:
- Take three slow deep breaths.
- Be curious about the part of you that wants to be able to control the behaviors of others. Maybe you say to yourself, “There’s a part of me that wants to keep things under control. I wonder what that part is afraid of?”
- Remind yourself that your anxiety is prompted by your fears about the future and of not being in control.
- Gently remind yourself that you can voice your concerns or opinions, but it’s up to others to make changes. A gentle reminder to yourself might be, “I can’t control what others choose to do or not do. I can only tell them how their behavior affects me and how I feel.”
- If the people in your life don’t change, be mindful that this might cause you distress. You might feel anxious or scared. You might say out loud, “I’m so afraid because __________ isn’t changing. It makes me feel powerless and I worry about what might happen if they don’t change.”
- If someone’s behavior hurts you or puts you at risk, it’s important to create healthy boundaries or choose to spend time away from that person. If you’re not comfortable doing this, you might need to practice or get some support.
- Offer yourself some compassion. You might still feel worried about the people in your life. Saying to yourself, “This is really hard for me right now. I care about them, and I care about how they’re affecting me” creates a space where you can feel compassionate toward them and toward yourself.
Wanting the best for others is human. We want the people we love to make healthy choices, but that doesn’t always happen. If you need support and someone to help you work through the difficulty, seeing a therapist can provide a safe, non-judgmental space where you can share your feelings.
Elizabeth Cush, LCPC is a therapist and blogger in Annapolis, MD where she hosts the Woman Worriers podcast. In her private practice, Progression Counseling, she helps women who feel overwhelmed, anxious, and stressed out find more connection with themselves and others, allowing them to live their lives with more ease, intention, and purpose. Elizabeth was recently a featured guest on the Women In Depth podcast and Selling The Couch podcast. She’s worked in the mental health field for over 10 years and is a certified clinical trauma professional. Elizabeth incorporates mindfulness and meditation into her psychotherapy work.