Trouble Managing Anxiety? Talk to Your Family

The Lord passed before Moses, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

Exodus 34:6-7 (NRSV)

This passage is part of the second giving of the Ten Commandments. In the first, God provided two tablets and wrote on them. But, while Moses was with God on the mountain, the people got anxious when Moses was delayed. They begged Aaron to fashion a god that would be with them. Aaron collected their gold jewelry and made a golden calf, which they worshipped. The Bible describes the people as running wild. When Moses came down from the mountain he was so angry, he threw the tablets down and broke them at the foot of the mountain

The second time God tells Moses to bring his own tablets and God will write on him. It’s like when I was in school they would give me a composition book, but if I lost it, I had to buy a replacement.

What is significant about this passage is the explicit nature of God’s grace. God’s character is revealed as forgiveness, mercy, grace and steadfast love. Despite the transgression of an entire people, God will forgive and continue to love to the thousandth generation.

But there is a consequence for iniquity.

God says that the iniquity of the parents will be visited upon offspring to the third and fourth generation. I don’t believe God is promising to punish future generations. I believe God is stating a fact that the dysfunction of our families gets passed on from generation to generation.

We know this was true for the Israelites. Even when they made it to the promised land, they couldn’t stop worshiping false idols. It led to their eventual downfall as a nation. What started in the wilderness continued well beyond the third and fourth generation.

This is a bedrock principle in family systems theory.

We know that all kinds of issues get passed from generation to generation. There are very visible and destructive ones like physical, sexual, emotional and substance abuse. But just about everything about who we are comes from our family of origin. This is true about how we deal with anger and conflict, raise children, handle money, celebrate holidays and a host of other behaviors, good, bad or indifferent.

Some things that are passed on are known and celebrated. We call these traditions. Others are unspoken.

This is especially true of anxiety.

In her article, How Trauma Is Carried Across Generations: Holding the Secret History of our Ancestors, Molly S. Castelloe references the work of M. Gerald Fromm. She writes,

The transmission of trauma may be particular to a given family suffering a loss, such as the death of an infant, or it can be a shared response to societal trauma.

Maurice De Witt, a sidewalk Santa on Fifth Avenue noticed a marked change in behavior the holiday season following 9/11 when parents would not “let the hands of their children go. The kids sense that. It’s like water seeping down, and the kids can feel it… There is an anxiety, but the kids can’t make the connections.”

“This astute man was noticing a powerful double message in the parent’s action,” Fromm says. “Consciously and verbally, the message was ‘Here’s Santa. Love him.’ Unconsciously and physically, it was ‘Here’s Santa. Fear him.’ The unnamed trauma of 9/11 was communicated to the next generation by the squeeze of a hand.”

Psychic legacies are often passed on through unconscious cues or affective messages that flow between child and adult. Sometimes anxiety falls from one generation to the next through stories told.”

How do you deal with life when it makes you anxious?

My mother was born in Seattle in 1923. Her father and his brothers owned a fish-wholesaling business. They were the first non-Anglo business on the Seattle waterfront. But my grandfather sent the family back to Japan in 1933 to help the business survive the depression. Her mother came back to Seattle a few years later to be with her husband. My mom and her four siblings stayed with their Aunt in Hiroshima until 1947.

I grew up hearing my mother’s stories of life in Japan. Most of them centered around what life was like being separated from her parents while her own country, the US, and her country of origin and residence, Japan, were at war. Some of them were about the A-bomb. Her family was fortunate. Of the five children, only the youngest, Nobu, was killed in the blast. She was 15. She is front and center in the photo above. My mother is back, left.

I don’t know if the stories transmitted anxiety or not. I do know that I’m glad they were told.

If you have anxiety about a situation at work, the church or at home, the best thing you can do is talk to your family of origin.

It doesn’t have to be about your anxiety. Just ask about their life. What was hard? What was good? What do they remember? Hear their stories.

Do this with anyone who has a memory of your family’s history. Your parents. Grandparents. Aunts and uncles. Anyone who has a story to tell.

The anxiety that is transmitted from generation to generation is not inevitable. You can stop the transmission of anxiety. That starts with hearing the untold stories.

Six years ago my Aunt called me on my birthday. She doesn’t usually call. When she did, she said, “Happy Birthday! Same birthday as Nobu.”

I wanted to say, “What?! I have the same birthday as my aunt who was killed in the A-bomb and nobody told me?!”

I thanked my aunt for telling me and told her that I had never known this, using the best non-anxious response I could muster.

Then I called my mom and asked her about it. “What? Hmmm. Oh yeah, I guess you did have the same birthday. I guess I forgot about it.”

I wonder what anxiety was transmitted by not telling me. I wonder what anxiety was released when I found out. I can’t really answer it, but I feel like it’s a good thing.

It’s not really a big deal. But it is nice to know this. It binds me in a special way to my family heritage that I can’t even explain.

I wrote in a blog post a year ago about my experience going to Hiroshima with my mom, my siblings and our spouses. Again, I can’t pin down exactly how it helped me or our family, but I know it did.

So, talk to your family. Whether that’s the people who came before or those who came after. Listen to the stories. You will learn things that will communicate the truth about who you are and where you come from.

And the truth will set you free.

Vision without Emotional Connection is Narcissism

I learned a long time ago that the leader of an organization needs to spend about 80% of her time in the future. The day-to-day is important, but somebody needs to know where the organization should go to fulfill its mission, whether that’s saving souls, saving the world or making a profit. If you don’t have vision, the organization (or whatever part of it you lead) will flounder. Without a vision, people will focus on doing things the way it’s always been done and that’s recipe for a slow, agonizing death.

Worse yet, when you, as the leader, don’t have vision, people get anxious. That’s because people want to be led. They want to know where things are headed. It doesn’t mean they’ll always follow. It DOES mean they will be less anxious than if there were no vision.

But, vision by itself is not enough. You need to stay emotionally connected to your followers for the vision to make a difference. This is especially true if there are resisters. This is hard. When you are trying to lead, the last thing you want to do is to stay connected with those who don’t agree with you or, even worse, with those who are trying to stop you in your tracks. But, not staying connected is narcissism.

A key element of narcissism is the lack of empathy. A narcissist disregards the feelings of others.

An effective leader is able to share her vision while giving others the freedom to disagree.

When you give others the freedom to disagree you are staying emotionally connected. You are showing that you understand how they feel and that it’s OK to disagree. That is leadership through self-differentiation. Here’s a reminder of Edwin Friedman’s definition from his book, Generation to Generation:

“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this.  If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow.  There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along.”  (Generation to Generation, p. 229)

When you articulate your vision, you are taking responsibility for your own goals and self. But if you are doing it without emotional connection, especially with those who resist, you are asking for trouble. The resistors will get more anxious, will find ways to obstruct what you are trying to accomplish and will make leading difficult, if not impossible.

People often misinterpret Friedman to think that leadership through self-differentiation is all about defining self and moving full-steam ahead. In his article, “Misreading Family Systems Theory,” Leander Harding describes what is known as the Yeager Theory in family systems. He writes:

“Friedman uses the metaphor of General Chuck Yeager and the sound barrier. When the sound barrier was being approached the aircraft would experience more and more turbulence as the plane closed in on the critical speed. Pilots would drive their aircraft to what they thought was the limit and then, afraid that the airplane would shake apart, back off without breaking the barrier. Yeager believed a physicist friend that it would be smooth on the other side of the barrier and put on speed just when most pilots were backing off and became the first to break the sound barrier.”

Yeager was correct. He had the courage to increase his speed at the point when the other pilots backed off. Once he pushed through the sound barrier, he experienced smooth sailing.

Friedman uses the sound barrier metaphor to describe what one experiences when leading change. There WILL be resistance. If one can maintain a non-anxious presence the resistance will likely dissipate. “Presence” is the key. It means staying emotionally connected.

Harding maintains that there is a tendency to misinterpret this metaphor by leaders who lack an understanding of family systems theory and, more importantly, do not make the difficult journey of doing their own work. He coined the term, the “Yeager Heresy” to describe leaders who are unable, or unwilling, to discern the difference between taking a principled stand and becoming rigidly inflexible. Those who fall for this heresy see the family systems approach as a “technique” for achieving their goals.

Leaders who are taught that sabotage and crisis are inevitable when they begin to lead through self-differentiation are also taught that they need to avoid getting wrapped up in content and need to understand the emotional processes involved. What he cautions against is taking a stand in a way that leaves others no room to do the same thing. When you are a non-anxious presence, you create emotional space where others are also able to self-differentiate.

You give others the freedom to disagree.

When we see leading through self-differentiation as a technique, we miss the opportunity for real conversation. We are unable to discern between those who are able to self-differentiate and those who are engaging in sabotage. Harding describes it this way:

“They have not heard the challenge that leadership involves staying emotionally connected to the members of the system, especially those with whom they are most emotionally uncomfortable. They have not heard the warning that this leadership theory is primarily about controlling one’s own emotionality and not a recipe for handling or manipulating others. The result is a generation of leaders on all sides of the current polarization who think that leadership consists of taking a bold stand and persisting in a damn the torpedoes full steam ahead mode. When resistance arises and the ship threatens to shake apart they are convinced that smooth skies are just ahead and they pour on the speed. They will not be able to perceive that they have not done the personal and relational homework necessary to really make a positive contribution until the wings come off as they now are.”

What Harding points out is that those who misunderstand leadership through self-differentiation ignore the fact that it requires emotional connection with those who resist. It’s not enough to know who what you believe. You also need to do the hard work of dealing with your own anxiety so that you can be a non-anxious presence for others.

So cast your vision. Follow God’s leading to the best of your ability. But, stay emotionally connected. Especially with those who disagree. It will be hard. But if you want to lead change, it’s the only way.