Creating positive change at home can be an anxiety-filled process.
“Is it possible for things to be going too well?” my client asked.
“No,” I said, “and it’s normal to be worried about that.”
It’s also normal to think that sounds crazy. If the point of family therapy is to make things better, why would you feel anxious when that happens? Do people need more therapy to deal with the anxiety associated with successful therapy?
Yes and no. That anxiety is a sign that things are indeed getting better; it’s also a sign that therapy isn’t finished yet.
Positive change is scarier than the status quo, or even things getting worse. Again, that sounds crazy, but it’s a matter of being comfortable with the way things are. Your family life might not be ideal, but at least it’s predictable, and you know how to handle your problems (most of the time). The problems become part of the family system that helps you function from day to day.
Here’s an example: A client of mine once visited Netcare in the middle of the week because of suicidal thoughts. (Netcare is an organization in Columbus that specializes in crisis care for mental health.) The clinicians there eventually decided he was safe enough to go home and deal with the issue during his scheduled session with me; the clinic then called to let me know.
When my client and his family met with me that Saturday, I asked, “So how did this week go? Anything unusual happen?”
They stared at me and said, “Nope, just a normal week.”
“Maybe we should talk about your trip to Netcare,” I said.
The client’s mother shrugged. “To be honest, I forgot about that. Everything is fine now.”
No, she wasn’t a horrible mother, and she didn’t have a case of sudden-onset dementia. The crisis was routine for them: The kid got upset, the parents got upset, an argument happened, everything escalated into a crisis, and then everyone eventually calmed down. Not only were they used to the chaos, but their family system incorporated it into the daily routine. The family expected chaos to happen, so they accepted it as a part of life.
When people are used to conflict, chaos and pain, they’re often uncomfortable with calm, quiet and positive functioning. They worry things will go haywire again, so anxiety kicks in and they start looking for things to get worse at the very time they’re improving. It’s not that they don’t like the newfound family success; it’s because they do like it, but don’t trust it.
This is the point where many families leave therapy—not at the suggestion of the therapist, but because they figure things are better, so spending more time and money is a waste. But since they’re also worried that things are too good to be true, anxiety builds until it’s easier—and more comfortable—to self-sabotage until they fall back into the same old painful-but-predictable patterns.
I tell clients in our first session that they’ll feel some anxiety as things get better. And when they slide backward, we’ll talk about what helped them make progress and how to continue building on those successes.
Eventually, that anxiety goes away as the family gets used to the new way of doing things. The new approach becomes easier to trust with time, and the old system that needed chaos and conflict no longer exists. Instead, it’s replaced by behaviors and communication patterns that help the family function in more positive ways.
“So my anxiety is normal,” my client said in our session. “I thought we were doing something wrong.”
“You’re doing just fine,” I said. “That feeling means things are getting better, but we still have work to do. Tell me what things have been working for you so far, and we’ll explore ways to keep building on those.”
Carl Grody is a licensed independent social worker who works with families at Grody Family Counseling in Worthington.