In the post on Reality Checks and Relationships I made a few critical points I hope you will remember:
- Your partner is not responsible for your anxiety, even though it exists in the energetic system between you, and both of you end up dealing with it one way or another.
- Sometimes anxious people are right to worry, even if they have an overly dramatic way of doing it.
- If you acknowledge the possibility, regardless how remote, that their worry may be based in reality, (if that is, indeed, true) then it can help diffuse anxiety and allow you to work as a couple.
- When trying to decide if a partner is actually creating part of the anxiety or could help diffuse anxious tension, looking at solutions using ‘results and reason’ is a good place to start. In that way you may move toward compromise.
In this post, I am following up on that last point. I’ve created an exercise for you to test the waters around the stories your inner Amy G. Dala tells you. This exercise will help you decide when and how your partner can help relieve anxious tension, specifically around boating safety issues, without being responsible for your underlying overly active Amy. G. Dala. Yay! It’s really just a way to start a conversation and to engage your partner in cooperative problem solving. It’s a way that you can stop wallowing around in the puddle of feelings that is anxiety and begin taking concrete action. It also helps you see clearly when your partner can do nothing so you need to let them off the hook and handle it yourself.
Remember: we are talking only about anxiety, which is an over reaction to perceived threat that is only marginally, if at all, based in reality. We’re not talking about fear, which is a reasonable response to a real threat that is completely reality based. If my boat has lost its engine and we are being blown toward rocks, that feeling I’m going to have is called fear and is based in the physical world. If my partner insists that she never needs to use safety equipment because she is somehow too skilled for that, I’m going to be worried because she is being stupid. (Maybe I should be considering the wisdom of sailing with her.)
You’ll need a piece of paper or a notebook, and something to write with. Yes, please, do this the old fashioned way. You still remember how to make the letters, no? Writing things on paper by hand is a more visceral experience than typing them into a phone or laptop. Our bodies recognize writing this way. Get out a straight edge and a number 2 pencil and go for it.
Divide the sheet of paper into 4 columns like in the photo. You are creating a spreadsheet the way you may have done in 5th grade if you are my age. Please do not be tempted to just create a spreadsheet on your computer. That’s missing the point about this being a visceral experience. Computer spreadsheets are in your head. I want this to be in your body. You could even make it artistic if you want to.
Fran ‘The Frontal’ Cortex is going to star in this show because we want cool reason for this exercise. Make a numbered list of the things that create anxiety for you. This is a working document, so you can always add to it. Just start with the biggest worries first, the ones you know Amy G. Dala spins her web around all the time. Try to be specific, not general. For instance, putting ‘I’m afraid something bad will happen’ is so general that there will be little fruit in discussing solutions.
In the next column by each item, put a number between 1 and 10 that describes how anxious you feel when you think about that fear. A 10 would be sheer panic. Put a slash like this / by the number because your partner is going to do this, too and you want to leave room. When you are finished, have your partner rate their level of anxiety for each item. (You might want to do this out loud by reading them the list so they don’t see your numbers. It’s ‘cleaner’ that way.)
Next is the brainstorming session. (We will assume, for this exercise, that only one partner actually has clinical anxiety.) What practical solutions can you come up with to bring your number closer to your partner’s? What solutions can your partner think of? If both numbers are high, then what needs to happen to bring them both down? Be creative. Think of everything. Ask other people for their input, too.
For instance, take a look at number 1 on my chart, ‘We will crush another boat when we leave the slip.’. Notice that my anxiety is at a 6 on this, while Mike’s is at a 3. (Anyone who doesn’t have a certain amount of anxiety pulling a boat out of a slip probably isn’t paying attention.) All the ways we could help bring my high 6 down closer to his 3 are listed in the brainstorming section. Notice I lined through buying a bow thruster. That’s because it’s unrealistic for us at this point. In a brainstorming session, be sure to write down everything you can think of. You can discard the ones that won’t work later.
Pick one or two solutions and begin putting them into practice. After putting some of the brainstorming suggestions into practice, go back to the chart and rate your anxiety again to see how much it has come down. Rinse and repeat as necessary.
If you and your partner have come up with practical, reasonable, physical world solutions that you’ve agreed to, put those into play, and your anxiety is not decreased, then it’s on you. Your partner has done their part. You’ll need to go to the other coping skills you have developed and let them off the hook. See how that works?
For example, say you are worried about anchoring out. You realize this is irrational because you know that thousands of boaters anchor out all the time without a problem. Your partner wants to anchor out. Asking your partner to never anchor out is unreasonable. What would be a reasonable compromise? Making sure there is a good dinghy to go ashore? Understanding how anchoring works? Practicing for small amounts of time in safe, quiet waters? Meet each other halfway. Give a little. Whatever anxiety is left after you’ve compromised and done those things is up to you to handle without burdening your partner with it.
Note to non-anxious partners: this exercise requires you to put your ego to bed for awhile. If you expect your partner to be realistic and honest, then you must do the same. Dig deep and discover if you are at all concerned about any of the same things, even if you believe them to be unlikely.
For instance, some people are afraid they will fall off the boat. Even if you have never even given it a conscious thought, you know that people do, actually, fall off boats all the time. It’s a real thing that happens and it’s likely that you take steps to prevent it, even if those steps are largely unconscious. Think hard about it. Since it actually does happen, you should consider taking some precautions or identifying out loud the precautions that you already take. Denying it’s anything to be concerned about is not being cooperative in the context of this exercise and could easily be a root cause of your partner’s apparent over-concern. Unless the fear listed is something like ‘unicorns are sleeping in our bed and pigs are flying around us’, you’re better off putting a number greater than 0 in the box. Shit happens. And if you don’t admit that, you are almost certainly contributing to the level of anxiety on your boat.
At the end of the day, this little exercise is only a way to get a conversation going and put things in writing in terms of planning and problem solving, without casting blame. When people write things down together they are more likely to follow through, especially when they intend to revisit the paper and see how things are going. I cannot stress enough, however, that this kind of cooperation requires two mature adults who are doing their best to be rational and reality based, and who both care about the other’s happiness and contentment on the boat. There has to be willingness to give a little. It’s a relationship. It’s about both people.
Just joined us for the A to Z Challenge? Read from the Letter A.