Apr 13, 2020 • 30M

#15 Anxiety Expert Kathleen Smith, Author of Everything Isn’t Terrible

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Notes on Quotes is a wide-ranging interview series where interesting people share a quote that’s meaningful to them. Hosted by Stephen Harrison who has written for The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic. He's currently a columnist for Slate. Throughout 2020, Harrison is interviewing authors, scholars, actors, entertainers, and more about a quote of their choosing. Brought to you by Aftermath Ventures, LLC.
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Welcome to Notes on Quotes, an interview in series in which Stephen Harrison chats with interesting people about a quote that’s meaningful to them.

Dr. Kathleen Smith, Ph.D., LPC is a therapist and the author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxieties, and Finally Calm Down.  Her mental health writing provides smart, practical tools to help in these anxiety-ridden times. Smith writes a free anxiety newsletter, The Anxious Overachiever, which Slate’s Shannon Palus described as “hanging out with a friend who cares about your problems too.”


This print interview has been condensed and edited.


Stephen Harrison: So what quote are we chatting about today?


Kathleen Smith: My quote is from Viktor Frankl, who was a psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. He wrote a book that is still very popular today called Man’s Search for Meaning. And the quote is: “Live as if you were living already for the second time, and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now.”


What a great quote! Frankl’s book is one of my favorites. How about for you?

Yes, and it’s one that I always recommend to my therapy clients if they don’t have any particular agenda because it really sparks and promotes so much thinking about meaning in their day-to-day lives. It’s a wonderful little short book to read if you want to think about what motivates you and how you interact with other people.

Why does this quote resonate with you?

I think it really sums up the work that I try and do with people as a therapist, and the work I’m always trying to do on myself! [laugh] The idea is to know yourself so well that you can predict your autopilot, and how that autopilot can switch on during challenging situations if you’re not paying attention. To understand what we’re programmed to do to keep things calm and coast through challenges, and to consider whether or not we really should do that in any given situation. Or whether we want to be a better, different version of ourselves instead.

Frankl says live this life “as if you were living for the second time.” This reminded me of a concept from your book—taking the astronaut’s view of life. Can you describe that idea?

Usually in our relationships, we tend to stay focused on seeing things from our perspective. We love to paint other people as villains or heroes or different characters in our story, right? So, taking the astronaut’s view involves sort of hovering above yourself and everyone else, and seeing how we affect each other, especially when we’re anxious. It’s trying to see the system at work, and how we are constantly reacting to other people’s reactions. Instead of feeding on the same dynamics that you always engage in, you’re able to ask yourself “Is there a different path here? Is there a different choice in how I respond to this annoying person, or this really difficult problem?” Being curious like that puts you in a different place because you’re not just running on autopilot.

Speaking of curiosity, you often tell your clients that you’re “curious” about how they’re going to solve different problems.

Curiosity puts the focus on the other person’s capability, right? I’m not lending any of my own thinking in that moment. I’m focusing the resources that are within you [the client] as you navigate this challenge.

Keep in mind: As a therapist, I only have access to very little information. I usually only have one or two people’s perspectives. I don’t have the lifetime of experiences dealing with the situation that they do. The arrogance of me thinking that my advice is going to solve a problem is usually not very helpful.

But if I’m calm and curious, and just generally interested in how a person is going to navigate their life, I think that is contagious. It helps the client start to get interested in the problem versus just being anxious or afraid of it.

Frankl suggests that we live as if we were living “for the second time.” I imagine that if we were living for the second time, we might be more thoughtful or meditative. But I wonder whether it’s something in our evolutionary development that makes us so nervous in these situations.

In the book, I talk about the part of the brain that’s uniquely human versus the lizard brain—the lizard brain just wants to “flight or fight” in a given situation. But an important point is that our lizard brain is really useful, right? We wouldn’t have evolved these very quick responses to stress if they didn’t work really well a lot of the time. That is, we do have these quick, adaptive responses for a reason.

But sometimes the lizard brain gets in the way of a different response. Sometimes if you have more time, you can think about what you want to do before that automatic lizard action comes in.

You mention that those autopilot responses often arise when we’re with our families. Why is it so difficult to manage our emotions in a family environment?

The boundaries between yourself and other people in your family are so thin. It’s harder to decipher our feelings from our family’s feelings. Imagine in your mind this overlapping Venn diagram of humans. To me it’s a lifelong goal—to be part of your family but also a person who thinks and chooses for yourself.

As you mentioned up top, Frankl was writing about his experience in the Holocaust in a concentration camp, which was of course this tragic and terrifying world.

Yes, and Frankl found that the people who were focused and thoughtful about how they were going to respond to these almost impossible challenges in front of them seemed to do better. That’s useful for all of us to think about—how do you stay focused on yourself and how you want to respond to a situation, versus trying to control others or trying to prevent the situation from happening to begin with. Preventing the situation may well be impossible, in which case that “I” focus is really important.

Like you, I’m a big fan of Frankl’s book. But I always like to challenge these quotes if I can, so in that spirit: Frankl says to live as if we’re living “for the second time.” Wouldn’t one downside of this retrospective view be that we would be overly cautious? Would our lives be lacking spontaneity?

I’m not sure if this is what Frankl had in mind, but this is how I’ve taken the quote—We are actually living out things not only for the second time, but a ninety-ninth time, or the thousandth time, especially when it comes to our relationships. That’s because most of our relationship challenges are similar to what we’ve experienced in the past.

We have the privilege of saying “OK, this is my three thousandth phone call with my mother where she asks me if I’ve graduated yet.” So this is my three thousdandth opportunity to think about whether I want to [A] snap at her. or [B] be honest and thoughtful in my response. Do I want to live in this Groundhog Day scenario of acting the same way every time I’m anxious? Or can I flip the switch a little bit?

So, no, I don’t think of the Frankl quote in terms of being cautious. I think of it as recognizing that most challenges are similar to experiences that you’ve been up against in the past. One really cool thing about this perspective is that you can fail a whole bunch of times—then get yet another round and see if you can do something differently.

I love that interpretation of the quote, and this idea of thinking more thoughtfully in a repeatedly anxious situation. You mention in your book that you have named your anxiety “Karl.” Why was it helpful to give your anxiety a name?  

I think naming it made me take it a little less seriously, and allowed me to laugh at it a little bit. Anxious thoughts tend to make the stakes seem very high. But if you put another name or another face to your anxiety, you can see the ridiculousness—and the irrationality—of it. If I’m thinking in a room of people, Everyone here finds you really annoying, Kathleen. I can flip that and say, Karl thinks that everyone finds you really annoying, Kathleen. With that reframing, I can see that Karl is annoying and a bit of a jerk.

Go away, Karl! One of the themes of your book is the role of maturity. My read of the Frankl’s quote is that we would want to live our life “for the second time” with more maturity. Do you think that we place enough emphasis as a society on maturity?

Maturity is not a sexy word. Nobody comes into therapy saying, “I want to be more mature.” Being happier, having better relationships—those things all sound much more appealing than maturity.

We love to think that our partners are less mature than we are, but we tend to end up with someone who’s about the same level of maturity as us. The idea is that our relationships are reciprocal. For example, if I love to take over and over-function for people, I might fit with somebody who likes to let me do that.

The great thing about maturity is that it helps you think more clearly in challenging situations. It enriches your relationships because you’re not so allergic to everybody else’s anxiety. And you can accomplish goals and play the “long game” more effectively because you’re focused on being the person you need to be.