What Sets You Off Will Set You Free: How the Things That Annoy You Hold the Key to Happiness
The toilet seat was left in the standing position. A driver cut you off. A waitress got your order wrong. A customer service agent was useless. Someone cut you off in traffic. Your child still hasn’t done what you asked. A co-worker interrupted you in a meeting. Your spouse…well, I imagine your list is as long as mine.
If you think about the situations that raise your blood pressure to the bursting point, you might discover that the problem isn’t the problem. The problem is your perspective, which keeps you imprisoned in a cycle of anger and resentment.
Annoyances happen repeatedly in the real world, despite our fond wishes that life would unfold to our liking 100% of the time.
The good news is that our emotional triggers offer us the chance to observe our values in action. They show us, in exquisite detail, how it is for us when we’re not in control. They offer us an opportunity to make better decisions about where we direct our attention and our emotional energy.
But only if we can catch ourselves in the act.
If you’ve noticed that your negative responses to the raised toilet seats of life are increasing, maybe it’s time to take a breath.
Rather than create an emotional shitstorm around something that pales in comparison to truly threatening situations, serve yourself a big bowl of mindfulness.
If you want fewer annoyances in your life, you can continue to ask those around you to create the exact conditions you need in order to be content, hoping that one very fine day, they’ll change their behavior. Even though you’ve asked 30 times before, you could simply say, “Honey, can you please put the seat down when you’re done?”
I probably didn’t need to script this for you, because I’m sure you’d never say it through gritted teeth in harsh words.
I’m also sure that 31 times will be the charm.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with asking for what you want in this world, and I’d never discourage you from that. It’s just that after a while, you may realize you’re knocking on a door where no one’s ever home.
Here’s another possibility. Create a practice of mindfulness to alleviate your suffering, and get a side bonus of increased empathy and connection in five steps:
- First, fill in the blanks: I get [feeling state] when [name of person] does [unbelievably annoying thing that they do] whenever [this situation or circumstance] is happening.If you have a hard time naming your feelings, there’s a really handy emotions wheel I found on the internet (which unfortunately doesn’t come with attribution, but appears to be a descendant of the Plutchik wheel, which I mention only because “Plutchik” is fun to say). By naming your feelings, you’ll have a chance to experience them rather than denying them, which all the psychologists agree is the key to emotional health.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather take a sharp stick to the eye than feel certain feelings, but dang it, they’re right.
Your emotional literacy will grow as you practice naming and expressing these feelings, and mastering the vocabulary gives you a shot at greater emotional intelligence. And who doesn’t want that?
- Practice a little self-compassion. Rather than judging yourself for losing your cool, say a kind word to yourself, like, “Hey, self. I can see that you’re really set off by this and it feels awful. Everyone feels triggered from time to time, right? Can you breathe through it for a minute and maybe loosen your grip?”You might be surprised by how much relief you feel simply by admitting how bad you feel. Acknowledging that it’s happening in the present moment can also help you release the story (see #4) about how it shouldn’t be happening.
- Look for the pattern—is it a specific person who annoys you, or are you annoyed by the situation, no matter who is involved?If it’s the person, notice your behavior. Do you want to blame them or argue with them? Are you convinced that they’re not very smart or need help because they’re obviously messed up? Do you try to get others on your side to validate your feelings?
When specific people annoy me, I notice that whatever annoys me about them, annoys me about me. They’re simply reflecting back parts of myself I’m not fond of.
The universe loves this kind of irony. By the time I get it that the joke’s on me, the gods have had a good laugh. I have to choose between shaking my fist at the heavens or joining right in.
If certain situations consistently annoy you, dig a little deeper. What’s really bugging you? Is it your lack of control over the situation? Do you perceive a threat? Do you believe there is a right way and a wrong way? Do you lack good choices? Are you attached to a story that you believe is the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Asking yourself these questions may uncover some unconscious beliefs about how the world should conform to your ideals (which, of course, you are 100% right about. All the time. Aren’t you?).
Perhaps this line of questioning will coax your inner bulldog let go of that enormous, self-righteous bone, especially if you can…
- Separate fact from story. If we’re not clear on the difference between what happened and what we’re making the situation mean, we’ll be stuck in a perspective that has few, if any, options for resolving the inner conflict.For instance, if I believe that a driver cut me off intentionally because he’s a rude, arrogant f*ck-stick, and somebody (maybe me!) ought to set him straight, I’ll get caught up in the story and create an even more dangerous situation for myself.All that happened is he cut me off. Maybe his wife is in labor. Maybe he didn’t see me over here, cruising along in his blind spot.
Maybe he is an arrogant f*ck-stick.
None of this affects me unless I attach to a story about how he shouldn’t have done it, or about how he singled me out for this display of disrespect.
- Finally, let the story go. He did something. He just didn’t do it to me. Maybe it’s a heaven-sent opportunity for me to practice patience and forgiveness. “This poor guy is rushing around with his hair on fire. I wonder what his life is like right now.” Rather than hoping he gets caught by a cop so I can gloat, I can try a little lovingkindness meditation: may he be well, may he be happy, may he not feel the urge to drive like a maniac.Maybe I need to learn to stay in my business, which is to drive safely no matter how the members of F*ck-stick Nation are behaving around me.
By making the annoyances of life into personal affronts, I’ve created unnecessary suffering.
It’s likely that I’ve been making other things personal as well, and could use this as a lesson in “how we do anything is how we do everything.”
I can begin to separate what’s a minor annoyance from what’s truly important.
When we’ve reached a point where we can no longer manage the level of stress in our lives, our brains switch to survival mode. Before we know it, everything seems equally threatening. It’s a thing our brains do to make sure we don’t miss something that could take us down: we react to small things as if they are huge threats.
If this is happening a lot, it’s your stress level that needs attention, not the raised toilet seats or f*ck-sticks of the world. Try shifting your perspective from annoyance to acceptance, from “This-should-not-be-happening-in-my-perfect-world!” to “Oh. Hmm. A thing happened.” Like an observational comedian, you might find humor or compassion for the human condition instead of a jaw-clenching excuse for a fight.
Next time something insignificant instantly sends you into super-pissed-off mode, take advantage of the opportunity to name the trigger, loosen your grip, and possibly find the funny in it.
When you’re minding your level of mindfulness, you can dial down the stress meter and choose happiness instead.
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