I got a great comment on my recent post Lessons on irritability from the dentist. Mike writes:
Seriously, I think the hard part is that it requires an awareness, a mindfulness, of when we are in danger of blowing up. For myself, the times when I lash out at someone because I’m having a bad day, I haven’t stopped to notice that I’m in a really crappy mood. If I take a moment to recognize that I’m in pain or having a shitty day, then I’m more likely to stop before I yell at someone and think, ‘take a breath. This is about your molar, not your mother’. But how can one develop that awareness BEFORE the reaction?
I get that sort of question a lot–and I think it’s the responsible, grown-up question to ask. We all get irritable, but if we take seriously a desire not to take it out on the people around us, then we have to engage the question of how to prevent this from happening.
I think a huge part of the answer has to do with just the awareness Mike mentions.
It makes me think about the DMV.
I find the Department of Motor Vehicles to be just about the most irritating place in the world; way more irritating than the dentist, actually. I’m someone who gets easily hung up on a fictional notion of courtesy and customer service. It’s my own weakness relative to idealism (see I don’t deserve this for an intro to idealism). It’s annoying, it takes more time than it should, it’s pretty likely you’re going to be treated rudely.
But I don’t want to take it out on anyone at the DMV.
I’ve come to fashion for myself a code system of sorts. Most of the time in my life, things are going pretty well and I can expect that the ordinary, day-to-day annoyances won’t get to me too much. And then there are circumstances–the dreaded trip to the DMV being a classic–where I know there’s a high probability of my losing my cool. So I activate Code Yellow: High likelihood of boneheadedness! Danger ahead! Proceed with caution!
I plan accordingly:
I make sure I’ve eaten before I go–an empty stomach just increases the odds of disaster.
I check in with my ethics–I remind myself that it’s important to me not to be a jerk to some civil servant who’s just trying to do his or her job.
I pack reading material.
I breathe again.
I listen to my body–if I start to get tense, breathe more heavily, or my heart starts to race, when I’m already on high alert, I’m more likely to know to take these sensations seriously.
That last one is the most important part. Sometimes the gauges that tell us we’re at risk of blowing our lid don’t work so well; in fact, they tend to malfunction when we most need them. If you’re aware of this, then you’re more likely to be on the lookout for warning signs and to be prepared to check yourself when they come up.
I tend to be a jerk when [blank]
[Blank] always stresses me out.
I don’t like so and so, and he can really get me worked up.
I’m cranky when…
You get the idea.