Some things are so small and stupid that it's ridiculous how much they upset you--and yet they do.
A few years ago, I arrived with a friend at a play in a small town in Massachusetts. We were directed to a lawn for parking, where my friend pulled in right next to a Cadillac. I opened the passenger door, and saw a look of extreme alarm on the woman behind the wheel.
"Don't worry," I told her, "I'll be careful not to hit your car when I open the door."
"Someone already did and I'm just sick about it," she said in a voice of despair. Then she pointed to a dent in the driver's side door that was--I swear--about the size of a pencil eraser.
You don't have enough real problems in your life! I thought to myself as my friend and I headed to our seats. But the truth is I've been that woman. We all have, at one time or another. We let things rattle us when we know we shouldn't. The human brain seems wired to let trivial things upset us more than true catastrophes. It's also wired to focus on what upsets and worries us rather than the things that are going right. How do we change that perspective?
It's not easy, but it can be done. The next time you find yourself devastated or infuriated by something that doesn't deserve such a big reaction, walk away from wherever you are. Go someplace where you can be alone. Take three deep breaths, and then ask yourself these questions:
1. Why is this such a big deal?
What are the real consequences of whatever is upsetting you? If they aren't huge, why are you bothered? There really is a reason, and figuring out what that is may be the first step to regaining your emotional balance.
2. What are you afraid of?
When inconsequential problems push our buttons, the explanation may well be that we're frightened. So ask yourself if the problem that's upsetting you plays into any of your fears. For me, the prospect of losing control--of a situation, of myself, of my environment--is highly disturbing. I often find myself upset out of all proportion when I feel my sense of control is threatened. Everyone has a bugaboo like this one over something or other. Do some soul-searching and figure out if whatever's bothering you has to do with one of yours.
3. Do you feel disrespected?
Many times, we overreact to a problem because we believe we've been belittled in some way. If that perception is accurate, then maybe you do have good reason to be bothered--and to do something about it. But just as often, the perceived slight was an oversight or other unintentional offense. Looking at it rationally, can you tell whether you've truly been disrespected, or was there simply an honest error? If you're not sure, don't assume the worst. Go find out.
5. What else is going wrong?
Are you really upset because your office printer needs replacing, or is it about the fight you had with your partner last night? Sometimes when we can't focus on what's actually upsetting us, or we can't do anything about it, we redirect those feelings onto something else. If that's what's happened, then you probably have every reason to be deeply unhappy. You just need to figure out what the correct target is for those feelings.
6. What else is going right?
Sometimes the best way to regain our sense of proportion is to take inventory of everything else that's happening in our lives and work. How are things generally? If your life is going pretty well overall, focusing on that big picture should help you put smaller upsets into perspective. If things aren't going well, chances are you have more important problems than whatever's gotten under your skin. So direct your attention and your efforts to those big issues and let the small ones lie.
7. Can you anything do to solve this problem?
In many cases, the answer is no. The things that bother us the most tend to be those we can't do anything about. If that's the case, you need to acknowledge and accept your own helplessness. And then let the whole thing go.
8. What would you give to solve this problem?
Often there is a solution, but the effort, cost, or disruption might not be worth it. Even if there isn't--pretend just for a moment that there is. Imagine that you could snap your fingers and make this problem go away, but in exchange, you would have to give up something else that you care about.
Would you do it? What would you be willing to sacrifice in order to have this problem removed from your life? Finding an honest answer to that question might help you cut your upset reaction down to size.
9. Five years from now, how much will you care?
Imagine a meeting with your future self in which you try to explain why this particular problem was such an important concern. What would your future self say? How concerned do you think you would be after some time has passed?
Will your future self agree with you that this is a problem worthy of your emotion and attention? Or will you have moved on to other things by then? And if your five-years-older self doesn't think this is worth getting upset about--consider the possibility that he or she is right.