When someone upsets us, this is often because they aren’t behaving according to our fantasy of how they “should” behave. The frustration, then, stems not from their behavior but from how their behavior differs from our fantasy. Let’s not get carried away. Calmness is a superpower.
Over the past decade, there’s a way of being I’ve gradually been cultivating in myself—I’ve been taming my tendency to get angry and argue with people when their behavior doesn’t match my expectations.
As human beings, we all have an idea in our heads about how things are supposed to be, and sadly this is what often messes our relationships up the most. We all get frustrated when things don’t play out the way we expect them to, and people don’t behave like they’re “supposed” to. We expect our spouses and children to act a certain way, our friends to be kind and agreeable, strangers to be less difficult, and so on and so forth.
And when reality hits us, and everyone seems to be doing the opposite of what we want them to do, we overreact—anger, frustration, stress, arguments, tears, etc.
So what can we do about this?
You can’t control how other people behave. You can’t control everything that happens to you. What you can control is how you respond to it all. In your response is your power.
When you feel like your lid is about to blow, take a long deep breath. Deep breathing releases tension, calms down our fight or flight reactions, and allows us to quiet our anxious nerves so we choose more considerate and constructive responses, no matter the situation.
So, for example, do your best to inhale and exhale next time another driver cuts you off in traffic. In a recent poll we hosted with 1,200 new course students, overreacting while fighting traffic was the most commonly cited reason for overreacting on a daily basis. Just imagine if all the drivers on the road took deep breaths before making nasty hand gestures, or screaming obscenities at others.
There’s no doubt that it can drive us crazy when we don’t get what we expect from people, especially when they are being rude and difficult. But trying to change the unchangeable, wanting others to be exactly the way we want them to be, just doesn’t work. The alternative, though, is unthinkable to most of us: to breathe, to let go, to lead by example, and to accept people even when they irritate us.
Here’s the way of being that I’ve been cultivating and advocating:
- To breathe deeply, and often.
- To remind myself that I can’t control other people.
- To remind myself that other people can handle their lives however they choose.
- To not take their behavior personally.
- To see the good in them.
- To let go of the ideals and expectations I have about others that causes unnecessary frustration, arguments, and bouts of anger.
- To remember that when others are being difficult, they are often going through a difficult time I know nothing about. And to give them empathy, love, and space.
“Being” this way takes practice, but it’s worth it. It makes me less frustrated, it helps me to be more mindful, it improves my relationships, it lowers my stress, and it allows me to make the world a slightly more peaceful place to be. I hope you will join me.
Smart Ways to Remain Calm
If you’re ready to feel more peace and less inner angst, here are some ways I’ve learned to remain calm and centered, even when those around me can’t seem to contain themselves. These principles reinforce the bullet points above, and when you consistently practice these principles, the world within you and around you becomes a lot easier to cope with.
Let’s practice, together…
1. Get comfortable with pausing.
Don’t imagine the worst when you encounter a little drama. When someone is acting irrationally, don’t join them by rushing to make a negative judgment call. Instead, pause. Take a deep breath…
Sometimes good people behave poorly under stress. Don’t you? When you pause, it gives you space to collect your thoughts and it also allows the other person the space to take a deep breath with you. In most cases, that extra time and space is all we need.
2. Respect people’s differences.
Learn to respect the opinions of others. Just because someone does it differently doesn’t make it wrong. There are many roads to what’s right in this world. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion.
So choose your battles wisely. And just agree to disagree sometimes.
It is absolutely possible to connect with, and even appreciate the company of, someone you don’t completely agree with. When you make a commitment to remain neutral on matters that don’t matter that much, or speak respectfully about your disagreements, both parties can remain calm and move forward, pleasantly.
3. Be compassionate.
In the busyness of today’s world people tend to be worried, fearful, hurting and distracted about everything. The word compassion means “to suffer with.” When you can put yourself in the other person’s shoes, you give them the space to regroup, without putting any extra pressure on them.
Remember, we never know what’s really going on in someone’s life. When you interact with others in stressful environments, set an intention to be supportive by leaving the expectations, judgments and demands at the door.
4. Extend generosity and grace.
Everyone gets upset and loses their temper sometimes. Remind yourself that we are all more alike than we are different. When you catch yourself passing judgment, add “just like me sometimes” to the end of a sentence. For example:
- That person is grouchy, just like me sometimes.
- He is so darn impatient, just like me sometimes.
- She is being rude, just like me sometimes.
Choose to let things GO. Let others off the hook. Take the high road today.
5. Don’t take people’s behavior personally.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you take everything personally, you will be offended for the rest of your life. And there’s no reason for it. Even when it seems personal, rarely do people do things because of you, they do things because of them. You know this is true. You may not be able control all the things people say and do to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Make that decision for yourself today.
Let it go! Seriously, there is a huge amount of freedom that comes to you when you detach from other people’s beliefs and behaviors. The way people treat you is their problem, how you react is yours.
Everyone behaves the way they behave based on how they feel inside. Some people never learn how to effectively cope with their stressful emotions. When someone is acting obnoxious, it’s vital that you remain calm, no matter what. Don’t allow other people to knock you off your center.
Do what it takes to remain calm and address the situation from the inside out. That’s where your greatest power lies.
6. Talk less and learn to appreciate silence.
Don’t fall into an unnecessary argument just because you feel uncomfortable in silence. Don’t say things you’ll regret five minutes later just to fill your eardrums with noise. Anger and frustration begins internally. You have the capacity to choose your response to momentary discomfort.
Inhale. Exhale. A moment of silence in a moment of anger, can save you from a hundred moments of regret. Truth be told, you are often most powerful and influential in an argument when you are most silent. Others never expect silence. They expect yelling, drama, defensiveness, offensiveness, and lots of back and forth. They expect to leap into the ring and fight. They are ready to defend themselves with sly remarks cocked and loaded. But your mindful silence? That can really disarm them.
7. Create a morning ritual that starts your day off right.
Don’t rush into your day by checking your phone or email. Don’t put yourself it a stressful state of mind that’s incapable of dealing positively with other people’s negativity. Create time and space for a morning ritual that’s focused and peaceful.
Here’s part of my morning ritual: I take ten deep breaths before getting out of bed, I stand up and stretch, and then do ten minutes of meditation.
I challenge you to try this—it has been life-changing for me—but start small with just three deep breaths and three minutes of meditation a day. Do this for 30 days. After 30 days, if this daily ritual becomes easy, add another two breaths and another two minutes to your ritual. When you begin a day mindfully, you lay the foundation for your day being calm and centered, regardless of what’s going on around you. (Note: Marc and I build small, daily, life-changing rituals with our students in the “Goals and Growth” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
8. Cope using healthy choices and alternatives.
When we face stressful situations, we often calm or soothe ourselves with unhealthy choices—drinking alcohol, eating sugary snacks, smoking, etc. It’s easy to respond to anger with anger and unhealthy distractions.
Notice how you cope with stress. Replace bad coping habits with healthy coping habits. Take a walk in a green space. Make a cup of tea and sit quietly with your thoughts. Listen to some pleasant music. Write in your journal. Talk it out with a close friend. Healthy coping habits make happy people. (Note: This is covered in more detail in the “Self-Love” chapter of our book.)
9. Remind yourself of what’s right, and create more of it in the world.
Keeping “the positive” in mind helps you move beyond the negativity around you.
At the end of the day, reflect on your small daily wins and all the little things that are going well. Count three small events on your fingers that happened during the day that you’re undoubtedly grateful for. For example:
- My family and I made it home safely from work and school today.
- My spouse and I shared a laugh.
- Our meals filled our stomachs.
And pay it forward when you get a chance too. Let your positivity empower you to think kindly of others, speak kindly to others, and do kind things for others. Kindness always makes a difference. Create the outcomes others might be grateful for at the end of their day. Be a bigger part of what’s right in this world.
The most fundamental aggression to ourselves and others—the most fundamental harm we can do to human nature as a whole—is to remain ignorant by not having the awareness and the courage to look at ourselves and others honestly and gently.
With this in mind, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this article. What resonated with you? What didn’t? Is there anything else you would add to the list?
Please leave me a comment below and share your thoughts.
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(And finally, a special “thank you” to our good friend Tess Marshall, who volunteered at our Think Better, Live Better conference last week and subsequently sparked the idea for this article—and also provided her beautiful insights as it was being written.)