A great number of us walk through life thinking the world revolves around us. That neighbor who didn’t wave at me this morning? Oh no, I must have done something wrong for her not to acknowledge me. The idea that she may have been preoccupied or forgotten her glasses that morning never occurs to me. We end up taking everything personally. How can we not? We believe that since the upsetting interaction involves us, we have directly contributed to it.
So we fume when someone honks at us or cuts us off in traffic. We think we are entitled to the road as much as the next person, and we spend at least the next few minutes having a mental conversation with that driver. It rubs us the wrong way when an unreasonable client, an irritated spouse or a disrespectful supervisor snaps at us in frustration and leaves us wondering what we did to deserve that. We automatically conclude that we were the cause of their outburst. “It has to do with me” seems like the only likely explanation.
It doesn’t feel particularly good to be treated that way, especially when we are convinced it was uncalled for. Our mood is ruined. The blood pressure skyrockets. The negative internal conversation that gets us all worked up and angry finishes the job. So we lean on the horn at the overly cautious driver in front of us, snap at a more junior person at work at the slightest hint of incompetence or get impatient when a barista is taking too long with our coffee. Everyone in our path had better watch out!
Without thinking, we have just extended the chain of frustration and anger – paying it forward, so to speak, with bad deeds instead of the kind ones.
I used to be caught up in that cycle of negativity myself. Then it dawned on me that none of other people’s angry behavior is actually about me. When someone cuts me off in traffic, bumps into and swears at me, or loses their temper because of a mistake made at work, I remind myself: “This is not about me.” “She is having a bad day; she is just taking it out on me.” Or, if all else fails and I am about to stoop to that person’s level, I repeat this mantra to myself: “His ‘stuff’ will not become my ‘stuff.’”
Miraculously, it works. I no longer need to go from 0 to 60 on the irritation scale and let it ruin my mood. Someone else’s bad behavior, even if directed at me, is not about me. What a liberating concept! It doesn’t need to hurt the ego or undermine any professional importance. For me, it just takes a second to take a breath and remind myself that this is not about me. I can then calmly move on with my day without wasting precious energy on having a mental argument with the offender or taking anything out on the next person who will jump on the bandwagon of angry outbursts along with me.
There are lots of things I can’t control, but not perpetuating the vicious cycle of negativity – that I can.
If it’s difficult to put a wedge between someone else’s inappropriate behavior and your reaction, exploring your responses and emotions in therapy can be a good start.