As much as we wish that people would always be kind, polite, and act in alignment with our own morals and values, the truth is that they don’t.
Sometimes bosses or co-workers say things that we consider to be rude.
Sometimes people cut us off in traffic.
Sometimes people even lie, cheat, or steal.
Regardless of the circumstance, when it comes to other people, there is a simple truth that I find helpful to remember: We can’t control what other people do, but we can always control how we react.
How Do You Want To Feel About It?
When somebody does something that you don’t like, you can decide how you want to react by asking yourself: “How do I want to feel about this?” Because our behavior is driven by our emotions, determining how you want to feel is the first step to choosing your own reaction.
We’re conditioned to believe that our reactions are automatic or involuntary. For example, we often learn in childhood that reacting out of anger “just happens” because that’s how anger was modeled to us by the people around us.
In reality, fully-functioning, mentally-healthy adults are in complete control of their behaviors and reactions at all times, even if it doesn’t feel that way. If you slow down and notice how the emotion feels in your body, you can learn to allow the emotion you feel before reacting to it. Learning to expand the space between the stimulus and your response to it is one of the most powerful skills you can learn because it gives you complete freedom in choosing how you want to feel and thus how you will react.
Consider The Actual Effects
What are the actual effects of your own feelings and reactions? Are they serving you? For example, if a co-worker says something that you find offensive at work, consider what purpose it would serve if you choose to feel offended by that.
If you plan to take some productive action in response to something that you find truly offensive, then the feeling of being offended might be useful to you. For example, if the co-worker’s comment was truly egregious and inappropriate, you might want to let the person know that you find it inappropriate or even report it to HR if that’s warranted. In that case, the feeling of being offended serves the purpose calling someone out and possibly deterring similar behavior in the future.
But if you are choosing to feel offended and then simply fume about it for the next few hours without saying anything directly to him or taking any further action, what is the actual benefit of your feeling offended? You get to have the satisfaction of feeling righteously indignant but you are the only one who is really affected by it and it is likely to make you less productive while you’re fuming about it.
If there is no real benefit to feeling offended, you can just decide to stop feeling that way. For example, say someone cuts you off in traffic. How do you want to feel about it? If getting angry serves you no real purpose, you can just decide to feel neutral or curious about it instead.
The way to do that is by choosing thoughts that would allow you to feel neutral or curious. Thoughts like “he must be in a big hurry” or “I wonder if he has some sort of emergency, like a sick child he’s rushing to the hospital.” It might be true, it might not. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that someone else’s behavior no longer has the power to derail your day. You have the power to choose how to feel and respond, which feels amazing.
But What If You Really Want To Feel Negative Emotion?
There will be times when you really want to feel a negative emotion about what someone else does. Even in those times, you still get to choose how to respond.
For example, say you discover that your boss is embezzling money from your company. You probably would want to feel uncomfortable, disgusted, or angry in that situation because it’s against your own morals, values, and integrity, (not to mention illegal). In that case, those negative emotions will drive you to do something about it. To stand up and speak out, whistleblowers are driven by emotions like discomfort, anger, and disgust, as well as courage.
But just because you want to be uncomfortable with that behavior doesn’t mean that your emotions about it need to consume you or overtake your life. If you find yourself ruminating about someone else’s behavior after you’ve taken action, it might be time to choose a more neutral feeling, such as acceptance, curiosity, or even compassion.
What would you need to think and believe to cultivate those feelings?
In the case of the embezzling boss, you might decide to think “He must really be suffering to do something like. I wonder what feelings he has that would drive him to do such a thing.”
When you look at it like that, you can see that he is probably living in a place of deep scarcity, lack, fear, and insecurity. People who are happy, fulfilled, and abundant don’t embezzle money from their employers, so that action must have been driven by deeply negative emotions. So thinking “he is a human who is experiencing deeply negative emotions” helps you see that his emotions are what is driving the behavior. As a fellow human, you might even be able to relate to having negative emotions that drive behavior you don’t always like. That allows you to cultivate a sense of compassion for him, without condoning his behavior.
In my own life, I’ve found that choosing acceptance, curiosity, and compassion rather than indignation and anger feels better. 100% of the time. And I also like my reactions when I choose these emotions, too. I’m more patient and forgiving. I spend more time focused on my own circle of influence rather than on what I cannot control. Try it for yourself and see how it feels.
Have a beautiful week.