Do you get irritated or angry when things don’t go the way you’d like or expect, whether it’s at home, at work, with your health or day to day living? Have you ever snapped at your loved ones in a moment of anger, immediately feeling guilty about it afterwards? Ever started a fight with your partner for no reason, or forgot why you were arguing half way through, but you just kept going anyway? Do you blame others for the situations you find yourself in? At work, do you get easily annoyed with people, especially if they don’t know what they’re doing in their role, or they talk too much and waste time, or just don’t notice the details that you do? Do you find it hard to wind down at the end of the day?
Life used to frustrate me. When driving, I would shout at getting a red light or at cars in a traffic jam. I didn’t like it when others wouldn’t follow the rules or if things didn’t go my way. I often wanted to put out a good impression to the world, be great in my job, in my relationship, my finances, my health. I became upset if I thought I wasn’t being seen in a positive way. But I was focusing so much on what other people thought of me and the image I was projecting, that it became a mask. I felt like I couldn’t show people the real me anymore. I didn’t like the real me anymore. I was angry at myself. In public I wouldn’t eat a lot of food because I knew I was overweight and I wanted people to see me as someone who cared about my body and someone who was making the effort to diet. But then I’d be ravenous when I got home, and I’d cook extra food for dinner, knowing that I’d be having seconds.
Sometimes I’d hide from my partner and eat a third helping in the kitchen while he watched TV. In my job, the reality was that I was actually really great at what I did. It’s just that I hated being there. Then there was my relationship. On the outside we looked very happy and we were doing all the things that people our age did. We lived together and shared the bills. We were getting engaged and meeting each others families. We went out with our mutual friends each week. We did date night and TV dinner and would complain to each other about work. But I felt as if our relationship was stuck.
I felt stuck in my life
I would act out and shouted at my partner. I would blame him for not being adventurous enough, or not cleaning up properly, or for not listening to me the way that I wanted to be listened to. I blamed him for being too nice, for being too childish, for not showing enough emotion or for showing too much. I blamed my job for making me feel obligated to help them because I knew they relied on me even though I didn’t want to be there. I was angry that I felt like I needed to keep this job so I could pay my bills to live in the house I didn’t even want, with a partner I wasn’t even getting along with. I thought that this was what life was like for everyone and I just had to suck it up.
So I let my anger fester until it boiled over into arguments with loved ones, or screaming into the traffic on my drive to work. I knew I couldn’t keep doing this. I couldn’t squash the feeling down any longer. But I was scared. I didn’t think I could do anything else. I didn’t know what else was possible. I thought that maybe I was just over-stressed. So I took some time off work and told my partner I needed to take a holiday on my own. I booked my flights and off I flew to Queensland for a much needed break. Or so I thought.
Sitting in the airport, my flights were delayed by an hour. At first I grumbled a little bit, but then I decided to try to relax and my way towards the bar. Half an hour later and a after glass of wine, the board flickered to let me know my flight was now further delayed by another two hours. That was it. I could feel my temperature rising. My nose flared as I took a sharp breath in and I scrunched my fists by my side. I thought to myself about all the other things I could be doing right now. I was a busy person. There were much better things I could be doing with my time than sitting here in a stuffy airport, spending my hard earned money and listening to the droning voice of the announcer every fifteen minutes.
A voice behind me said “you must be on the delayed flight too.” I sighed and turned around to a friendly looking stranger who asked me what I did for fun. I didn’t know. Then, she asked if I’d like to venture into the lounge with her. You see, she was a frequent flyer and could take a guest with her. I gladly accepted the invite, looking forward to experiencing the comfort of the lounge and possibly some nice conversation to pass the time.
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Little did I know, that the conversation would change my life
As I sat talking with my new friend, I let loose on all the things that were bothering me and how horrible my life was and how I was so angry all the time. I must’ve been talking for a while because when I finally stopped, I think she might have breathed a sigh of relief. She listened so well and so kindly that I felt much better. Then she asked me one question. “How is that a problem?”. “Excuse me?” I replied. I mean, I had just spent the good part of an hour telling her why all these things were problems in my life. I wondered if she had been listening at all?
“Well”, she went on to say, “all those things that you’ve mentioned, are things that you’re in control of. So you can change them if you want to right?” I thought about this for a while. “No” I said. “What about all the people who were annoying, who had wronged me, who didn’t know what they were doing and didn’t follow the rules. What about the plane being delayed – how was I in control of that?” She told me, “Sure, you might not be able to control the aeroplane or the traffic, but you can take responsibility for what you do about those things. How you respond in those situations is totally up to you. I mean, right now, we’re sitting in one of the nicest airport lounges that I’ve ever been in, with amazing complimentary food and drinks. Not to mention the good company.” She winked.
“But instead of enjoying the experience and making the most of it, maybe getting to know each other a little more and possibly sparking a real friendship. Instead, you’ve spent your time focusing on all the little things that have gone wrong for you, that aren’t good about this situation and that suck about your life. And I’ve spent most of my time listening to you complain, but really I just wanted to find out more about who are as a person. What you do for fun. Maybe you might ask me something about myself too. I thought maybe we could enjoy this time and actually have some fun.”
I was stunned. I felt a little hurt too, because I thought I was opening up and telling her about how I was feeling. It felt like a rejection. But it wasn’t. I wasn’t opening up. Not really. I was hiding behind a wall of anger and complaints. That wasn’t the real me. I realised that the only person I’d let down was myself. She was right. I could have been enjoying that moment and making the most of the situation. I decided in that moment that I wanted to change. I didn’t like acting that way and I’d finally seen that not everyone lived that way. That there was something better out there. And that it was possible for me too. So I started by asking my friend something about herself, and how she had learned to focus more on the positives in life. We talked for so long we almost missed the flight!
This is what she told me:
1. Pay attention to your body language. Relax the tension in your muscles and smile, even if you don’t really feel like it. You might notice that whenever you’re in a state of anger or strong negative emotion, that your fists clench or your body stiffens. The same goes for when you’re in a happy and positive state of mind. Your body rests, strong and grounded. You smile and laugh freely, without tension. By consciously changing your body language to what it might look like if you were in a more positive emotion or mood, you can actually start to feel that positive emotion more clearly. Another thing you can do, is to breathe deeply. Taking long, deep breaths in and out, can help to calm your entire nervous system, which in turn, will help you to feel more positive emotions, more easily. Your body language only affects you negatively if you let it, so why not choose to make it positive. It is one of the things that is within your control after all.
2. Be a fly on the wall. Instead of focusing on who’s fault it is or how annoying something is, instead try to take a step back and be a fly on the wall. Try to observe the situation objectively as if you are not part of it, and just a fly on the wall watching. You can even take it a step further and ask yourself questions like ‘Is it really as bad as it seems? Could I be over-exaggerating?” Might I be taking this too personally? Have I considered all the other perspectives, possibilities and options?
3. Play the positive game. This game is about asking questions like “How can I turn this around and make it a better experience?”. “What CAN I do?” “How can I make the most of this situation?” “What IS in my control?” You can start by getting in a place of gratitude. Just think of 3 things you’re truly grateful for in the moment. Then, to play the game, you just take anything that is seemingly negative, and try to put a positive spin on it. Even if it’s not something you truly feel positive about, but that someone could potentially be positive about.
For example; “The plane is late, which is great because that means I’ll have heaps of time to make new friends. Maybe try a new wine, finally get through my book, freshen up, work on a project, think about what I do for fun. I could call a friend and chat, connect with someone I haven’t spoken to in a while, finally start learning a new language using that app I got ages ago.” Or; “Oh great I’m stuck in traffic. That means I can listen to a podcast, learn something new, sing along to my favorite tunes or laugh along to some comedy. I could practise deep breathing like I’ve been meaning to and it’s the perfect opportunity to smile at that person in their car over there, screaming at the traffic. Maybe I can make their day a little better.” You get the idea.
This message stuck with me and when I got home after my holiday, I started taking action. I took the initiative to go on more of the “adventures” that I wanted to, whether my partner did or not. We had some really great fun together and I stopped blaming him for everything after that. I started to delegate more at work and train up people to support me if I needed to take time off. That way I didn’t feel so obligated anymore and I actually started to enjoy going to work because I was choosing to be there. I stopped hiding my eating habits and started taking better care of myself, because I realised the person I was most angry at, was me. I practised the positive game and paid attention to my body language daily, taking deep breaths along the way.
I never did see my friend from the airport again, but I always remember how happy she was and how all it took to change my perspective on life, was a moment like that. Now I get to do the same for other people, wherever I go. These days I rarely get to the point of being angry anymore. Instead I take action, change my state, focus on what I can do and how I can find the positives in that moment. Just try out the steps above and notice the difference it makes, as it has for me.