“That which annoys us does not necessarily injure us; but we are driven into wild rage by our luxurious lives, so that whatever does not answer our whims arouses our anger” – Seneca
A luxurious life with a little rage
I wanted to start with this quote to bring up a feeling many of us have experienced: overreacting. Whether our travel is delayed, our food order is wrong, or we feel wronged, it’s not uncommon to overreact. My favorite way to overreact is to swear out loud at any number of minor indiscretions; stubbing my toe, not being able to merge easily, not being finished on time, all these produce a predictable chain of swear words that flow out of me as naturally as water down a mountain stream. When I reflect on my own reaction, I’ve tried to justify that it has utility; it helps me feel a little better by releasing some pent up steam. Unfortunately, that’s only a cover story, reacting too much just makes me more likely to overreact to the next event, and my extra vigilance only hinders me from focusing on my task at hand.
The problem, we live in a time where our immediate surroundings provide everything that is necessary for our survival. Seneca is right; our luxurious lives put us in a position of feeling vexed for being made even slightly discomforted. It used to be worse for me, it has gotten better, and I’d like to share with you how I’ve trained to be less reactive.
Time to implement change
There are two ways you can go about becoming less reactive, the first is learning to prolong your reaction. Basically, you give yourself time to find what the proper reaction should be before you let any emotion take hold in an automatic sense. My favorite technique to do this comes from a concept called “principle negotiation” developed by Roger Fischer and William Ury. In William Ury’s book “Getting Past No”, Ury describes a method to not react to what your partner is saying by “going to the balcony”. This means to imagine the situation as though you are viewing it from above; a balcony overlooking the situation. I like this visualization, it provides the distancing from a given situation, but keeps the vantage point local to the whole of the situation.
The second technique is something we have discussed already: gratitude. It has been shown that people who have high levels of gratitude, have a higher capacity for patience. In experiments looking at how gratitude effects temporal discounting, i.e. prolonging a satisfying experience into the future, individuals with higher levels of gratitude showed more patience when being able to delay an incentive. Gratitude can help you up to the balcony.
How can we implement this in our everyday lives? First, wait until the next time you overreact (or you may be able to draw on a very recent event). After the fact, consider the value of your overreaction. I’ve literally written “overreaction”, but was your reaction nevertheless well-measured? Did it make you feel better or did it put you in a state that made you feel on edge, annoyed, and ready to continue reacting in a short fused manner? Replay the event as though you first went to the balcony, view the situation from above, and see if you would have reacted differently given time and perspective. Ideally, next time try to first take this distanced perspective, but don’t be discouraged if you find this difficult. We are beings preset to react automatically, it’s useful, but not easy to gain a distanced perspective from our own actions and reactions.
Moving on to gratitude, how can we use this? A study of college students seeking mental health services at a university offers us some guidance. In this study participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. All three groups received counseling services, but the first group was also instructed to write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks, whereas the second group was asked to write a letter depicting their deepest thoughts and feelings about negative experiences. The third group was the control group, and didn’t have to do any writing activity. I should note that the students were almost all coming for complaints of depression or anxiety. The results of this study showed that those who did in fact write a letter of gratitude reported significantly better mental health at 4-weeks and 12-weeks, compared with the other two groups. Before you cast this result aside – perhaps you are not a college student seeking mental services at a university health care, consider a few more points of the analysis of this study.
First, this increased mental health recovery happened whether this letter was sent to someone or not. Even if you do not successfully communicate your gratitude to someone, you experience a mental health benefit. Next, the most important aspect of these gratitude letters was a lack of negative emotional words expressed (it doesn’t always benefit us to expel negativity, in fact it could simply propagate more negativity). The most lasting effects came from those who expressed positive emotion words and “we” language, as opposed to “I” language. Still, the most important aspect for effective gratitude seemed to be removing negativity words altogether (focus on the positive). Lastly, this gratitude effect was not immediate; it started around 3 weeks into the exercise. Even though we want an effect now, planting the seeds to a better mental state can take time, don’t get discouraged if you don’t feel better the next day, give gratitude time and give it space to make a difference.
To go back to Seneca’s quote about raging even though we have a luxurious life. At times, it can seem like we have just about everything, but what’s missing or not delivered to us, arouses that inner rage. It happens, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take action against it ourselves. Take a moment to reflect on something that has already happened, if you can, go to the balcony and prolong the time you take to react. Practice gratitude, literally focus on positive and avoid the negative. Why not write a letter? You don’t even have to send it, you still benefit from the exercise of putting your positive words to paper. How about trying a one month gratitude letter writing challenge? I gotta tell you, I feel better for sharing this with you, so spread the message and get a piece of this gratitude for yourself!
Ury, W. (1992). Getting past no: Negotiating with difficult people. Random House.
Wong, Y. J., Owen, J., Gabana, N. T., Brown, J. W., McInnis, S., Toth, P., & Gilman, L. (2018). Does gratitude writing improve the mental health of psychotherapy clients? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Psychotherapy Research, 28(2), 192-202.
Dickens, L., & DeSteno, D. (2016). The grateful are patient: Heightened daily gratitude is associated with attenuated temporal discounting. Emotion, 16(4), 421.
© Andrew Wold & Rebecca Böhme, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the authors with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.