People generally think that I am a pretty calm person, someone not prone to get angry. I have heard some people say that they have never seen me be angry. But I have also had my share of mistakes. This post covers some of the tips that I try to use to avoid losing my cool and to avoid encouraging negative emotions. I will go from practical strategies to more abstract thoughts about how negative thoughts work.
Many of these ideas accord with what Stoic philosophers and practitioners thought and wrote about. Similarly, there is a lot of overlap with Buddhism, and there are probably some Christian influences in there as well.
Taking The Long View
A mentality that I find helpful is to consider whether my actions or the events that happen to me will matter an arbitrarily long time from now. For example, will this experience matter later today? Tomorrow? In a month? In a year? In five years? In twenty years? In a century?
Most “bad” things don’t really matter that much on a long enough time scale. There are very few one-off events that have a level of significance of even one week, let alone one year. This is probably most the case when it is something that affects me personally. People hundreds of years from now will not care whether I was a little cold or felt a bit tired on one day unless it results in something extremely significant. Just taking a breath and looking at my situation more broadly puts things in a better perspective.
In fact, it helps modulate positive emotions as well. Will this thing that I think is so fantastic really appear so ten years from now?
Having this perspective helps me respond to situations in a more appropriate manner. It encourages me to let go of things that are not important.
Managing Internal State
It’s easy to want to snap if I am very tired or stressed or hungry. I have a few unpleasant memories of times when I was very hungry or tired and was not polite to others. These memories remind me that it is important to make sure that my basic needs are taken care of to be in an emotionally secure state. It is my responsibility to manage my needs to ensure that I can handle the ups and downs of life effectively.
If I could pick one area of improvement, it would be this area. I would say the most mistakes that I have made have been when some needs were not fulfilled and I was not sufficiently aware of it.
I always refer back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Combat Fundamental Attribution Error
Fundamental attribution error is a fairly common mental bias. When someone cuts you off in traffic, it may be tempting to think or say negative thoughts about that person. A healthier approach might be to think of several reasons why the person may have done that:
- maybe they did not see you
- maybe they were distracted by something else in the car
- maybe they have something really important to get to
- maybe they are a beginner driver
- they may be lost and confused
- their car might not be operating properly
I find that thinking through plausible explanations for other people’s behavior is a good way to distance myself emotionally from the event at hand and to put myself in their shoes. It helps me to ascribe ignorance rather than malice. At this point it is reflexive enough that when people explain situations to me, I think what the other person might have been going through that caused them to act how they did.
Locus of Control
Some people get angry at events like sporting events or other things that are not in their control. It is important to realize what things are in our control, what things we somewhat control, and what things are wholly outside of our control. For things that are out of our control (like the outcome of sporting events on television), consider why we are invested in the outcome and how to distance ourselves from it. For things that are not entirely in our control, either create ways to control it more or have the understanding that it will not always go our way.
Humans make mistakes. When someone makes a mistake and sincerely tries to mend their ways, the best thing to do is to offer full forgiveness. It is water under the bridge. “I understand what you were thinking or going through, and hope that it will not happen in the future. I completely forgive you for X.” This allows you to let the event go, and allows the other person to feel better as well. If there is a trend in the future, you might discuss how to prevent the issue from happening again, but it is not valuable to hold onto the event emotionally at this time.
Like Water on a Duck
When we think, neurons fire. When neurons fire, the connections between them are strengthened accordingly. There is a saying that “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
If I can prevent a less desirable chain of neurons from firing when a certain stimulus is presented, or cause a more desirable chain of neurons to fire when that same stimulus is presented, then I have succeeded in weakening the negative connection. If I give the negative thoughts energy, I strengthen their connection and make them more likely to happen in the future.
My strategy is to let negative thoughts roll over and off like water on a duck. Water droplets hits the duck, but the duck does not pay attention to them, and just keeps on swimming. The oil from the duck causes the water to dribble off and the duck stays dry. By having the composure of the duck and not giving certain thoughts more energy, you make it less likely that they will arise in the future.
Conversely, thoughts that we want to think about should be thought of more to make it more likely that those neuronal pathways stay active.
Nothing, Thinking, Saying, Acting
Along these same lines, the ultimate in non-negative emotions is to not feel negative emotions. They don’t arise in the first place, and so there is nothing to deal with.
If negative thoughts arise, being accepting of them is a good first step. Often they will go away on their own. Finding positive perspectives or taking the long view is a good next step for persistent thoughts (see combating fundamental attribution error above, for instance.) These thoughts are generally an indicator of some kind of attachment or misunderstanding of the world. Continuing to think the thoughts strengthens them.
Choosing to say something about the thoughts lends them even more energy. It activates the brain’s speech centers and makes a memory of saying what we were previously only thinking. Other people now have similar thoughts in their heads, so it perpetuates the thoughts. Sometimes I then feel an attachment, like I need to stay with that thought to seem consistent. It turns a fleeting neuronal firing into something much more lasting. So I try to be careful with saying things that I don’t want to give more energy to.
Finally, doing gives even more energy than saying. Talking about doing something is different from actually doing it. It makes an impression in the external world. So I need to make sure that the things that I am doing are in line with how I want my environment to be shaped. If I change my environment, it impacts my future thinking.
So there are the things that I think about. How to avoid getting upset or overly excited about events. How to make sure we are in a good emotional state. How to avoid thinking negative thoughts about others. How to focus on the things that are actually in our control. How to forgive.