Overcoming our knee-jerk tendency to react to the irritations of life

No one makes you feel anything. It is how you react and respond that determines your emotions.” – Brian Tracy

Do you find yourself easily distracted from the present moment?

It might be a knee-jerk reaction where you get hooked by what someone may have said or done.

Something in you tenses up. That tightness kicks off a chain reaction of obsessive negative thoughts that soon spiral into blame and anger.

When we experience an event that we perceive as a threat we are triggered negatively very easily. As soon as the words register in our consciousness thoughts and emotions breed quickly.

However, if we have the ability to be aware and catch ourselves before we get hooked it puts us in a position that makes the situation a lot more workable.

The key is learning how to overcome the habitual urge that is built into us- but how?

It starts with awareness

To start with, we need to become curious about our habitual impulse to do something that strengthens the repetitive negative pattern every time when we are threatened.

Is there a common theme every time we are triggered?

When we get in touch with this feeling we start to see the underlying insecurity that is characteristic in an uncertain ever-changing world.

When someone says or does something that triggers us, it’s not necessary to spend time examining or exploring the history of why we are triggered.

We simply need to acknowledge we are triggered and become aware of the reaction within us.

Do not reject what is problematic.  Rather try to become more familiar with what is happening for you in the present moment.

See it clearly. Experience it fully.

If we are willing to experience things without trying to change the narrative we will start to see the chain reaction and where it will lead us.

It’s just about having an open mind to what is happening.

Our biases fuel our storyline

Our aversion to events around us is a reflection of our biases and attitudes.

If we get worked up over an issue that we believe impacts us in some way we are 100% invested into our own views and opinions.

We see others who think differently as adversaries. -‘I believe I am right and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.’

Our storylines fuel our outlook to life, which frequently does not always come from a good place.

Rather than recognising what’s happening and riding the energy we unfortunately, more times than not, get hooked and over react.

Through my own poor judgements over the years, I’ve found it crucial to my mental wellbeing to try and drop the storyline.

It’s the conversation we have with ourselves when a feeling of unease turns into aggressive words based on revenge and being heard.

We play out in our mind a story based on unfounded preferred preferences and biases. 

Adopting a mindful approach

When the habitual way of addressing issues is discarded there will be a sense of discomfort.

We have been adopting the same way of dealing with confronting issues for so long that any change will cause us to initially feel vulnerable and uneasy.

It takes patience to get use to a more mindful approach at tackling issues in life. However, what we learn over time is how our habitual patterns of reacting always have consequences.

When we decide to pause and breathe we see there is a gap. This gap allows us to open and better process the information available to us. We now have a choice to respond rather than react.

The practice of staying open when we are triggered has 3 steps:

  1. Acknowledge you are hooked.
  2. Pause. Take 3 conscious breaths to ground us in the present moment.  Then get curious about what’s happening.
  3. Let go, relax and move on.

When we first start this process we will find we can stay with the unpleasantness for a short period of time before we automatically return to our habitual way of thinking and behaving.

From theory to practice

I witnessed this with a client the other day.

She engaged me to help her overcome the frequent melts downs she was experiencing in her life. The story line of unfairness always had a habit of getting the better of her. She always became the victim and life spiralled out of control.

Knowing this, one of our first agreements was to limit her exposure to the potential triggers. For her this meant not opening e mails late in the night that that might carry news that would trigger her in some way.

Unfortunately, one night she forgot the instructions.

She received a management fee for an investment property she possessed within a complex of 22 other units. The amount represented a big increase on the previous year.

She went to bed ruminating over the problem and hardly got any sleep. She replayed in her mind again and again the unfairness of the situation.

She was hooked.

She got so worked up that she was overcome with rage. She was ready to go into battle.

By the next morning, with the lack of sleep caused by the storyline she fed herself, she was exhausted.

When we finally caught up to talk it through I asked her, ‘do you think the management agent only put up your fees?’

 She got curious and contemplated my question. Briefly, she saw that the fee increase had implications for all parties invested in the complex and not just her. She briefly adopted a more open attitude about the reasoning behind the sharp increase before she allowed the negative storyline to take over again.

I was able to again unhook and pull her one more time away from the story so she could gain a better perspective around the situation.

How to stop mindlessly feeding the irritation

This type of back and forth is typical for many of us. Contacting that inner strength allows us to open for brief periods before we get swept away.

These moments may be brief in the early stages, but are huge positive step in the right direction. Practicing interrupting and weakening our old habits serves us well.

Gradually we lose the craving to bite the hook. We lose the taste for agitation and aggression in our life.

A great place to start building this type of practice is by choosing small irritations that happen each and every day.

This could be when we are stuck in traffic. Consider the amount of high energy that arises in those moments when we keep getting red lights or someone cuts us up in traffic.

Similarly, what about the never moving line in the supermarket or bank. That impatience that surfaces and questions: ‘why me? ‘

Rather than mindlessly feeding the irritation, we have an opportunity to build the practice in that very moment.

We need to become more accustomed to catching ourselves before we get hooked. We just pause for a brief second and allow ourselves a gap to choose how to respond rather than react.

  • Acknowledge you’re hooked
  • Pause with 3 deep conscious breaths
  • Relax and move on.

Mistakes help us learn

Mistakes are inevitable along the way. Sometimes there will be some painful learning. Typically, we might notice we are hooked, but, rather than pause, we still go ahead and do what we are trying to avoid.

In a way it becomes an experiment where we learn from our mistakes.

I have a recent example from my own life. I cringe thinking how I got hooked. I let the storyline blind me.

Something did not happen by a set date causing me to believe I had lost a large sum of money. My irritation was percolating, sensing there was a potential problem.

Once I felt my expectations were correct my need for vengeance kicked in. Someone, in my mind, had not done their job. Someone needed to be held accountable. Someone needed to pay.

Rather than wait til the next day, and ring the person directly to gain clarity, I sent an email releasing my anger. I felt justified. I was in a position of power that was going to get me what I wanted.

The next day came. I suddenly realised my account had been credited the money I thought was lost.

I rang the person, who I perceived had not done his job, and he calmly explained he had stopped the investment going through. He had actually saved me from losing my money based on his assessment of risk.

Needless to say I ate humble pie. He was polite and businesslike, however something shifted in our ongoing relationship. Damage was done! Saying sorry in that instance didn’t really cut it.

So I received a valuable lesson that day: sometimes we have to learn the hard way.

Take away message

The ultimate goal is to train ourselves to work with great adversity when it comes our way.

We need to learn how to remain calm when faced with highly charged situations. We never know when these challenges will enter our lives. We just know we need to always be prepared.

We could experience perfect health throughout our life, and then suddenly overnight we could become very ill.

Alternatively, who amongst us was mentally prepared for the impact of Covid in recent times?

There’s this uncertainty that at any time the condition of the economy or environment could stabilise or deteriorate.

The good news is our situation is workable.

By learning how not to be hooked by the minor irritations of everyday we prepare ourselves to work with whatever adversity the future presents.

How to you handle those moments of challenge?

Feel free to share your stories that we all may learn from.

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