You are irritating me!
January 8, 2011 12:26 AM   Subscribe

I find myself getting more and more irritable with anonymous people in public -- their noises, delays, cell phone habits. Why is this happening?

I've always been a very relaxed and smiley person. Traffic never got me down -- I couldn't understand road rage, people who yelled at waiters, etc.

In the past year or so, I find myself getting extremely irritated with people who are noisy in public (e.g., making weird sounds with their mouths, talking on cell phones), slow clerks, bad service, etc.

I'd like to understand why this is happening. I'm not depressed (seriously, I'm not). I'm healthy, my life is good, etc.

I think this may be physiological in some way -- maybe I'm getting more sensitive to noise as I get older? Or maybe I just care less what people think and feel free to get irritated with them?

I'd like to know if anyone else has had this happen and what they discovered might be the cause.

If you have specific strategies for how you managed your irritation (especially as a formerly chill person), I'd appreciate hearing about it. (Telling me to relax and don't sweat the small stuff doesn't really help -- I've been that way most of my life and I know how to do it. It's more about how to handle a *change* from being a person who doesn't care about these things to someone who does.)
posted by metametababe to Human Relations (31 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Are you tired, dehydrated, or low blood sugar? I've found that when my sleep cycle or daily nutrient intake has been interrupted, I become incomprehensibly irritable with things that should normally not even ruffle my feathers. I find that taking a nap and grabbing something with fruit or vegetables in it to eat makes me feel much less grouchy. YMMV.
posted by patronuscharms at 12:40 AM on January 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm kind of the opposite of chill. Loud noises have always bothered me, and I understand road rage very, very well. At the same time, recently, I've noticed that my ears are picking up noise a lot better than the things I'd like to be listening to. I think this has something to do with getting older, as it's something that has become noticeable to me only in the past six months or so. I'll have a hard time carrying on a conversation in a noisy place, for example.

The only problem is that my solution for you is probably what caused the issues I'm having now. Good headphones and decent music help me block out the incessant noises I don't particularly want to hear (noisy people on the train, constant announcements in the supermarket, people hawking things or touts trying to drum up business). Since I noticed my hearing changing, I've tried to keep the volume down to the lowest setting, and it seems that it blocks out most of what I don't want to hear. Anyway, headphones and decent music, at a low level works for the noise.

As for bad service, the only thing I know of to do is just not frequent places with poor service. If I have a bad experience (like, say, last night, visiting the mens room and using the toilet next to kitchen staff who then didn't wash their hands), I'll mention it to the person in charge, and depending on their response, decide whether or not to go back.
posted by Ghidorah at 12:43 AM on January 8, 2011

As discussed in a recent thread with a similar theme: Have you gone on (or changed) hormonal birth control in the past year? Mood changes and irritability are very common side effects of HBC.
posted by scody at 12:47 AM on January 8, 2011

Response by poster: Nope, no birth control issues. However, I seem to have aged a lot in the past year or so too. I feel fine, but I just look like my age now, when before I always looked younger. People call me "ma'am" now. Maybe a hormone thing?
posted by metametababe at 12:52 AM on January 8, 2011

Seconding the idea that you might not be getting enough to eat or having blood sugar problems. I get immensely irritable when I don't eat meals on time, even though I am otherwise healthy. If I know I might not get to regular meals, I'll usually try to carry a Clif bar or something. The worst for me is restaurant service - I historically have made a habit of tipping well on the slight chance that I was snotty before the food arrived.

Also, I often find myself getting irritated (for non-food reasons) on the subway during my morning commute. I got a really fantastic pair of over-the-ear noise canceling head phones with great audio quality. If someone is bothering me, I just tune them out. Literally.

At work, I like to make self-deprecating jokes about my "bitch face". (I work in a very casual and youthful field.) For example, "I'm sorry if I was snippy with you this morning. I definitely felt like I had some bitch face happening." This obviously isn't going to work if you did something horribly rude, but it will diffuse a situation where you don't know if what you did was out of bounds or if they even noticed how irritable you were.
posted by Sara C. at 1:01 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think you need to really take a look inside and try to figure out why this is happening. You may realize something just by trying.

Of course, I was going to suggest that you're slightly depressed, but you say you aren't. Maybe you've become more cynical lately? Maybe, for some reason, you feel superior to others now?

Again, my best advice is to take a look at yourself.

In regard to coping with this change, however, I may be able to say something relevant.

Recently I've almost completely stopped judging people. That guy blocking everyone on the escalator, the friend who talks behind your back, the slutty behavior of some girl, that person who is constantly late to everything. None of it makes me angry/emotional or even judgmental like it used to.

Some things need to be rectified, but most things can be overlooked or forgiven with this in mind: people are stupid and imperfect. Most people know this already, but they don't really think about it.

People are retarded. What you think is normal or acceptable is just one personal paradigm reinforced by your friends and family, who are relatively similar to you. Every person is the result of an infinite number of factors, each of which is the flap of a butterfly's wings. They are who they are and they do what they do completely because of these factors, and you really don't know anything about them beyond what you can perceive.

So, being angry about trivial things is not even worth it. You probably do some irritable things as well, as much as you might think you don't. Just forgive or forget and move on.
posted by jykmf at 1:06 AM on January 8, 2011 [9 favorites]

I seem to have aged a lot in the past year or so too. I feel fine, but I just look like my age now, when before I always looked younger. People call me "ma'am" now. Maybe a hormone thing?

Hmm, maybe. I don't know how old you are, but perimenopause can begin for some women as early as their 30s, and mood swings can be a symptom. Having your thyroid out of whack can also cause mood swings... might be more of a possibility if you're not in the perimenopause age bracket.

Looking at your questions over the past year, though, I wonder if you might be feeling the accumulated effects of stress from the pressure of making some big decisions about grad school and your career? I certainly find that stress can manifest as a kind of snappishness over minutiae for me. The best remedy I know is just to try to practice mindfulness -- to catch myself in the moment and gently observe that I'm getting all reactive over something minor. This act of observing tends, by itself, to automatically put the matter in perspective. If all else fails, I'll ask myself "is this the hill I want to die on?" Pretty much invariably, the answer is no.
posted by scody at 1:28 AM on January 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

Even if you haven't actually changed b.c. in the past year-- sometimes it can take longer for symptoms to show up. I was on Ortho-Tri-Cyclen for almost 3 years before my mood swings got to the undeniable point.

(If you're not *on* b.c. this obviously isn't the issue, except as scody says re: other hormonal changes).
posted by nat at 1:54 AM on January 8, 2011

You're angry. Not in the sense of little things happening and then you becoming angry, but in the sense of something deep seated leaving you almost constantly angry in a slow burn fashion. When little irritating things occur, the background anger contributes to you getting more pissed off than you feel you should.

What's going on in your life? What are you unhappy with? What has to be put up with that you can't change? Are you aware of your own unrealized potential and that it might be going to waste? And so on..

And, as jykmf says, what's going on inside? What stuff are you sitting on that you really need to deal with? Is there something you should have dealt with years ago, but never got the chance, and it's just coming home to nest?

My advice would be to sit down and take inventory of this stuff. Then look at changing what you can and accepting what you can't. If there's something there that you can't deal with on your own, seek help.
posted by Ahab at 3:17 AM on January 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

I've been noticing the same thing about myself.

Sometimes it helps to say to myself "it's none of my business." -- even when I'm cut off in traffic or affected in some way.

It gives me a brief emotional pause and makes me feel relieved that there's nothing I have to do about it.
posted by vitabellosi at 4:03 AM on January 8, 2011

It sounds very much like stress.

I found that I was very irritable when I was being bullied and overworked at work, and much calmer, patient, and more forgiving when I left the toxic workplace.

Maybe you need more time with friends, more time reading good books, more time exercising, more time meditating?
posted by Hot buttered sockpuppets at 4:08 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's not you, it's them. People are just irritating bloody things, and there are more of them around you than you have ever been required to put up with before; you occupy a fixed amount of space in a world with an exponentially growing population.

Move to a small country town. Rediscover your ability to connect meaningfully with the people you live near because there are few enough of them to make this feasible.

Worked for me.
posted by flabdablet at 4:38 AM on January 8, 2011

The upside is every annoyance is a chance to practice letting go!
posted by mbrock at 5:35 AM on January 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

It might be because something else is bothering you but you don't want to address that. So you put you unexpressed anger on to other things. I do this sometimes.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:24 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you just about 30? Because this has happened to me and most of my friends, male and female, at around the same age. We're still too young to be considered old and wise, but are old enough to find the shenanigans of young whippersnappers irritating and vexatious.

TBH I find having a good outraged flail or two every day is very refreshing and makes me a more relaxed person all around. Just make sure to close your office door before impotently waving your fists about and stamping your feet.
posted by elizardbits at 7:41 AM on January 8, 2011 [5 favorites]

I'm usually of the "everyone around me is okay" persuasion, but I definitely have "everyone around me is rude and an idiot" days/weeks/months. The change is usually due to some temporary recent situation, often one that made me frustrated (not angry). 1 day of not enough sleep doesn't set me off, but an entire week where I'm overworked and underslept will make me hate the world for awhile. Or if I've had a long, frustrating car ride in traffic, I develop uncharacteristic road rage. Or if I'm being hassled at work too much, I want everyone (including anonymous people on the street) to give me lots of room. Or if I'm frustrated at something personal, I'm easy to set off. It can also be environmental. I moved to a place where drivers are more aggressive. I'm not more aggressive, and am also on edge when I drive.

I guess what I'm saying is, if you can't identify any physical / health reason for this, maybe there's a trigger in your life. A whole year is a long time to be triggered, so maybe it's a persistent part of your life now.

Another question to ask yourself is: are you undergoing any other changes to your personality? When I became less socially anxious, I became less bothered by others' actions. So there could be a seemingly-unrelated change in your personality that is reinforcing this.
posted by Tehhund at 7:50 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Irritability and sensitivity to noise can be symptoms of magnesium deficiency. It might be worth trying a supplement to see if it helps mellow you out any.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:15 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It could definitely be a hormone thing -- one of my earliest (and most reliable!) symptoms of pregnancy is that I, who normally let idiot drivers roll off my back and stay calm when cut off and so on, become SO INFLAMED WITH ROAD RAGE I can hardly manage to get to the grocery store without being in a raging stew of fury by the time I get there. And it basically stays that way until six weeks after birth. It's absolutely the same hormonal thing that makes me more emotional during pregnancy.

I take big deep breaths and try to stay calm, but mostly I just sit there hating other drivers for nine months and six weeks. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:41 AM on January 8, 2011

This was a recent thread with some good advice on a similar topic.

I particularly liked this comment and this one. I frequently find myself using mental exercises like that to humanize people and feel more compassionate, as I have an unfortunate tendency to be irritable and judgy that I would rather I didn't have. Like, if there is an old person at the grocery store being slow and annoying I remind myself how frail and sometimes confused my own grandmother is, and how upset I'd be if someone were impatient with her.

It also helps to remind yourself that sometimes you are the annoying person to someone else. Most of us see ourselves as basically good people who occasionally make little mistakes; whereas when a stranger makes a mistake in behavior, that is all we know of them so in our minds that guy becomes "the idiot who didn't even start digging for her checkbook until the cashier gave her the total" or "the asshole talking too loud on his cell phone."

I try to imagine myself making a similar mistake: there have been times that I have been distracted at the checkout and forgotten to dig out my debit card, but am I an idiot? No, I was probably tired, or not feeling well, or lost in thought about some pressing problem. Although I try to be considerate, I'm sure I've occasionally pissed people off by talking on my cell phone... not because I'm an asshole who doesn't give a shit about the people around me, but because for whatever reason I needed or wanted to have that conversation right then and, being distracted by it, I forgot to keep my voice down. So if I know that I am not at heart an idiot or an asshole, maybe I should give those annoying people the benefit of the doubt that they are not always idiots or assholes either.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 8:47 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I find it to be a positive feedback loop, like so many things in life. So if I'm stressed for a few months such that people irritate me more, I get More Sensitive to those irritations, I see them more and more often. So you could have had a stressful time, then gotten Better at irritation, and now you want to train yourself get back to that chill place.

I play a game of trying to imagine the struggle that is causing that person to be rude and loud near me. That's usually a little depressing, but it makes me more empathetic and less annoyed, and seeing as I don't want to contemplate their struggles for too long, I then shift to thinking about good things going on in my life, or trying to observe my surroundings (ooh, it's the moon!), or just distract myself somehow from being annoyed. Because my annoyance is only harming me, not changing anything else or "fixing" them, I might as well enjoy myself instead.

So, to sum up, I find this is something you can change consciously.
posted by ldthomps at 8:57 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

I live in Manhattan and take an approximate 40 minute subway ride to and from work each day. I switch trains at Times Square during rush hour. Got the picture? In the mornings, I pretend I am in a video game, literally sidestepping, fast-walking, dodging, weaving whatever it is that pops up to annoy me. Sometimes I am physically moving out of range, sometimes I am mentally dismantling the situation in my brain ("OK, so, if he doesn't get off at the next stop, I'm gonna shift my bag so that it forces him to move his backpack ..."). I used to worry that I was not zen enough but for goodness' sakes, I'm navigating through insanity! I secretly embraced my commuter-warrior. Now that I've made myself the hero of my own adventure, I win by figuring out strategies around the annoyances. On the way home, I bury myself in music and seriously tune out.
posted by thinkpiece at 9:09 AM on January 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

When I find myself like that, it is, without fail, a stress thing. Too much to do at work? Worried about the job market? Struggling with a cold? Not sleeping well? Anything like that.
posted by J. Wilson at 9:10 AM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

It could be a case of seeing the same things happen over and over again through the years. While you've grown and matured as a person, the world around you still seems static. The annoyance of other's bad decisions have never gone away or evolved, and its becoming irritating....because now you expect it, you count down the seconds before a car in the lane besides yours is about to cut you off. You anticipate rudeness in the same places you visit daily. When these things live up to those anticipations, its a bit of a let down...people are better than this, why must they be this way in public to strangers?

Atleast this is my own observation about these feelings as they were happening to me. You'll have to work on dismissing the buildup, and observe yourself externally as to how you feel you're behaving towards others. Numb yourself to the annoyances, so to speak. I find that a trip to see the family or people I love really helps in resetting the mood. There's a human connection there that cannot be replicated elsewhere. (that or a cozy evening watching "Falling Down" does wonders...ok I'm partly kidding on that one)
posted by samsara at 9:15 AM on January 8, 2011

I think this may be physiological in some way

This happened to me after I wasn't eating quite enough for weeks. It crept up on me. I would say make a real effort to eat more calories (and get plenty of sleep) and give it a few weeks. I think it may be some sort of adrenal thing, but that's just wild speculation.

I was eventually back to normal in that absolutely nothing bothers me.
posted by zeek321 at 9:19 AM on January 8, 2011

Or it could also be a case of closure.
posted by samsara at 9:20 AM on January 8, 2011

I understand your growing irritability, and have felt it somewhat too - I've attributed it to an increase in various low-level annoyances around me. It's easier to deflect it onto other people, because the environment isn't going to bear responsibility. But, other people are to blame too, somewhat, and they are more annoying. Here's what I think, and I think you're right that it has something to do with cel phone habits:

Cel phone annoyances (in my experience) come down to the fact that handheld devices do so much more that I can't walk down the street without seeing someone talking, playing something, or stopping suddenly and snapping a picture of something. Friends I'm having coffee with look at messages or tweet while we're spending time together - or change plans last minute and I'm out of the loop because I didn't read their tweet that their kid just barfed on them, #FML. I take my dog for a walk at the beach for some peace and quiet, and there's someone on his phone right behind me or ahead of me having a loud conversation - it's intrusive on a formerly quiet place. At the school where I work, many of the kids got phones for Christmas, and since they're not allowed, I have to more frequently remind them to put them away, and deal with resistance. Streetcars, sidewalks, school, stores - everywhere - people are connected to other people, but not to the time and place where they are now. It seems like everyone has a camera on them all the time now, either on their phone or digital and events are always interrupted by the need for pictures.

And, because using the devices seems to take the person out of the moment, and changes the focus, attention spans are shattered and sometimes it's impossible to slow down and relate. It seems to me that people also feel like they're focused on the device and what they're doing with it, they have an expectation of privacy, and so they're not conscious of other annoying things, like nose-blowing at the table or a constantly jittery leg movement on the streetcar seat beside me . It's constant, it's an irritation that never really goes away and it escalates so that while once merely having a conversation on a cel was rude, now it's often the least rude option since the person in front of me in the grocery line is too busy playing Angry Birds to put their too-many items on the conveyor belt.

But lately, it's also leftover holiday clutter, a new TV that my kid seems to prefer to listen to at a louder level, my husband's new job and busier band that means constant incoming messages, a house that needs more attention, and a job where I'm surrounded by very loud children. I'm worn down, and need more quiet time to recharge as an introvert. Are you missing a hobby, or time that you used to be able to use to recover your energy?

My strategy is that I try to remember that the person I want to be is calm, polite, centered and enjoying my day. So yes, I'm bothered, but I remind myself that I do not let how others are be the measure of the person I want to be. So I try to behave my best, and just maintain an inner dialogue with myself repeating "Calm. Pleasant. Polite. Patient. Focused." until I actually really feel that way. But occasionally, when someone really crosses a boundary, I'll indulge in some stink-eye, or say something as politely as I can, that reminds the offender of social niceties. And I do find that when I'm hungry, I get cranky. So I do try to take care of myself in that regard too. And I have a good friend to spend time with venting and snarking and airing our complaints as a form of recreation. It's contained, so it doesn't bleed into my being a horrible person all day long. It helps! Have you got someone to help you vent?
posted by peagood at 9:47 AM on January 8, 2011 [2 favorites]

To some extent this is because people are simply more annoying! First the walkman, then the cell phone, the mind-numbing suburbia that many people have grown up in means narcissism is the new civil religion in the West.

Thus people no longer take their backpacks off and stow them between legs on subways anymore because it never occurred to them that their backpack is smashing into someone else. Because it never occurred to these dauphins - who have been told their whole lives how great they are to build up their self-esteem, that their actions might pose negative consequences for others in tight crowded spaces, and thus it never occurs to them that another action *like taking off your fucking backpack* is expected behavior. This is because the new narcissists don't even perceive the other person as a person as opposed to scenery until it is pointed out to them. That is a lesson that I was able to grok at about age 7.

Thus people jabber on their cellphones loudly because, if others are distracted or have to become unwilling voyeurs in your boring love life, tough shit.

This narcissism is fueled by the consumer culture of buy buy buy and spend spend spend, but wait don't raise my taxes.

We've become a culture of big whining spoiled brats. As the brats reach adulthood and take over the world, well those pre-brats who came before them, who grew up with an understanding of how to live in a society, will be marginalized.

Oh, and get off my lawn! Seriously.
posted by xetere at 9:58 AM on January 8, 2011 [4 favorites]

Have you moved in the last few years to a denser populated location? That can have a slow steady effect on a person's sense of personal space. I have no idea why this is happening to you, but I think the responsibilities one takes on as they get older/into their thirties could definitely equal extra stress - which tends to make people less tolerant to the background noise.

I like what someone said above about it being an opportunity to practice letting go. The half smile technique - not a real smile (at first) but deliberately making your face form a slight smile - actually relaxes me and supposedly sends some happy signal to the brain. I've done this millions of times while in a long line at the grocery store and have been amazed that it actually works.
posted by marimeko at 10:32 AM on January 8, 2011

I have been noticing the same tendencies in myself over the past few months. I'm pretty sure it started due to a combination of stressful things going on in my life, but it seems to have turned into a habit. Those major sources of stress all resolved themselves (hooray!), and life is pretty relaxed at the moment, so why am I still so irritable? I think it's just a pattern that my brain has gotten into. About a week ago I remembered the thing that helps me break negative thinking patterns: daily meditation. It doesn't directly do anything to address the problems or stresses in my life. It doesn't change anyone else's annoying behavior. It doesn't even specifically aim to change my own thoughts or behavior aside from those 10 quiet minutes each morning. But somehow even a week of meditating regularly it has started to change my mindset, and I can already tell that I'm less irritable.
posted by vytae at 10:33 AM on January 8, 2011

For what it's worth, I've found myself having the exact same reactions over the last six months or so. I hope it's cyclical and not permanent. But I think there are a couple big factors for me. For one, hitting my mid-twenties and realizing that the big picture stuff I once thought would work itself out by now hasn't and isn't about to; also a nagging sense of insecurity about whether my current school/career path is the right one, etc. And second, constantly being inundated with negative news. (North Korea's going to blow up the world; wait, no they're not, but unemployment is worse than we thought, and remember, just because it snowed three feet last week doesn't mean that we're not going to starve to death because of global warming!) At least for me, this one has a bigger impact than I'm usually consciously aware of.

In other words, background stress and anxiety have conditioned me to assume the worst about people and situations.

The best way to combat it seems to be, first, recognizing that this is going on and that's not how I'd like to be approaching my life, and second, having a sense of humor; when I realize I'm irritated by some stranger doing something stupid I try to stop and think about how silly it is to expend the energy on something so meaningless. Turning that nihilistic frown upside down!
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 10:48 AM on January 8, 2011

Have you moved in the last few years to a denser populated location?

To a very good first approximation, 100% of the world has moved in the last few years to a denser populated location.
posted by flabdablet at 4:56 PM on January 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

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