Learning to let things go...
January 28, 2011 6:30 AM   Subscribe

How do I not stew over negative interactions with other people?

So this has been a bit of an ongoing issue with me, and I was instigated into asking this question recently after an altercation on the subway. I won't go into too much detail, but essentially myself and another commuter got into an altercation about who was shoving/leaning on who (he kept pushing me, I pushed back, etc.). This culminated in a random person telling both of us to "shutup." In retrospect I realize that it really wasn't worth it, and it would have been better all around if I just tried to move away from him at the next stop, but as for now I'm just stewing over the whole thing.

This is something I have a tendency to do in a general sense. I'll continually veer between mentally "arguing" with people again and scolding/berating myself either for not saying certain things or for escalating a situation that I shouldn't have. And ultimately I end up feeling like my whole morning/day is tainted by it. Worse, I even have a tendency to mentally go back to altercations that happened a long time ago and actually get angry/upset all over again. So when a new one happens it's almost like it's getting added to the pile of anger/anxiety-inducing events that I keep stored in my head and will end up popping up later. What are some good strategies that have worked for you to avoid stewing over these sorts of things both in the short term and the long term? How do you mentally let go?
posted by the other side to Human Relations (26 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I have tended to do this in the past regarding bad work situations. My strategy is two-fold. One strategy is to avoid the altercations altogether, or by defusing an altercation in progress by leaving the situation or by deflecting the other person's behaviour. If you're being pushed on the subway, rather than push back, try and move to another spot in the car if you can.

The other side to the strategy is to recognize that reliving the altercation in your mind is of absolutely no benefit to you. It's not like you're working out strategies for the next time you meet, you're reliving something in the past that you can't change. As such, it's poisoning your mood and taking valuable time away from other activities you could be pursuing. Therefore, you have to decide to mentally push away those thoughts. Do this every time you catch yourself thinking thoughts like this. The tendency will eventually stop.
posted by LN at 6:36 AM on January 28, 2011 [2 favorites]

I always come back to Plato's "be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle" and it makes the altercation just not worth it anymore.

Fight for the things you are truly passionate about, and let everything else slide a little.
posted by dflemingecon at 6:45 AM on January 28, 2011 [8 favorites]

It sounds stupid and meaningless but when I find myself getting worked up, I take several deep breaths and I remove myself from the situation. I have a hair-trigger temper and I have been known to yell. A lot. And it does take me a while to simmer down. So a "normal" person might just need the deep breaths to find center, or just to step away for a moment. I need at least five big deep breaths and a good 15-20 minutes (and a good distraction like a book or the internet) to calm down.

And then I had to learn to just leave it be. Some things need to get talked through, sure, but most situations just need to be left alone. If it doesn't need to be talked through, I do my best to just put it aside and not think about it anymore. If it does need to be talked through, I try to remain calm and level-headed. It's not easy but it's worth the effort.
posted by cooker girl at 6:47 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think this is impossible. Once you're angry you have a natural cool down time that's difficult to force. The flight or fight response is very powerful. You can't be a calm person and also a person who casually gets into fights over the littlest things.

What you should be doing is asking yourself why you're getting into fights on the subway? Seriously? Pushing some guy? Instead one of you should have just said something like "Excuse me, please don't push into me" instead of getting into a childish fight.

Learn how to properly interact with people and settle differences. In my experience, it takes two hotheads to fight over trivial things. Your problem is that you're running into other hotheads like yourself. Instead, try to be the reasonable adult in these situations and you'll find you won't need to worry about post-fight stewing anymore. Stop being "that guy."
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:55 AM on January 28, 2011

You need to challenge the beliefs at the root of your anger and anxiety, independent of any specific squabble or episode.

If you were to "lose" an altercation, why would that be bad? Rise and repeat. E.g. If I were to lose, people would think I was weak. Why would that be a bad thing? If people thought I was weak, they wouldn't admire or respect me. Why would that be a bad thing? If people didn't admire and respect me, they wouldn't want to love me or be my friend. Etc. Etc.

BTW it's almost a cliché on this site by now, but get and study Feeling Good - the above Vertical Arrow exercise is taken from it.

You really can reprogram your brain by tackling your distortions.
posted by teedee2000 at 7:05 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not always successful, but what works better than anything else I've tried is, rather than replaying the altercation again and again, I try to imagine a backstory for the person I had the conflict with. It's usually not anything elaborate; like, instead of dwelling on That Asshole in the BMW who nearly killed me on the freeway by cutting me off, I imagine that he is distracted because his wife has her first chemotherapy session today. Or I imagine that the loud teenager on the bus who bumped me with her backpack and then called me a name like it was my fault did so because she got a grade she really doesn't deserve from a teacher who really doesn't like her.

In other words, I try to find a way or a story that reminds me that the way the person acted towards me wasn't really about me, because nine times out of ten, it's not - it's just leaking out on to me. Nine times out of ten, the hostility I feel towards a stranger I'm in conflict with isn't really about them, either.
posted by rtha at 7:07 AM on January 28, 2011 [14 favorites]

FWIW, mentally "rearguing" altercations is completely normal and everyone does it with situations that have ramped you up emotionally. Not helpful but normal.

I wonder if you might not deal with this better by finding how to better deal with negative interactions at the time they happen.
Here are some thoughts that might be useful:
- "Winning" an altercation is very hard if winning means that you want the other person to slink away in abjection and recognise that they are an errant knave. Very few people slink away, and when they, do, they hurl curses at you and refuse to recognise that you actually won. That's hardly satisfying. Besides, to win in a game as coarse as that you usually have to lower yourself to a level at which you don't much like yourself or your actions.
- That means you have to set yourself a goal in which winning is not dependent on the other person's reactions (something which years of metafilter posts have taught me that we cannot control) but on your own ability to protect your boundaries.
- If you get to the point where you can look someone in the eye and say "do not treat me like this" and then walk away, contact authorities or use some other non-violent means without completely freaking out with anger because the other person was an asshole to you, I think this would be a useful definition of winning.
- People are assholes. They are assholes to everyone. One of the great misconceptions is that somehow when they are assholes to you it means something. They shouldn't behave like that to you, and if they do, they have put your status in question and you have to protect this status! That's, IMO, a useless stressor in your life. People behave like assholes and if you want that to stop bugging you and spoiling your day, the first step is to untangle their behaviour from your status. Once you have stopped them from crossing your boundary in whatever way, you are free to marvel at what assholes these people are - and I am sure everyone else is wondering the same thing.
- People around you are usually able to discern that the other person is being an asshole. And if they don't, and you care what they think, then this is the next thing you need to work on.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:11 AM on January 28, 2011 [19 favorites]

Hit the button too soon.
I was going to say that once you have set yourself a goal in which your mission is to protect your boundaries then you will find this goal much more achievable, your feeling of success will increase because you are not fighting an impossible mission, and with that feeling of success your need to "reargue" will become less.
posted by Omnomnom at 7:15 AM on January 28, 2011

This might sound like a smart-alec answer, but I mean it genuinely. You have to stop - when you find yourself beginning to ruminate or dwell on a bad interaction consciously make yourself stop.

Try actually saying to yourself "I've thought about this, I know this won't make me feel good, now I'm going to think about something else"

It'll feel INCREDIBLY false - but if you keep doing it, it will become more natural and it really does help. The key is to catch yourself, and as soon as you catch yourself cut it out.
posted by dadici at 7:20 AM on January 28, 2011 [5 favorites]

You need to challenge the beliefs at the root of your anger and anxiety, independent of any specific squabble or episode.


It'll feel INCREDIBLY false - but if you keep doing it, it will become more natural and it really does help. The key is to catch yourself, and as soon as you catch yourself cut it out.

Are correct. When we do the mental re-playing thing, we are doing a couple of things. One is positive- like a ball player watching tapes the next morning to improve their performance. It's a post mortem to try and see where we screwed up.

But the important thing is to view it dispassionately. You can't win every game, it is silly to think you can or beat yourself up if you don't. Find out where you screwed up and remember that for next time. Learn from your mistakes and commit that new knowledge to memory, not the mental video tape. Think about where your mind was when the altercation was escalating. You may begin to find that your mind wasn't thinking about how to get out of the situation or how to shut it down. Likely, it was stuck on "who the fuck does this guy think he is?" or "oh my god, I can't win this". Learn from THAT too- whenever you feel yourself going to that place, realize that it never ends well and find another attitude to take when confrontations begin.

Once we have replayed it once or twice, though, it stops being that. It starts to consume us. Instead of learning from the mistakes, we are reinforcing the failures. That's when you have to tell yourself to STOP and go eat a plate of chicken and get on with your day.
posted by gjc at 7:43 AM on January 28, 2011

As a person who has a hell of a temper, and whose natural instinct is to push back harder when pushed (literally and figuratively), I can only try to tell you what works for me - most of the time. I have managed to rein in my instincts to quite a large extent but i am not, and never will be, perfect at it. And that is probably a realisation we short-fuse bridlers need to fully accept about ourselves. Knowing we are like this helps in the fight not to be like this.

The first thing you do is analyse every situation you experience that makes you act like this, or want to act like this. You then try to organise your life and interactions to minimise such situations. Surprisingly, it is often possible to do this. Take the subway issue. I used to have to commute into Central London on the tube, and the rush-hour tube is about as hellish as rush-hour subways get. There is no possibility of moving to another place; you are jammed in someone's armpit (or they in yours, depending on relative heights) and there you will stay, because there is nowhere to move.

Anyway, I stuck this out for a while and then, like you, I found myself occasionally getting arsey with particularly clumsy commuters who stepped on my foot or who refused to take their goddamned backpacks off (man, don't you just hate those inconsiderate bastards with the heat of a thousand suns... oops, there I go). I'd tumble out of that train in a thunderous mood, and this is not a good way to start, or finish the day.

And then it occurred to me that I could start going in an hour earlier and leaving an hour earlier. And lo, the trains were nowhere near as unbearable. Now, you may not have the luxury of working at a place cool with flexible hours, but I simply throw this out there as an example of the "avoidance" tactic. At other times I have elected to take a slower, but far more pleasant form of transport such as a bus or overground train. The point is to try to think of alternatives to the source of the worst stresses.

Now, if you can't do that, then the second approach is to work on acceptance. I've had to do it too. There have been times when alternatives have not been available and the crush (or whatever the annoying situation might be) is inevitable. The first thing to realise is that shoving the arseholes back only feels good for about three seconds. Then it almost always makes the situation worse. They shove back. They get arsey. A row develops. As you have seen.

I use two tactics, according to which I think I will find easiest for a given situation. One is to try to get the idea firmly into my head that this is a trial that I must pass. It is a test of my strength, my will, my resilience. If I soak up this affront on my person without fighting back I will be a better person, grasshopper. If I can get through this subway ride/undeserved bollocking from the boss/abuse from some mouthy drunk... I will be a better person and I will have earned the right to feel good because of it. Sure, this involves knowing self-deception - at least initially - but the funny thing is that after a while you start to see that it is, at least to some extent, actually true. And then you can really feel good about yourself. What used to be a trigger for rage and conflict can actually become a trigger for positive feelings.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you're thinking. There are still those situations when someone is just being such a dick that you cannot find a way to treat it as anything but exactly that. Then you have to zone out. I do the same thing when working out, funnily enough. I hate working out. It's goddamned tedious and it doesn't feel nice, much of the time. But I really want to do it to keep myself in shape. So I go into auto pilot. I just stop thinking about what I'm doing, where I am, or what's happening to me. The elbow in the ribs on the crowded tube just becomes part of my environment. It is what it is. This place I'm having to stand involves occasional pokes in the ribs. Eh. That's just what it is. It won't last forever. I don't think about how the elbow-pokes make the elbow-owner a dick, I just think of the elbow as part of the situation I'm having to put up with, for a while, until it's over. When you get good at this, sometimes - I swear I am not making this up - it even starts to seem funny when the elbow keeps going in.

The "mental arguing" thing is fatal. For people like us, this can only lead to frustration, self-loathing and high blood pressure. We really, really have to let it go and yes, to do so runs counter to every fibre of our being. I know. But a way we - or at least I - can do it is via the sort of displacement tactics I mention. We have to make the situation seem like something other than what it is - or at least what your natural instincts want to insist it is. And it helps if we can do that in a way that allows us to come out the other side feeling good about ourselves. It takes time and effort, but it's worth it. I still fail. I still lose my shit with people occasionally, but I do so far less than I used to and I can be more relaxed about these situations, more of the time than I used to. I know I haven't really changed, inside. I'll never be a Zen master or a person capable of TM. My instincts are the same stroppy, volatile ones they always were. But I have managed to intercept my instincts and redirect them into safe areas - usually.

Good luck.
posted by Decani at 7:44 AM on January 28, 2011 [11 favorites]

Self esteem. Those people do not even know you so why should their opinion matter? Only when my self esteem is high can I accept this fact.
posted by shaarog at 7:56 AM on January 28, 2011

Do push-ups. If you're going to mentally torture yourself, you might as well physically torture yourself instead and get some exercise. Doing something to the point of exhaustion has a way of distracting the mind.
posted by oreofuchi at 8:01 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

Wow. Thanks, everyone, for the wonderful advice. A lot of this is spot on, and both the advice about dealing with and approaching these situations in the heat of the moment, as well as the advice regarding dwelling on things is extremely helpful.

I've been looking into therapy recently, and this will certainly be one of the things on my list to work on.
posted by the other side at 8:13 AM on January 28, 2011

One other thing - I live in a high-traffic area, and I used to be the kind of person who got incredibly angry at the jerk-heads who wouldn't let you merge, or the even jerkier people who thought they got to drive to the front of a merge lane and force their way in. Then I realized a couple things
1. Those two things are mirror examples of each other - sure, some people are being jerk-faces but a lot of the people didn't realize they needed to get over, or didn't know this was their exit, or just zoned. Letting them in (or going to the next exit or whatever can solve the problem) gives me back control of the situation. I am CHOOSING to do something different rather then LETTING someone else put me in a bad mood.

2. By choosing to do something else I also get to let myself feel magnanimous (even though I'm totally inventing a situation) I can say to myself "I made someone elses day better, and it didn't really hurt my day in anyway", so now instead of being angry about something that i have NO way to remedy or react to I get to feel good that I made a strangers day a little better.
posted by dadici at 8:16 AM on January 28, 2011 [3 favorites]

To add to what dadici has said, being magnanimous allows you to recover your own sense of power in the situation. Some of what makes these kind of commuter hell issues hell is the feeling of being done to, done to, done to. When you choose to be magnanimous, you are the doer, you are the person with power.
posted by endless_forms at 9:02 AM on January 28, 2011

Try actually saying to yourself "I've thought about this, I know this won't make me feel good, now I'm going to think about something else"

A mental image helps me to do this. For example, I blow and the other person and the situation fly away as if they were origami figures. And then I stop thinking about it.
posted by clearlydemon at 9:10 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I, too, have experienced this in the past. I have learned the following:

(1) In the grand scheme of things, this is a piss-ant little incident that's not even worth getting into a fight with the other person about. Let it go, let it mentally float up and away from you like a balloon.

(2) There are only two reasons for replaying such an incident over and over and your head: to berate yourself for it, or to learn something from it. Choose to do the latter, not the former. Forgive yourself, give yourself permission not to be perfect, realize "I'm struggling with some anger issues, but the fact that I'm thinking about what happened is a good thing, because I've learned something and maybe next time I'll be able to handle it better."

(3) Be the better person by being above fighting over it. Nobody gets points for getting into a fight with someone.
posted by Tin Man at 9:16 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

I agree with others here that forgiving yourself is important, as well as forgiving the other person. Practicing empathy in daily life, even when not in a conflict, has helped me to recognize these situations quickly and diffuse them.
posted by orme at 9:34 AM on January 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

You can't control other people, but you can control your own environment. Getting your blood pressure up over other people's bad behavior is a waste of time, and is a decision you have control over.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:58 AM on January 28, 2011

i tend to do this too. ultimately, i don't back down because i'm RIGHT and get pretty wound up about it. for a while, i was doing much better ... walking away, thinking "no one/thing is worth me getting all aggro about it." i'm trying to get better.

at the end of the day, we're only pissing ourselves off and that person/thing isn't going to learn whatever LESSON they SHOULD. i'm re-learning to let go.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 12:50 PM on January 28, 2011

I try to remember that everyone has stuff going on that I don't know about and which makes life difficult/trying/stressful for them. People still piss me off sometimes, but there are explanations for behavior apart from people being a-holes.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:36 PM on January 28, 2011

The image I use is a grey, worn down area with rut, and every time I think about the situation I'm wearing it deeper and deeper.

Then I imagine myself planting flowers in there or filling it in with nice dirt and sod. I get really detailed with it. Excellent distraction.
posted by the young rope-rider at 6:52 PM on January 28, 2011

Although I don't have to worry about a temper, I've always had a problem with replaying what I perceived to be negative interactions, though mine were related to feelings of guilt, feeling disliked, anxiety, etc.

This tendency to replay is an "automatic thought," and as noted above, the best solution is to simply stop it in its tracks. When you feel this replay happening, stop it - and better yet, challenge it. As also noted above, the best way to reverse course on this brain automation is to challenge the replay with thoughts that remind you that the reason for the altercation is not personal, it's 99% of the time not about YOU, and that you're just re-harming yourself by living it out again.

That said, it is probably a good idea to find ways to curb your temper so such conflicts don't arise, but in dealing with the aftermath, this has helped me.

A book I recommend, which was suggested by my therapist, is A Guide to Rational Living, which draws upon Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. It may feel a bit antiquated, but the techniques discussed were helpful to me.

You can also get a workbook to help with putting these strategies into practice.
posted by Ms. Toad at 7:55 AM on January 29, 2011

There's a lot of wisdom in this thread, and I've been imperfectly attempting many of the things mentioned here over the last few years, with occasional success.

I've run into a really unexpected side-effect. When I succeed at keeping my composure, not allowing things to become about me/my ego, or when I manage to take the high road or maintain magnanimity in the face of abuse or carelessness, I give my self a few points for the day, and I smile.

But... I've also been developing this gnawing feeling that I'm purposefully transforming myself into some colorless, passionless... something. I'm terrified that I'm becoming that boyfriend from High Fidelity. Sometimes allowing a flood of emotion to course through me unimpeded is a great thing (sex comes to mind). If I permanently alter myself in this way, will I somehow lose something? Passion? The ability to let go entirely? Some part of my personality?

Of course I know that this is a duality and both extremes suck. But that doesn't make me feel any better about it.
posted by tempythethird at 10:43 AM on January 29, 2011

Lots of great answers above. Just a couple of additional things that have helped me:

1. Be prepared with something pleasant to think about instead.

For me, re-arguing things in my head can be sort of like an earworm - it pops into my head and it wants to keep coming back. Having something else to think about - something positive - is very helpful in keeping it away. Others have suggested really confronting the feelings underneath the feelings when these things pop into your head, and that's a great thing to do - but if you're not up for that at the moment, just choose something else to think about: something pleasant, something you can really focus on. When I'm walking around in nature, I look at the trees and the clouds. If I'm on the bus, I think about the tasks I'm looking forward to in the week ahead, or some of the things I've just accomplished. And I REALLY think about them. It trains my mind to go in a more positive direction, and keeps me from coming back to the internal argument. So, make a short list of things you would enjoy thinking about, and be prepared to switch your thoughts to one of those.

2. Have times when you're allowed to think about difficult situations, and times when you're not.

The other thing that I find really helpful is having times when I'm simply not allowing myself to think about troubling things at all. I walk a lot. I walk around the city for exercise and I walk around in parks for pleasure. When I'm walking around in parks, I make a rule for myself that I'm not allowed to have these internal arguments. I can hash things over when I'm walking for exercise (if I do it in a way that's constructive, and helps me figure out how I might want to respond in the future); but when I'm enjoying the greenery, I want to really be focused on that, so if I find one of those irritating old conversations coming up in my head, I say to myself, "That's for another time. Right now, look at that amazing redwood!" The "That's for another time" thing is actually important, because SOMETHING inside me wants to go over that situation. Shutting it down or dismissing it just makes it want to come back. Saying, "Yes, I WILL think about you - just not now" gives me space to focus on what's in front of me.

I don't always do as well as I'd like at letting go of these thoughts, but I'm a lot better than I used to be, and I'm a lot calmer and happier as a result.
posted by kristi at 12:05 PM on January 29, 2011

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