How to not let it bother you

I will admit upfront that I am quite a sensitive person and I also worry a lot. I often wish I were not that way, and over the years I have found strategies for lessening the amount of grief and annoyance that I would experience otherwise. If you aren’t easily bothered by these things, I wish I were like you; if you are, I hope you will find these tips helpful.

1. It’s them, not me
I have always had a very difficult time not taking things personally. Even now I still struggle with it, but I have been getting better at identifying when someone behaves the way they do because that is the way they always behave in that particular situation, and not because they are purposely trying to hurt me.

The easiest way to tell is by observing the person’s interactions with other people. (If you only encountered him once and aren’t likely to see him again, then he’s not worth getting upset over, unless he committed a heinous act.) If certain patterns of behavior show up, then you know that it’s the other person, not you. For example, I’ve noticed that there are people who will raise their voice in the face of disagreement when they believe they’re right. Some people are extremely blunt, and there are others who like to push other people’s buttons. That’s just how they behave towards everyone, so I know it has nothing to do with me.

It helps if other people report feeling the same way. I’m not encouraging you to gossip, but if everyone present felt that that person was difficult to deal with, most likely she was the one being unreasonable.

If you still have a hard time shaking it off even when you know that it’s the other person, and not you, then read on to my second point, which is:

2. Think of the offender as a ridiculous kid
In the past when people have left me harsh/snarky comments online, I’ve tried telling myself that it’s them, not me. Still, that doesn’t take away all the upset and shock I’ve experienced, even when I know that the things they accuse me of are unfounded assumptions and simply not true. My attempts to “just ignore them” have not been effective, except in cases when the person is obviously being abusive to everyone, so it’s clear that he’s the one with the problem.

I had an epiphany several months ago, when someone left a harsh comment that was filled with accusations and inaccurate assumptions. I happened to be at work when I first read the comment. Later that afternoon, some kids were squabbling over something petty. That’s when I realized that whenever the kids come to me when they’re having petty squabbles, I always tell them to ignore the one who is provoking them. (After all, the troublemaker doesn’t listen to me anyway.) Yet, it always seemed impossible for the kids to ignore the mean kid, even though to me, such actions seemed like no big deal. That made me wonder why it was so difficult for me to ignore the mean comments. Then I thought of the commenter as one of the kids who was being ridiculous. Suddenly, it was easier for me to not be affected by it.

3. Turn it into a joke
One of my pet peeves is seeing quick repetitive motions, especially in my peripheral vision. For example, it annoys me when I see the motion from someone jiggling their leg or shaking their foot while seated. (If I can feel vibrations from their movements, or if their leg-shaking makes the whole bench bounce, it bugs me even more.)

One morning when I was waiting at a bus stop, a guy standing to the left in front of me kept pumping his knees. While this annoyed me a bit, I suddenly noticed that he was pumping his knees in a regular rhythm, and it matched The Go-Go’s song Turn To You. So I started imagining him purposely moving his legs to the the introduction to that song, and it was quite funny to me. Then I wondered what might happen if I secretly videotaped his moving legs and put the recording to the music, and then posted it on YouTube. I wasn’t going to actually do that, but I thought of all the other times people were moving their bodies in annoying ways, and all the videos I could make by matching their jiggling to music. Once I found it funny, it was no longer annoying.

4. Put it in perspective
In the grand scheme of things, how significant is this really?

When I am worried about or upset by something and can’t get my mind off of it, it helps to put it into perspective. One way that I do that is by asking myself, three months from now, will this still be bothering me? I go so far as to find the date three months from now and mark it on my calendar, with the question, “Is it still bothering you?” To be honest, I have only done this once, but the time that I did it, I found that I had forgotten about the thing that was making me upset, in much less than three months. In fact, I was looking ahead in my calendar and was thinking, “What did I put that event in for? Oh, that. I forgot about it two months ago.”

Another way of putting things into perspective is one that I got from reading Stress Management for Dummies. I won’t go into all the details, but it involved rating events on a scale of 1 to 10 for how stressful they are, and then evaluate how stressful you’re experiencing it.  The events that fall into the 8, 9, and 10 category were things like a major financial loss or a serious illness. That’s when I realized that the thing that was keeping me up at night was more like a 5, yet I was treating it like a 10! I was overreacting when I didn’t need to be.

5. Think of it as a learning experience
People have a bias for remembering emotionally salient stimuli, as opposed to neutral ones. This is thought to have evolved because emotionally salient things tend to be out of the ordinary, and remembering dangerous situations or harmful things enables one to avoid them or react faster to them in the future, which is beneficial to survival. Not surprisingly, I am able to remember many incidents in which I’ve made stupid mistakes and embarrassed myself. As much as I would love to erase those memories, I suppose it’s better that they stay, since I now know what to do differently, should a similar situation arise.

The only problem is when those memories bother me excessively; the situation is on replay in my mind, accompanied by the feelings of guilt, shame, or embarrassment. I keep telling myself what I should have done differently, how I was too slow, how I should have been more careful, how the other party is going to think “there was this stupid girl today…” even though I try to convince myself that most people won’t remember or care all that much after you’ve left; they’re preoccupied with their own lives and issues. Or, if it was in front of a group of people, not everyone may have noticed. A lot of the time the interactions are with people I may never run into again, or people that I will see again for the next few weeks, but after a year the chances of meeting are slim.

Since it’s pretty certain that I won’t be forgetting the incident any time soon, I might as well “reframe” how I think about it. This is usually accomplished by determining what there was for me to learn from it. That way, when it comes to mind, I simply think of it as a learning experience. Reframing can also involve countering my irrational beliefs through focusing on facts, until I’m convinced that I was being too hard on myself. After the process, I am usually relieved and able to get on with life again.

Balancing Optimism and Pessimism

As far as I can remember, I have always been a pessimist, but I’m trying to be more optimistic now. After all, I constantly hear that optimists are happier, healthier, and live longer than pessimists. When I say that I’m trying to be more positive, I don’t mean that everything is indiscriminately rainbows and sunshine. Rather, I make a distinction between situations where it helps to be positive and ones where it doesn’t help.

I recently read this article, which describes how engaging in positive fantasies may actually diminish one’s chance of success. Instead of dismissing positive thinking entirely, I was inspired to sort out when positive thinking is useful to me, and when I think it’s pointless.

Back in high school when I was applying to colleges, I decided that the more optimistic you are about future outcomes, the more disappointed you will end up if things didn’t turn out the way you wanted. I used that to justify my pessimism regarding admissions, as a way to prepare myself for disappointment. It worked. 😛

I don’t believe in thinking positively about the distant future. By “distant future” I mean any point in the future that is vague, which could be three months from now, as soon as next week, or even sooner. I avoid using statements such as “Everything will work out in the end” because 1) we don’t know the future and 2) it gives a false sense of assurance, which, as stated in the article, may lead people to not put in the effort that is necessary for the desired outcome. What is certain about the future, though, is that the situation will have to change at some point, whether it’s for better or for worse. (The unemployed recent college graduate cannot live in his parents’ basement forever. Some possible alternatives are that he gets a job, or goes to graduate school, or gets kicked out by his parents, or the house collapses from a natural disaster, etc.) Unexpected things do happen and are capable of changing our lives drastically.
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When it comes to thinking about the future, it’s important to be objective. The problem is, many people are not objective. I know students who study for hours every day, but still stress out and think they’ll do poorly on the upcoming exam, only to end up getting the highest score in the class. I’m not saying that those students shouldn’t study so diligently, but that they don’t have to torture themselves in the process. The flip side is being optimistic while lacking what it takes to achieve the result. There are people who are so unrealistically optimistic that they try (or force their children to try) to do things that they are clearly not qualified for, which only leads to disappointment. (Unfortunately for the the children, the repeated rejections lead to diminished confidence.)

If it’s the immediate future and you are adequately prepared, then be optimistic. For example, it’s the moment before your interview, and you’ve already rehearsed and done your homework. The distinction between this and the distant future is that you are right about to execute the plan that you’ve thoughtfully made. It doesn’t really matter which stage of a project you are in, as long as you already have a concrete plan and are not merely in dreamland. The plan does not have to be foolproof, but it has to exist so you can give it a try. It’s important to be positive now because if you think it won’t work, why would you even bother? When I have ideas for jewelry, I’m often not sure that they will turn out the way I intended, but I still gather my materials and go forth to test the design. It also helps to believe that you are capable of finding another solution in case the original plan fails.

I do think it’s important to think positively about the present. Instead of only focusing on the negative aspects of a situation, look for the good in things. This is known as positive reframing. For example, last Friday the bus I was on arrived late so I couldn’t cross the street in time and saw the bus I wanted to transfer to drive away. This meant I’d have to wait another half hour. I was annoyed, but remembered that we passed by a collision. When I realized I didn’t have the worst commute that morning, I no longer felt annoyed.

Confidence and optimism

I’ve heard people say that optimism leads to confidence. In a sense the two feed into each other. Confidence is built by experience. If I’m pessimistic about the outcome, then I won’t even bother trying. On the other hand, if I am optimistic, I am more likely to try, and the more I try, the more practice I get, making it more likely I’ll succeed, which leads to more confidence. Another positive and realistic option is to think of each try as an opportunity to practice. Even if you don’t reach your goal this time, you gain more experience that could help you attain it in the future.