Confessions of an Angry Therapist-to-Be Part 2 of 2
Traffic jams. Angry bosses. Kids behaving badly. Distracted text messaging drivers. The reasons behind our unhappiness could easily max out any Twitter post. Stressful situations can lead us to act in surprising ways. Many years ago, a driver cut me off in a parking lot. I got out of my car to talk to him, he closed his windows and locked his doors, and I responded by plunging my fist into the top his car. At that moment, with my frustration at its peak, the last thing that would have crossed my mind was the following saying: Everyone is our teacher. But that’s precisely what the “present me” would have told that young adult in grad school. So what does “Everyone is our teacher” mean? And how can we apply it our lives? I’ll address these two questions in today’s post.
Stress Is an Inside Job
Anytime, someone makes us upset, the “upsetness” is in us–not in the other person or circumstance. In my case, that meant that the driver who had cut me off was presenting me an opportunity to learn more about myself. Recognizing the central role we play in our perception of suffering doesn’t mean that we become complacent or passive to the outside world. In fact, because we’re the only one’s who can truly control the degree to which we experience suffering, we’re also the only ones who can decrease it. Thus it’s our responsibility to set boundaries, avoid danger, and work to improve our lives.
Open Up or Close Off?
“Everyone is our teacher” is an inherently optimistic approach to life. By interpreting daily events as ultimately working in our favor, we open ourselves up to the challenges before us. Rather than meaningless, we view the present pain we’re experiencing as a teacher who is donning an unhappy suit. It’s our choice whether we decide to view adversity as an opportunity to gain insight about ourselves, or whether we see it as further proof of why peace of mind is so elusive.
So how do we apply the “eveyone is our teacher” belief to daily life? Here’s a three step formula:
1. Observe a situation that’s creating suffering.
2. Witness the feelings inside of you; take the perspective an outsider who is observing what’s taking place.
3. Once you focus on the feelings ask yourself, “What’s happening inside that’s making me upset?”
Notice how this doesn’t blame your suffering on an external person or circumstance or yourself. Rather, you’re taking a scientific approach to the stressful situation. What is it that you’re seeing, hearing, and feeling? When we take a step back, and we’re able to view life’s challenges as objectively as possible, they lighten up. Suddenly, the careless driver in front of you is providing you an opportunity to observe your reaction to an unexpected situation rather than react based on unfettered emotion.
I’ve been following this approach for many years, both in and outside of the car. As a result, I’ve never come close to repeating what took place in that parking lot so many years ago. And it’s not that I’ve learned to restrain anger more effectively. In fact, when I’m driving, passengers will notice rude drivers who cut me off or behave inappropriately. “Did you see that?” a shocked passenger will say, pointing out someone else’s blunder. More often than not, I don’t even notice.
If this method of decreasing stress appeals to you, allow me to provide two additional ways to dramatically increase the benefits you’ll experience. First meditate regularly. Meditation relaxes your body and mind. It also gives you the tools to calm yourself down when stressful matters arise. Second, figure out what in your life is causing you stress and actively work to diminish it. For example, if you’re constantly running late and this stresses you out, then give yourself more time to arrive at your destination. This may require you to plan ahead; the inconvenience of prior planning will pale in comparison to the benefits of decreasing stress in your life. When you’re less stressed overall, you’ll be better equipped to learn from the teachers that life tosses your way.
When we approach stressful situations as our teachers, rather than play the blame game towards ourselves and others, we recognize that everything we experience presents us with an opportunity for self-improvement. Taking this perspective may seem burdensome, but it also means that the ability to decrease our suffering is completely within our control.