Choose to feel better

I received an email from a reader who tells me that insignificant things often annoy her. She writes that she was upset in a restaurant recently because a child was making some noise. She admits that the kid was just being a kid, and that the parents seemed to be doing their best to contain him. But it still ruined her dinner. This happens to her in other situations too, including on the road. She asks me what she can do to change her attitude.

One of my favorite techniques in cognitive psychotherapy is ‘cost-benefit analysis.’ It’s a simple process whereby you look at the time, energy and ’emotional cost’ of paying attention to disruptive or annoying thoughts. I don’t know what her thoughts were in the restaurant, but they probably went something like this: ‘I can’t believe these people brought their kid in here! And lucky me—right next to my table!’

Notice that I’m calling the THOUGHTS disruptive and annoying. That’s the key principle of cognitive therapy: It’s not the child (or whatever) that’s directly causing the anxiety or pain. It’s your own mind. And you can change your mind by changing your thoughts—and you can change your thoughts by changing your perspective. For example, she could have tried thinking, ‘Just because this kid is making noise doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy my food. His parents really are trying to deal with it, and most likely he’ll settle down. And, if it gets bad enough, I can leave.’ The point is that you can CHOOSE how you look at something. You can choose to indulge in thoughts that are annoying and disruptive, or you can try different thoughts to navigate your way through the situation.

I realize it’s hard to do this when you’re under stress, so why not try a little (free) cognitive therapy on yourself. Get a notepad, and make two columns. The first column says ‘costs’ and the second says ‘benefits.’ Consider your frustration on the road. One way to think while driving is, ‘This is terrible. I can’t believe I’m stuck behind this slow person.’ Then write down the costs and benefits of that thought. Maybe something like, ‘It makes me feel good to be angry about the slow driver. I release some stress, and then it passes. I move on.’ Feeling angry and upset (cost) is outweighed by the immediate stress reduction you get by complaining about it (benefit). But what if the cost of being angry turns out to be more anger, and escalates into bad decision-making while you’re driving? Or elevation of your already high blood pressure? Are these costs worth the anger? Probably not. It might make sense to think of another way to respond.

Cost-benefit analysis, originally developed by psychiatrists and therapists such as Aaron Beck, David Burns and Albert Ellis, is not just an intellectual exercise. It can truly change the way you react to troubling situations. You start with the premise that your thoughts determine the way you feel. If you don’t like the way you feel, then find alternative thoughts, which, in turn, will create different feelings. This ‘reprogramming’ process can take repeated effort, consistently applied until it becomes a habit.

I look at situations like road rage or anger over children in restaurants as the ‘is/should’ conflict. People get mad because they feel like there SHOULD not be a child in the restaurant, or the slow driver SHOULD not be in front of them. But it doesn’t matter how it should be—all that matters now is the way it IS. There IS a child sitting next to you. You can leave or you can change the way you think about it. There IS a slow driver in front of you. Deal with it, because rage will change nothing (other than, possibly, your life expectancy).

Don’t misunderstand. ‘Should’ is not an entirely bad concept. There is definitely something to be said for idealism and morality, and I’m the first one to agree that there ARE proper ways for human beings to act. Sometimes, we should even tell people what we think of their wrong actions, so long as we’re careful how we go about it. For example, if more people turned around in the movie theater and said, ‘Excuse me?!’ when someone decides to have a cell phone conversation in the middle of the movie, there might be fewer disruptions in movie theaters. If everybody just sits there doing a slow burn and not saying anything, then the only other action you can take is to leave.

There are times when we are surrounded by wrong and stupid behavior. But at the same time, our outlook on those behaviors can determine how we feel. The choices we make apply not only to how we act, but to how we think. If you want to change how you feel about something, then either take action—or change your thinking. The choice is yours.