I've always been fascinated by people's pet peeves. And because I believe every issue stems from whatever small and large things happened to us as children, I've become accustomed to realizing I'm annoyed and then immediately trying to determine why some seemingly tiny thing angers me so much.
After years of analyzing my own behavior, it occurred to me that the minuscule annoyances we tend to ignore are affecting our lives more than we realize. I knew that by yanking them out of my subconscious and trying to get to their gritty underbelly, I had taught myself to respond differently, and I wanted to see if that could work for other people.
So, I started asking people about their pettiest issues in a podcast. And over the past six months of recording these interviews, I've realized that almost all our anger over seemingly little things is usually tied to a few major fears. I've broken down three of them here, along with advice from Dr. Josh Lichtman, a Buddhist psychiatrist and the medical director at Refuge Recovery in LA, about how to handle them when they arise.
1. The fear of not being seen.
Whether I was talking to a podcaster about his issue with people who sing and dance at the gym, a screenwriter about his issue with people who wear pajamas on planes, an actor about his issue with skateboarders, or a photographer about his issue with entitled drivers, I noticed a common theme: Everyone was struggling with feeling invisible and like they didn't matter.
The singer/dancer at the gym was going about his business with no concern for how the podcaster felt about it, the pajama-wearer was looking ludicrous because he just didn't care how the screenwriter perceived his outfit, the skateboarder was careening around street corners with no concern for the actor walking nearby, and the entitled driver was ignoring how the photographer might feel about his obnoxious driving. In each case, my guests were upset because they were taking something personally when it had nothing to do with them—an experience most of us surely have multiple times throughout the day. So, how are we supposed to stop?
"In the short term, recognize what you're feeling," says Lichtman. "Identifying and putting a name to something takes away a lot of its power. If a driver cuts you off and you feel angry, try to accept the fact that emotions are just transient. In the long term, the solution is to surround yourself with like-minded people who allow you to be authentic so that when you're feeling invisible, there's solid evidence to back up the fact that you're not."
2. The fear of not being enough.
Long before social media gave us a way to gather tangible evidence that we're not as fabulous/successful/attractive/cool/fill-in-the-blank as the people we know, most of us were highly skilled at telling ourselves that no matter how much we did—how many times we worked out or meditated, how many books we wrote or clients we had or money we made—it wasn't enough. The guests on my podcast have been no different. Take the sex expert who talked about her issue with people who text and ask her if she's OK (fear: she's not a good enough friend) and the comedian who has an issue with the word "narrative" (fear: he's not as sophisticated as the people around him).
According to Lichtman, the best solution to this issue is to lean a bit on CBT—that is, cognitive behavioral therapy or looking at cognitive distortions. One way to get clarity here is to take out a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle (this can also be done in your head). Lichtman suggests, "On one side, write or consider things that prove that you're not good enough. On the other, list the things that prove you are." Of course, the negative side of the sheet will probably end up empty and the positive side full of evidence of worthiness. Cognitive distortion corrected!
3. The fear of not being respected.
From the massive understatement department: The fear that we're not getting the sort of respect we feel we deserve is an issue for lots of people. Take the comedian who's unspeakably annoyed when friends text and ask him questions they could answer themselves and the author who can't stand it when people are on their phones when he's with them.
Lichtman's advice for people in these situations is to always try to recognize the fact that what's happening isn't personal. "Practice equanimity by allowing whatever's occurring to occur without judgment," he says. "Although it may feel like an attack, try to anchor yourself in the present situation. You don't have to invalidate the emotional reaction, but you also don't have to listen to it."