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How To Stop Being Upsettable

Written by: Dr. Beverly Wertheimer, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 

Ask yourself right now, when you’re feeling bad, is it because someone or something made you upset or because you made yourself upset? Most people will answer, ‘What? Of course, I didn’t make myself upset!’ But let’s look more closely.

Take the case of Amber, my 52-year-old client, who was incensed that her husband grabbed a beer and a bar snack on the way home from work and wasn’t hungry for her special mushroom risotto dinner. Her first reaction was, “He makes me so angry!” She laid the blame for feeling upset squarely at her husband’s feet (and stomach). In fact, she was so angry that she forgot to ask why he stopped for a beer. She didn’t inquire whether he forgot their dinner plan, was thirsty, wasn’t in the mood for creamy rice, or had a last-minute meeting. Turns out it was the latter, but she had predetermined that it was his thoughtlessness and could only follow that script.


The Wisdom to Know the Difference


Back to the question: Was it my client’s husband who made her angry or did she make herself angry? In other words, is it a choice to be upsettable? At times, we certainly choose to let stuff go and be happy rather than be right, and we also choose to eventually stop being sad, mad, or frustrated. Yet, it does sound shocking and offensive to tell someone that they’re just choosing to be upset instead of acknowledging that someone or something made them upset. Surely, the jerk who cut you off in traffic or the gossipy coworker who spread a rumor about you caused your anger, right? But then how is one person able to shake off upset while another facing a comparable situation completely flips their wig? The frustratingly true answer is that while we can’t always choose our circumstances, we can choose our reactions. In fact, how we respond is really all we can choose. The rest is often beyond our control. We decide whether to be upsettable. As the often-quoted Serenity Prayer implores, “…grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference…”


What Are You Thinking?


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), arguably the most popular and best studied form of therapy, rests on the tenet that our often negative and unrealistic thoughts determine our feelings, which in turn determine our subsequent behavior. This is not new. In fact, CBT was inspired by ancient philosophy from thousands of years ago. Beloved Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD) said, “You have power over your mind ‒ not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” Had my client behaved more like a Stoic emperor, she may have expressed curiosity at the news of her husband’s early repast and avoided a bitter quarrel that ended with him “slamming the door and peeling out of the driveway.”


Reclaim Control


A slight shift in her thinking from “He makes me so upset” to “I feel upset but can choose how to react” may have been enough to attenuate her anger. This shift also appropriately repositions control of our emotions; instead of someone else provoking us and pressing our buttons, we alone possess the trigger finger and decide whether to push it. Before we make assumptions, expect the worst, and begrudge someone the benefit of the doubt, we can bite our tongue, chew on our thoughts ‒ and then speak.


Save Your Saliva


This advice would have served me well in my own younger years. When I was an adolescent, my mother and I had skirmishes about the most trivial matters. My favorite French Uncle Felix (FFF) used to implore me, “Laisse tomber, Bev!” which essentially means, “Drop it.” He explained that anyone can waste “precious saliva” and argue over anything, but “À quel prix?” This was an excellent question that I didn’t deeply consider until years later. When my FFF queried “At what price?” he was protecting me from harm produced by my own inner inferno. He was also unknowingly saluting Shakespeare who warned, “Heat not a furnace for your foe so hot that it do singe yourself.” What the Bard and FFF knew was that anger is not good for us. Science shows that the first spark of anger activates the amygdala and sets off a chain reaction causing the adrenal glands to secrete stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. The negative effects of this are numerous. Elevated stress hormones kill neurons in the brain and disrupt the creation of new ones. Your short-term memory becomes weakened and your judgment impaired. Anger also stresses us out, and this manufactures a whole other host of problems such as increased heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose level. That’s something to get upset about.


Love is Inside of You


Most people agree that it’s empowering to manage their own emotions. Yet, we frequently consign that power to others. One very telling example occurs after a breakup. We often blame our former partner for breaking our hearts and destroying our happiness. The suffering of the lovelorn is legendary. Unrequited love is so profound that it can even change the shape of one’s heart and cause “takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” or broken heart syndrome ‒ named after a Japanese octopus trap whose shape the broken heart resembles. Don’t get me wrong; love requires being utterly vulnerable and deeply connected to another person—and breakups can be immensely painful. But here’s something important to remember: None of us depends wholly on someone else for our happiness. The person we love is not responsible for the profound feelings we possess. In other words, the object of our love means much less than the love itself that is inside of us. This capacity to love is part of who we are, and we carry this vessel of love with us, even after a breakup. We can choose to continue to love ourselves and others.


Most People Mean Well


We are mortal, of course we sometimes get upset; but we need not stay upset. One of my FFF’s most endearing qualities was his ability not only to “drop it” but to laugh it off. When someone would say something offensive or commit a small transgression, my FFF would throw his head back, squeeze his eyes shut, and produce a delightful, rich, gravelly laugh in the most good-natured way. He believed that most people don’t mean any harm. FFF suffered serious health problems, lost the love of his life to illness, and lost a fortune to a traitorous business partner; but he did his absolute best not to be upsettable, and he taught me the same.


Client identity and circumstances have been adapted to protect confidentiality.

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Dr. Beverly Wertheimer, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

As a former TV journalist working at ABC and NBC stations, CNN Turner Entertainment, and Entertainment Tonight, Beverly Wertheimer thrives on creating warm and immediate connections with others. In her current roles as CEO of BeWorthy life coaching, assoc. child and adolescent psychotherapist, and adjunct professor of psychology at Pepperdine University, Dr. Wertheimer is devoted to uplifting others and helping them solve even the most vexing problems. Her mission: Help people get whatever they want out of life...and then enjoy it!

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