Are you easily annoyed by people or situations? Does traffic on the commute to work make your teeth grind? Maybe the way your partner eats has you muttering under your breath. Perhaps you have a very specific collection of pet peeves – things that are likely to set you off and put you in a foul mood.
Psychological irritation is a very unpleasant state of being, not only for the person who is experiencing it, but often for everyone else around them. When chronic, irritability can spread like a communicable disease, activating stress hormones in the sufferer and spreading ripples of tension and discomfort far and wide.
What brings about such a condition of chronic aggravation? Its easy to think that it is caused by triggers – an uncontrollable situation, another person, or some external thing. If that was truly the case, how can it be that one person’s peeve is sometimes another’s preference?
Irritants are subjective because emotional irritation comes primarily from inside us, not outside us. Some of us are dealing with uncontrollable factors that make irritability more likely, such as difficult life circumstances or a physical or mental illness. Yet, we can all think of incredibly tolerant and patient individuals who cope with impossibly difficult life circumstances. Even with conditions like “misophonia” (an aversion to certain sounds such as chewing or lip smacking), studies have shown that perception of cause and context are necessary ingredients to suffering – the sound alone does not create the response.
The bottom line is that one’s psychological irritation usually says much more about the irritated than the irritant. This makes the state of annoyance a wonderful petrie dish for personal scientific observation. We can become curious about what is happening inside us rather than getting overly focused on the uncontrollable things outside us that drive us batty. Looking inward, we can open to these sensations rather than pushing them away or trying to avoid them. Sounds pretty radical, right? Why would anyone want to do such a thing?
When we are willing to face discomfort, we are better able to see things as they really are. If you dare to get in close to the experience of irritation, you will likely find that when you have many pet peeves, you also tend to have strong preferences. You will discover that attachment is the other side of the coin of aversion. This will increase awareness of the subtle ways in which you grasp at desires and push away what is unwanted and how these habits impact your life every day. As you look deeper, you may even uncover the roots of your annoyance – the problematic interpretations and beliefs underneath, which are the true triggers. These may include:
Feeling forced or trapped.
Believing things should notbe the way they are.
Feeling pushed, rushed, or in a hurry.
Having an overly external locus of control.
Projecting your own discomfort onto other people or things.
As you gain wisdom into to the roots of this painful habit, there are some ways you can relate to irritation that may reduce your distress and help you respond more skillfully. First, you can practice self-compassion. Look underneath your frustration for more vulnerable emotions such as sadness, disappointment, guilt or shame. If you are dealing with a difficult situation, realize you will have to consistently take special care of yourself so that you can be more tolerant and resilient. Acknowledge that you are suffering. Then cultivate compassion for others, understanding that they too are dealing with things we do not fully understand. They too are suffering.
In addition, you can:
Slow down and give yourself plenty of time. Cultivate patience.
Relax your body. Soften physical tension. Remember to breathe.
Let go of responsibility for things over which you have no real control.
Notice where you are empowered and where you actually do have choices (even if you don’t like the options).
Take responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
Understand that your personal beliefs and opinions, as strongly held as they may be, are not universal.
Adjust your expectations so that they are more realistic.
Remember that all of these things will take practice and persistence to in order to make a new habit. You must be willing to take time to be still and look inward rather than being constantly distracted by the external world of people and things. Decreasing chronic irritability is not a quick fix scenario, but with patience and perseverance, lasting change can occur resulting in improvements in health, relationships and life satisfaction.