What it Means When a Comment Irks You
A couple weeks ago, a friend sent me a message that slightly irked me.
It was an obscure comment, where he said I’ll probably never leave my current city and will end up where I’m living forever.
Now, I know from experience if you are bothered by something someone says, it’s because part of you deep down fears it will come true.
We see this everywhere:
The smoker gets uneasy when they hear lung cancer statistics - maybe that fate awaits them too.
The single bridesmaid gets way too drunk and hooks up with the first guy she finds because “always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” and the clock’s ticking…
A fat comment hurts because (at least partly) we believe it’s true. (If you had 6-pack abs you’d laugh and completely forget about it).
For me, that comment revealed the fear that maybe I WON'T ever leave my town. That I’m wasting precious years here when I could be living in other exciting cities and countries. Greener pastures and all that.
OK, so we all receive comments that irk us… what to do about it?
Well, to answer that we first must understand what we humans do when we feel discomfort. According to psychologists, we tend to react to stress - or "cognitive dissonance" - in one of three ways:
HOW HUMANS Deal With “Cognitive Dissonance”
We Change Our Behaviour - Here we take immediate action. The smoker throws out the entire pack and vows never to smoke again.
We Focus on Things That Support Our Behaviour - The single bridesmaid flips to “Sex and the City” with a glass of wine and laughs at the foolishness of marriage.
We Justify Our Behaviour - This is the classic “fuck it, we all die one day” approach. We embrace the worst case scenario and simply stop caring. Who cares if I die alone.
… But more common that not, most people just shoot the damn messenger. We snap or storm off. We mask feelings with booze or food or whatever our drug of choice is, and push that stressful reminder as far away as possible.
Mute the stress and “everything will be OK.”
In Case You Haven’t Noticed Yet, These Strategies Don’t Work
We’ve been playing this game around stress for a very long time now as humans, and they don’t work that well to relieve ourselves of stress - at least long term.
Smokers don’t quit and justifying doesn’t change reality.
A Better Way
The real solution for permanent cognitive dissonance reduction is to get to the root cause of the stress and resolve it once and for all.
STEP 1) Ask Yourself One Question…
In that moment that you’re feeling defensive and pissy, don’t snap at your poor mom. (OK… go ahead and snap) But then come back and reflect on it with one question:
What am I most worried will happen here?
“I worry that _________.”
… that I won’t find the partner of my dreams.
… that I’ll never have kids.
… that I’ll get lung cancer too.
… that I’ll never leave this town.
Whatever the case for you.
This question forces you to shift your attention away from person who made the comment (and wanting to wring their neck with your bare hands) and look inward. It makes you take responsibility for the fact that the comment only irks you because deep down a part of you believes it’s true.
STEP 2) Dissolve Stress by Feeling it Right Down to Its Core
With every stress there’s a well of negative emotion that comes with it. It could be fear, worry, jealously, anger or any negative emotion.
The step I take from the pages of Eckhart Tolle, who teaches that we all have a “pain body” that arises when triggered by certain things. Your job is simply to watch any negative feelings that come up and feel them completely - no holding back. Rather than getting lost in them, you simply watch them move through you unobstructed.
E.g. “I should have been married by now.”
If this brings up anxiety, observe and feel that anxiety 100%. It’s like holding a difficult yoga pose - stay with it for at least 2-5 minutes. Let the emotions course through your body, soften yourself to it and just feel everything completely without resistance.
Why this important step? It is the most effective way to DISSOLVE your pain body. Let it the light of your awareness literally burn it up.
The negative emotions return weaker and weaker each time you do this.
STEP 3) Get Critical
In other words, don’t believe everything you think.
At this step you’re already in an immensely better place than you were. You’re no longer running away from your stress nor is it buried deep in your unconscious. Instead, it’s now sitting right out in the open - ready to be examined.
Now at this stage, get critical. Get rational. Question the story. Ask yourself the question: “Is it even true?”
E.g. Staying with the stressed single bridesmaid “not married yet” theme:
“I’ll never get married.”
>> Says who? Who knows what the future holds. Life can change at the drop of a hat.
“I should have been married by now.”
>> Was this even POSSIBLE before now?
>> Who says you even WANTED to get married before now.
Investigate when this thought started. Where did you pick it up? What evidence is supporting it? Don’t believe everything you think and don’t assume that everything you fear is going to come true.
(NOTE: Like always, I recommend Byron Katie’s “The Work” here as an effective process for this stage, to transform stress into peace).
Conclusion: Let Discomfort Lead You Home
My friend’s comment turned out to be insightful. My annoyance had nothing to do with him, and everything to do with me.
Rather than getting DEFENSIVE when people irk you, turn it into your practice. Let it unwind all your fears and take you back home to clarity.