The other day my husband was pulling out of a parking spot and we got into a car accident. It was just a fender bender but enough to cause a significant amount of damage to our car. As my husband got out of the car and approached the other driver, I heard him angrily say, “You did not signal.” The guy answered back in an agitated tone, “I did signal. You didn’t see me.” As they went back and forth, I jumped out of the car and said to the fellow, “You didn’t signal.” He looked at me and I looked at him and we both smiled and almost simultaneously said “Thank goodness no one is hurt.” Then he quickly said, “Cars are easy to fix, people are harder to fix.” As my husband called the insurance company, we introduced ourselves (his name was Tony) and just starting chatting about life. After about thirty minutes, I had to leave because I had tickets for a show uptown. My husband and Tony stayed and waited for the police. By the time by husband met me later he knew Tony’s entire life story and Tony had asked my husband to have lunch some time.
When our car was appraised, the damage was more expensive then I had expected. I have to deal with the insurance company, go to the police precinct to pick up the report and take my car to the shop to be fixed for two weeks. So it is definitely creating an inconvenience in my life, but since my conversation with Tony I don’t mind that much. I think about the moment when our eyes met and we both decided that we didn’t feel like being angry about it. There was a choice. And it’s not that having emotions are bad, it’s just that in this particular situation it was clear that we could both be angry and suffer, or accept the situation and make the best of it.
There are so many situations throughout our day that could cause us to feel angry or annoyed. For example, a kitchen appliance breaks just before a holiday dinner, we are late for an appointment because we are stuck in traffic or in the subway, our child will not go to bed on time, we have to wait on a really long line to fill a prescription or buy a cup of coffee or a friend cancels plans at the last minute; the list goes on and on. In the big picture, none of these things seem like such a big deal, but each incident can derail our mood and sometimes can take us in a direction that snowballs for the rest of the day.
So how can we be more aware of our reactions to the minor collisions (pun intended) during the day? Here are a few tips.
1. The minute you feel agitation or annoyance, say to yourself “Maybe everything is still okay.” It sounds so simple but it works. It gives us just enough time to stop and get our bearings. Because most often we get upset because we have lost our way. We forget the big picture and just how insignificant this one thing that is bothering us is. We can then see we are suffering unnecessarily.
2. Breathe breathe breathe. Take 5 long breaths, in and out, slowly. You can never go wrong with this tactic; it takes the energy out of your mind and into your body. It will slow your thoughts down and allow you to see the situation more for what it is and so be less reactive.
3. Recently I took up the practice of transcendental meditation and I find that it really helps me calm my mind throughout the whole day. You could also use an object like keys or a bracelet, and focus on it, noticing all of its qualities, to bring your mind away from what is bothering you and allow some space within which to calm down.
4. Some people like to make a list of the things that are important to them and keep it with them, bringing it out and looking at it a few times a day. If a problem arises that does not fall on the list, they immediately gain some perspective on their emotions. It doesn’t mean a situation won’t bother you, but it can help align your reaction to the importance of the issue. Sure, there are difficult situations that come up each day that will not be on the list, but if it’s really not what you consider “important,” then you will be less likely to waste energy on it.
These are just a few examples of how we can choose a different, more measured reaction to a situation. It is not always easy, but always worth a try. It is not about suppressing emotions, but instead examining them and giving yourself perspective while you are in the midst of an unexpected or challenging situation. For me, what transpired in that moment after the accident saved me from being unproductively angry and aggravated these past few weeks. And that evening I was able to go uptown, enjoy the show and go out for dinner.
And who knows, MAYBE we will meet Tony for lunch some day. However, if we ever go together in a car, I will put Tony and my husband in the back seat and I will drive!