April 29, 2019

When we’re frustrated—whether it’s thanks to a surprise traffic jam, a friend showing up 30 minutes late, a line cutter at the grocery store—it often comes down to one thing: People or the day not playing by our rules.

You know, the rules where we expect traffic to flow seamlessly, our friends to show up on time, and people to abide by Trader Joe’s courtesy even if they’re in a rush.

We all have “rulebooks” that we may or may not even notice, and they dictate what we expect from people and the world when we get out of bed each morning.

“Our rulebooks are so much a part of who we are and how we live our life that we aren’t aware that we are using it to guide our view of the world, our decisions, and how we process events and circumstances in our life,” Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., writes in an article for Psychology Today.

Vilhauer says it’s not inherently wrong to want things to go our way—but we have to pay special attention to the gap between our rules and the way the day actually unfolds. That space is where frustration and anger are born.

“The majority of anger and frustration we experience in life occurs when we encounter someone who is not playing by our rules,” Vilhauer writes. “We tend to believe that our rules are right and that the other person should do it our way.”

'The majority of anger and frustration we experience in life occurs when we encounter someone who is not playing by our rules.’
-Janice Vilhauer, Ph.D.

It’s a natural reaction, Vilhauer writes, but one you can move past. To start making the shift, she suggests framing your emotion by filling in the blanks in these three steps:

Step 1: I am frustrated because ………. shouldn’t ……….. .

Step 2: I would prefer if ……….. .

Step 3: Here’s what I can do about it: ……….. .

These three simple sentences lay it all out there: What you’re so upset about (aka what’s the “rule” you have that’s been broken), why it’s bugging you, and what you actually have the power to change. That last part is key, according to Vilhauer.

By focusing on what you can control, you empower yourself to make the situation better rather than “making yourself miserable by insisting that everyone else play by your rules,” she writes. Instead of stewing, you can find a way forward.

Here’s what the framework looks like for me and a recent situation, where a friend showed up 30 minutes late to Friday night drinks:

Step 1: I am frustrated because my friend shouldn’t show up late and leave me solo in a crowded bar.

Step 2: I would prefer she respects my time and shows up as planned.

Step 3: What I can do is text my friend to let her know I’m on my way, giving her a chance to let me know she’s running late. I can bring a book with me so I’m not constantly checking my phone, growing more frustrated by the minute. I can pick a calmer, less time-sensitive meeting place.

Even mapping out my plan is calming: Suddenly, I feel in control of my own emotions—and my reactions to my friend. I have something I can actually do and say, rather than just stewing in my messy pit of negativity. And if the situation changes—say, to a colleague who communicates exclusively through cryptic emails—I have a blueprint for how to approach my frustration.

By focusing on what you can control, you empower yourself to make the situation better.

Of course, there’s a difference between accepting that we all play by different rules and recognizing when something shouldn’t be accepted. Treating others with kindness is a universal rule, and one that should be flagged when broken. And if someone is breaking your rules as a power play or to cause you distress? That’s worth addressing immediately.

But when it comes to those little frustrations that can derail your vibe: It’s worth asking yourself if it’s a simple case of the day not playing by your rules, and checking in with what you can control. You can’t control if, say, traffic isn’t playing by your rules—but you can definitely control the playlist that gets you through the wait.

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