The Benefits of Being Irritated

One of the things people most often praise me for is my ability to remain immovably zen, regardless of circumstances.

Which is funny. Because it’s an ability I don’t possess.

I do think I emotionally react to fewer situations than the average Joe.  But still, it’s quite common for me to get annoyed with little things.

Does “getting annoyed with little things” sound a lot like yourself?

Then you’re in the right place at the right time! Read on 😉

Emotions as Gifts

If you’re a regular reader, you might expect a typical blog post on this site to advise you on how to stop yourself from feeling irritated.  But that’s not what we’re going to do in this one.

A perspective I’ve been playing with this past year, is that of every emotion being a gift, whether we enjoy it or not.

Think about it.  Why do you have emotions in the first place?

Because you’re an animal.  A mobile form of life.  And for mobile lifeforms like you, having emotions help you survive.  

The classic example for this is your ape ancestors standing face to face with a sabretooth tiger.  If they hadn’t felt fear in that moment, they would’ve done nothing and died.  But the emotion of fear mobilised them to run away, play dead, or fight. That’s the gift fear has to offer.

In comparison, an oak tree wouldn’t benefit from feeling fear.  It’s alive, but it’s not an animal.  It has no legs.  It can’t fight or flee. So being faced with a threatening lumberjack, fear wouldn’t help our oak tree at all.  It would just make his experience of getting chopped down even less pleasant than it already is.

(Side note:  If You happen to be an oak tree, or someone who identifies as oak, I’m sorry for assuming I know about your feelings.  I don’t.  To be honest, you were just a convenient example for this article.  I hope you’re oak-ay with that.)

So in short: Trees don’t need fear because they can’t move. Animals do, because they can.

You on the other hand, besides being an animal (yes you are 😉 ), are also a human.  And what differentiates humans from other animals is our ability to think in abstract concepts.  This makes the function of our emotions a lot more complex.

Not only do we need to react to any potential tigers jumping out at us, we also have the ability to imagine the future and ponder the past. This means that:

  1. If we feel the most useful emotions about that imagined future, we can anticipate it and behave in a way which increases our chances of survival.  
  2. If we recognise patterns from our past, we can use those to create emotional reactions which prevent any previous harmful experiences from happening again (or to re-create the experiences which we enjoyed).

All our different emotions have a purpose which can benefit us in some way, either in the present or in the future.

That doesn’t mean the emotions we feel are always appropriate to the situation we’re in. But regardless of that situation, they do present us with a potential gift which we can benefit from as a person. (PTSD can be a good example of a disproportionate amount of fear in response to the situation happening.  But however unpleasant or ineffective, initially the PTSD was still a result of your emotions doing their job:  You went through something so bad, that your mind set up systems to aggressively prevent it from ever happening again.)

For most people, it’s easy to see the benefits in love, gratitude or joy.  But what about depression, grief or anger?

Believe it or not, they can all do amazing things for you when handled correctly.  But to avoid turning this article into a 100 page book, let’s stick with the topic 😉

Being Annoyed: What’s It Good For?

Taking on the perspective of each emotion carrying a gift for you, which gifts can you find in irritation?

If you slow down and pay attention to how your bodily sensations and thoughts change whenever you’re irritated, you will most likely feel a combination of the following 2 things:

1. A sense of disagreement with the subject of your irritation

This subject can be a situation, a person, a concept.  If you’re just in a grumpy mood, then the subject is “the overall experience you’re having”.

2. An energetic charge

Compared to the moment before you were irritated, you now feel more of an urge to move your body and do something.  As if there’s an energy in your body you want to express outwardly.

This type of sensation is also present in anger, excitement or desire.  And perhaps to a degree in anxiety.

All of the above are emotions that “move you” into action.  

With irritation, the amount of energetic charge may be quite mild compared to anger.  But most people are still moved by it in some way: Letting out a sigh, a curse, a brief grunt or “having to bite your tongue to not say something really rude”.

If you put these 2 elements together, you can see that the irritation you feel carries within it the gift of moving you towards creating change.

This change can occur in 2 ways:

  1. You allow yourself to be moved by the irritation to take action which may influence or improve the thing you’re annoyed with. Let’s call this “Improving the Subject” of your irritation.
  2. You allow yourself be moved by the irritation to change your relationship with that subject.  Let’s call this “Improving Yourself”
  3. You allow the irritation to move you towards self-reflection.  Perhaps the greatest of all 3 gifts.

Using Your Irritation to Improve the Subject

To quickly recap: the “subject” of your irritation, is what we call the thing you’re annoyed with.

This can be a person, a behavior, a concept in your mind (”democrats”, “male chauvinist pigs”, “the illuminati”,…) or a situation you are in (e.g. having to deal with an unexpected work interruption, or a bureaucrat stuck in the matrix).

“Improving the subject” would mean taking an action which influences that subject to change in a way that reduces your irritation.

So depending on your subject you would either influence a person to change, a situation to change, or the illuminati to no longer “exist”.

Writing it out like that, you can already see how this will be a challenging endeavor. Which is the main downside of trying to go this route.

  1. When we are irritated, we tend to take ineffective actions. Actions which more often than not, aggravate the situation.
  2. Even when we would take the best possible action that exists, we don’t have a 100% guarantee that our subject will change.  Sometimes it’s just outside of our control.
  3. We may succeed to influence someone or something into behaving in a way that doesn’t annoy us, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that was a positive change.  What if the problem was us and not them?

This doesn’t mean that improving the subject is not worth trying.  But it’s important to always remember these 3 points.

Now, if you believe that you are able to make a difference here, and want to go with this option, where do you get started?

You can only take effective action when you are 100% comfortable with the amount of irritation present in your body.

Think about it:

If you feel so irritated that you cannot engage with the subject of your irritation without cursing, yelling or being sarcastic, that means the irritation is stronger than you.  This is not a good position from which to take action.

So if that is your situation, you can either take irritation’s other gift (changing your relationship to the subject) or decide to call it a day and just go somewhere private to scream a bit until you feel more in control..

If on the other hand, you are irritated to a level where you are still able to engage with focus and reason, you are ready to take this version of irritation’s gift:

Let your irritation fuel your mind, and motivate it to calmly ponder what would be the best way to respond to this situation.  Put yourself in the position of the person you’re trying to create a change in.  Or look at previous situations in which somebody successfully managed to make a difference.  Once you are certain that what you will do will create positive change, go for it.  Take your action, then let go of expecting results.

The irritation will fade away, and come back when it can be of service again.

If you find that you are never able to be this reasonable while feeling irritated, the way to learn it is to become more comfortable with this particular emotion.

In general, we tend to perceive the nature of the energetic charge derived from irritation or anger as unpleasant.  And because of that, we tend to block it by contracting the muscles in our body.  Become aware of this tendency.

Whenever you feel irritated, do not distract yourself. Try to welcome the feeling instead of pushing it away.  Relax your body, breathe deeply.  Observe what the emotion does to you.  Try to enjoy the power of this energy, the untapped potential of the emotion.  Maybe even see if you can derive a weird sense of pleasure from it. Just let the feeling be there for as long as you can without it driving you crazy. Try to increase the amount of time you can comfortably sit with this feeling.

Over time you’ll notice that this increased comfort with the energetic charge will allow you to take more effective action while feeling it.

Changing Your Relationship to the Subject

When you find yourself truly unable to change anything about the situation which annoys you, and this is a situation which will continue to repeat itself, it could be better to change the way you relate to it.

You may not always be able to change what is happening, but you for sure are able to change your thoughts about it.

The best way to do this is to create a new context for the subject of your irritation.

For example:

Until recently, I used to get annoyed every time a movie I was watching needed buffering.

Now when this happens, I tell myself “Great, our world is so busy the whole day long.  This gives me an opportunity to just take a few deep breaths and do nothing.”

Similarly, if somebody doesn’t behave in the way you’d like them to, you can say “Everyone’s a little different.  And that’s both part of the beauty and the challenge of life. Sure, things would be easy if everyone thought like me.  But they’d also be incredibly boring.”

Some questions you can ask yourself to get started with practicing this are:

  • What else could this situation mean?
  • How can I see this situation as something positive or funny?
  • What is this situation helping me see?
  • if I put myself in the position of the other people in this situation, can I see it as positive for them?  (For example: You may be annoyed by another person always telling you “no”, but by putting yourself in their position you can see that it is positive for them to have such strong boundaries)

Using Irritation for Self-Reflection

While the first part of this post focused on changing a person or situation outside of you, there’s one important thing to remember about being annoyed:

Irritation is always about you. You are the one annoyed.  Not “them”.

Therefore, in most cases, the most valuable gift of annoyance is the gift of reflection.

In the past, I would get pissed off by so many things:  Bus drivers arriving late, cops, incompetent people in a position of power, Pringles cans not being wide enough.

In the end, whenever I would investigate why these things annoyed be, it was because they usually held a mirror to my face:

  • I hated the bus driver being late because I was always late, and then I could blame it on the bus driver
  • I hated incompetent people in a position of power because I judged myself harshly for every mistake I made, and I didn’t dare to step into a position of power myself because of that.
  • I’m annoyed when tech devices don’t work fast enough because I tend to place unreasonable demands on myself in terms of how much work I can do in a day.

When we find ourselves criticizing the “flaws” in other people (or cultures / countries / systems), what bothers us is that they remind us of unresolved issues or underdeveloped qualities inside ourselves.  If we see someone else as too harsh, it may be that we are so kind that it becomes a flaw, or a lack of boundaries.  If we see someone else as arrogant, it may be that we lack assertiveness.  If we see others as too judgmental… well, let’s start with becoming aware of the fact that we’re judging them 😉

You may find the same is true for many things in your life:

  • If you are annoyed by people who are overly cheerful, you may be suppressing the part of you that loves to express joy.
  • If you are annoyed by other people dressing in a sexy or confident way, this may be telling you something about your own insecurities.
  • If you are annoyed by people who are always annoyed, you may be suppressing your own annoyance 😉

These are all things which you might not be able to see in yourself if it weren’t for the annoyance you are feeling.  

So really, this moment of being annoyed is something to be grateful for.

Because the annoyance is what gives you the opportunity to look in the mirror. (Imagine that you wake up with a big dirty stain on your face, but you forget to look in the mirror.  You’d also not see it until someone finally points it out, to your annoyance.)

So next time you find yourself annoyed, wait until you are calmer and try asking yourself:

 “If this feeling was a mirror… what about myself would it reveal to me, which I couldn’t see before?”

 

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