Oh yes, for all my talk of love, compassion and kindness, I need to admit that sometimes people get on my last nerve! Of course, they do; I’m human just like you!
It’s never about assuming that no one will bother you. It’s about how you handle it when people get under your skin.
First things first: I could teach you 100 quick tips for dealing with people who get on your last nerve, but if you don’t remember to use the tools, they really don’t help. This means that you have to work on your self-awareness and your mindfulness.
I’m not going to spend our time together right now talking about either because I spent a whole month on these topics last September, so you can check out Four Ways to be More Self Aware and How to Make Mindfulness a Habit to get you started.
However, even if you’re not a self-aware, mindful ninja, you can practice these quick tips to deal with anyone who’s bugging the you-know-what out of you.
Tip #1: Do you want to die on that hill?
Picking your battles is important but sometimes it’s hard to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Should you say something every time your boundary is crossed in some way?
My answer? I like to use a scale of 1 to 6. On this scale, a 1 means not important and I should let it pass and a 6 means draw the boundary quickly and firmly.
Anything that rates a 4 or above is worth saying something about. For the rest, be Teflon. If my mother tells me she doesn’t like my hair, that’s a 2 and I can take a deep breath and let that shit go. However, if she says something to my young daughter that would make her remotely self-conscious about how she looks, that’s automatically a 6 and I’m going to say something.
Tip #2: Assume when, not if
In my experience, people are way too optimistic when it comes to how other people will act. Having these high expectations of how others will act is often a big mistake. This is one of the reasons I say that you need to have high standards and low expectations. Most people have this backwards. They have low standards and high expectations, and this causes all kinds of issues.
So, if you’ve got low expectations, you should be ready for not great behavior, especially when this person has been this way to you before. This means that you should be thinking “when x happens,” not “If x happens.” If we think “if,” we get disappointed. It means we’re assuming it won’t happen and this sets us up for hurt, unhappy feelings and it’s harder to be calm and loving when we’re coming from that place.
Be prepared. Think, “When X, then I’ll Y.”
Think, “If my coworker makes a nasty remark, then I’m going to say, ‘I’m not clear why you’d say something so hurtful to me.’” Or “If my dad says I shouldn’t be offended when he teases me about my weight, then I’ll let him know that I will no longer tolerate this kind of behavior and I’ll leave.”
You want to role play a bit and have exactly what you want to say at the ready because, in those moments of tension, it’s hard to remember what you wanted to say. If you practice a little and really think about what you’ll do when ‘X’ happens, you’ll be ready and calmer in your response.
Tip #3: Remember it’s a choice to stay
What’s keeping you in this relationship anyway? The thought of what you’ve put into it? Your fear of loss and being alone?
I want to take a minute and talk about the amazing work of Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky. In numerous publications, they showed that people are incredibly loss-averse, and prefer to hold onto what they have in the short term, even if giving up a little will get them more in the long run.
In addition to this, they prefer the known to the unknown, even if what they know makes them miserable! They describe an unconscious thought pattern called “the sunk cost fallacy.” This thinking (that we’re not even aware of most times) keeps us in places and relationships that are toxic.
The sunk cost fallacy happens because of your mind’s propensity to focus on what you’ve invested in something and how it doesn’t want you to lose what you’ve put in. This could be time, effort, money or emotion. There’s no logic to this way of thinking. You can’t get back your investment whether it’s years at a job you hate or all the time and emotion you’ve put into a negative relationship.
So, if you’re choosing to stay in any relationship, you need to get some ground rules set. Maybe you don’t think you can leave your relationship with your father, even though he drives you crazy. He’s your dad after all!
Or maybe you don’t think you can leave the relationship with your partner due to finances, children or just not wanting to be alone.
Whatever the reason, you want to be aware of this sunk cost fallacy and make sure that you’re not acting from that place.
Once you realize that it’s your choice to stay, you also realize that it’s your choice to decide how you’ll act with this person who’s bugging you. This all comes down to drawing effective boundaries. You’ve got to decide what you will and won’t accept from this person.
Related to this is practicing loving detachment. This is when you understand that you can’t control anyone else (really, I’ve tried, you can’t). In that knowing you stop getting so caught up in what someone else is doing and start focusing on what you’re doing. You always have a choice in how you react.
Tip #4: Choose and be consistent
You want to be very consistent in your actions with those people who bug you. What you don’t want to do is intermittently reinforce their unwanted behavior because this is the most powerful type of reinforcement there is and they’ll keep doing whatever they’re doing and never stop!
If you don’t remember, you learned about intermittent reinforcement some time in high school psychology class. Famously, researcher B.F. Skinner did experiments with animals proving this.
He put three hungry rats, in three different cages, all with a lever that delivered food when pressed. In the first cage, the lever always delivered food and, the rat in that cage was not overly focused on food and would do other things, knowing the food would always be there when he wanted it.
In the second cage, pressing the lever never delivered food and that rat soon learned to never press the lever and had no interest in it whatsoever.
But in the third cage, the lever worked randomly meaning sometimes the rat would press it and get food and other times he wouldn’t. The rat in the third cage became totally obsessed with the lever and would press on it constantly. Even though it sounds paradoxical, we’re more motivated to keep trying a behavior when we get what we want some of the time.
This intermittent reinforcement can work two ways in your relationships.
On the one hand, if you only keep your boundaries some of the time with the person who’s annoying you, they’ll keep doing whatever bugs you over and over because you’re unwittingly reinforcing their bad behavior!
On the other hand, sometimes, they’re a little better or even nice. Your optimism gets the better of you at this point and you think things aren’t so bad or that your relationship is going to be different now. Then, BAM! They get you again.
Either way, you’ve got to be very consistent with your boundaries to turn this ship around!
Tip #5: Find the Love
This is really at the heart of everything (pun intended). I need you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes and find the love to change your interaction. I’m talking here about developing empathy for the person who’s bugging the shit out of you.
It’s not as hard as you think and will totally change your interactions and how you feel. So, you don’t even need to do it for them: do it for you! In fact, there’s research out there showing that being more empathetic will make you a better manager, worker, family member and friend.
Empathy means you can understand or even feel the feelings or experiences of someone else. It’s the whole, “walk a mile in their shoes” thing and seeing the world from their point of view.
Neuroscientists say that empathy happens when two parts of your brain work together. Your emotional center perceives the other person’s feelings, while your cognitive center tries to figure out why they feel that way.
If you can find the empathy (find the love) you’ll discover that this person bugs you way less (and maybe not at all).
Here’s a quick exercise you can do to practice some empathy:
- Think about the person who’s on your last nerve.
- How has their mood been recently?
- What might be going on in their life to put them in this mood?
- What could you do to be supportive, versus frustrated, resentful or angry?
Start practicing these tips right now and you’ll find yourself calmer, more grounded and more connected before you know it!