zen habits : breathe

The ABCs of Remaining Cool in a Crazy World

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Albert Foong of UrbanMonk.net.

Murder! Ringing phones, broken equipment, lost data, rude customers, unreasonable deadlines, demanding bosses. A sure-fire recipe for a 187.

Emotional intelligence and mastery skills are not just a benefit these days; they’ve become a necessity. This post aims to address that need. It aims to provide psychologically tested methods, with a touch of Zen, to handle anything that happens in a mature and powerful manner.

The turning point
The turning point, the vital first step, is taking radical responsibility for our behaviour.

Your colleague begins shouting at you, and you are filled with anger, and begin shouting back, or you go home and take it out on someone who just happens to be there. You are late for a job interview, and your heart begins beating fast, your brow starts sweating, and you start speeding through traffic – risking your life – to get there in time.

You think it is his fault you are angry, but it isn’t. You think it is the traffic jam that caused your anxiety, but it isn’t. You, and no one else, nothing else, are responsible.

The biggest lie
To think that anyone else is responsible is the biggest lie, and one of the most disempowering. People and events have no control over us – except what we give them. If we buy into this falsehood, we would be no different from puppies; trained to bark and jump, and wag our tails at the slightest action from others.

Long ago, I had a meeting with a client and someone else – let’s call her Madison – who had been hired to work on the same project. I was discussing my approach, when she interrupted to say I was wasting time if I didn’t do it her way. I politely pointed out that I have done it my way for many years, and had no problems. I was slightly annoyed – it might have shown even though I tried to control it – and she flew into a long abusive tirade.

It took all of us by surprise, and as she began calling me names, I felt my anger rise. “How dare she talk to me like that! What does she know? I didn’t do or say anything wrong, why was she in such a rage?”

I wanted to shout back, but I remained silent until my own anger had passed, and she had finished her tirade. Then I explained calmly that I had meant no disrespect, apologised for any misunderstandings, and that I would consider trying things her way. In the end, we left on an uneasy truce.

The ABC Model
Albert Ellis, one of the pioneers of Cognitive Psychology, came up with a simple system to describe how we really operate. He called it the ABC model: Antecedent, Belief, and Consequence.

We believe that A leads directly to C. In the example above, Madison antagonised me, leading to my Anger. But that was not true – there was some reaction in between, my beliefs had filtered the experience and therefore created the anger.

The thoughts I had, revealed the beliefs that lay underneath them: We shouldn’t be shouted at; everyone should be polite; she should respect my skills.

Interestingly, many spiritual traditions state the same thing – the disparity between how reality is and our beliefs about how reality should be causes our suffering.

The truth of this is obvious, if we look around us – why does one woman remain calm in the midst of the wildest situation, while another falls to pieces?

The good news is, Ellis came up with an additional step: D, for Dispute. That, and with a touch of Zen, we can handle any situation – work, life, or play – as a mature adult.

Change starts from within
It makes sense then, that to change our behaviours, we have to change what happens inside us.

What we have to know are the two levels of our internal reactions: our emotions and our thoughts. They feed off each other in one giant circle. For example, the more fearful or angry we become, the more distorted our thoughts are. The more distorted our thoughts are, the stronger our emotional reaction.

And of course, this cycle builds until we take physical action. Often times, this results in us doing something we’ll regret.

And so, by cutting out one part of the cycle, we take momentum away until it runs itself out. Psychologists recommend the Stop-Breathe-Leave method.

The distortions
With the emotional side dealt with, we have to deal with the thoughts. Don’t worry if you don’t want to deal with this information. Often, just calming the emotions is enough to guarantee a calm and mature response.

At this stage, we prepare to handle our behaviour. The best way to do so is to see the situation calmly, and we do this by removing the distortions that our emotions have caused.

Most Cognitive Psychology books list the same distortions; I’ve listed the most relevant:

  1. Overgeneralisation. This generalises one event into a rule. For instance, I might now think that every time I disagree with someone, they will shout at me, simply because of my experience with Madison.
  2. Global Labeling. This is very similar to #1, but this is a label, not a rule. Madison has over-reacted once, but she could be a nice person for all I know. Instead of acknowledging that, I labelled her a bad-tempered psychopath.
  3. Filtering. This is selectively picking what to see and what to ignore. You could say Madison filters a lot – she ignored my politeness and non-argumentative tone. Instead, she focused on the fact I had disagreed with her, and took that to be the whole reality.
  4. Polarized thinking. Polarized people think in black and white, with no gray in between. Either you are an absolute angel, or completely evil. I might think that I am a catastrophic failure because Madison disagreed with me. I don’t account for the possibility that I am just a normal person who made a mistake, or met a disagreeable co-worker.
  5. Self-Blame. This way of thinking blames yourself for everything, whether it is true or not. If you were drink-driving and you crashed, then yes, you were likely at fault. Self-blamers, though, would blame themselves even if they were sober, clearly in the right, and the car that crashed into them had a drunk driver.
  6. Personalisation. Closely related to #5. This was probably Madison’s biggest distortion. I had merely said that my way of doing things was fine, but she took that as a personal insult. Everything became about her. At such an extreme, insults can be seen when there were none intended.
  7. Mind Reading. We think we know what the other is thinking. Madison might have tried to read my mind, and wrongly thought I was trying to make her look bad, or oppose her. Or I might be wrongly trying to read her mind right now. Heh.
  8. Control Fallacies. Victims to control fallacies either think they are in control of the entire universe, or they have no control at all. The first means they are always stepping on other people’s toes, and the second means they have become a doormat.

With this information on hand, you can begin the next phase of the ABC model. The D – Disputing. Not disputing the other person, or the situation, but your own thoughts.

I tried to read Madison’s mind, thinking she hated me and was trying to get at me. I will never know the truth, but who knows? She might have been going through a divorce, or some tragedy had happened outside work. I had definitely labelled her unfairly – based on one tantrum, which we have all had, I had thought of her as a psychopath who tortured little furry animals.

What about a different situation? If I was running late for a job interview, and I was getting too anxious, I might have been making things worse than they are in reality. In disputing this, I could tell myself, “Being five minutes late is not the end of the world. They are reasonable human beings, they know traffic jams happen.”

The Consequences
With your thinking straight and your emotions levelled, you can then return to the situation. Keeping a cool head alone will mean the difference between childish and mature reactions. We’ve likely eliminated the tendency for negative action – the arguments, the panic, the snide remarks or the sulking.

What remains now is to take positive action. Psychologists recommend goal-orientation. What is your goal, and what steps do you take to achieve it?

I decided that the project was more important than my ego, and therefore decided to swallow my pride and make an apology to Madison. This might have made me angrier internally, as I felt I had done nothing wrong, but it kept the project going, which was the most important thing.

This is a specific note about dealing with people: Anger and frustration, all of that comes from the overstepping of boundaries. Everyone has boundaries, but sometimes yours are not visible to others.

Express your feelings. Assertively and firmly state your boundaries, but always with tact and respect for all parties involved. Explain that they have crossed it, and you would appreciate it if they didn’t. You don’t have to be pushy or demanding but you don’t have to be a doormat and get walked all over.

I’m honoured to be able to guest post here at the Zen Habits. This post covers some of the most important lessons I’ve ever learnt, and I’m grateful to Leo for giving me a chance to share it with his audience.

About Albert Foong: Albert runs UrbanMonk.Net, a practical personal development blog that has enhanced the lives of many readers, moving them into a life of joy, love and success, and out of suffering. It draws upon ancient spirituality, modern psychology, real life experiences, and everything in between.

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